Saturday, July 4, 2009

Maasai, Western Kenya, 2007

Working for two weeks with MACODEF, driving around the western portion of Kenya, we came across these men in bright colored garments now and then, always walking in a straight line, barely looking left or right, their eyes fixed straight ahead. My driver and friend, NgaNga, tells me that it's possible to have them as subjects, that they are open to that conversation, from his experiences with them. So we arrange to have a talk with one of them, a young Maasai by the name of John. The conversation goes well and he agrees to take us to his friends. We then meet a dozen or so of his tribe and have a conversation regarding compensation. For me, it feels different. In the past, many have asked for compensation. However, this time it feels different. This is, as my friend tells me, their way of being paid for their 'product,' a culture that many from around the world come to experience. The difference is that this 'product' would remain regardless of demand. We arrange a meeting the next day, seven in the morning. My friend comes to get me from the hotel a bit late, thinking that they will be late also, as all other Kenyans have advised me. Well, as we near the spot of our meeting, we receive a call from one of the young Maasai men, asking us where we are. Yes, they have cell phones also. My friend was embarrassed a bit, almost as much as me. We arrive and quickly begin making portraits. They are gracious and warm, even though their outward demeanor suggests something else, guarded perhaps and for good reason. Halfway through the photography, the older gentleman decides that it is time to change the terms of our previous agreement, firing up a storm with NgaNga. All is a huge issue until we hear the terms of the negotiation, then all calms down. We continue with the photography. At one point, they ask this question: 'why does he make so many pictures?' Without telling me, NgaNga tells them that I am using a very old camera and it is not very good.' That seems to calm everyone down. In between images, the sit down in a big group and tell stories, laugh and dance their traditional dance, with a circle and one person in the center. In one spontaneous moment, I hand the camera to NgaNga and go to the middle of the circle to everyone's surprise, including myself, and try to imitate their reaching for the sky, all doomed to failure of course. However, smiles are on everyone's faces, for reasons that will remain theirs. When crossing the road back to the car, one of the men takes my hand and guides me safely. This is a most gentle and kind tribe, one that has shown me the meaning of humanity on this beautiful afternoon in Western Kenya.

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