I spent the spring of 2010 learning about the Literacy through Photography process in Katie Hyde’s class at the Center for Documentary Studies. I learned how LTP works, the ideas and theories behind it, and how and where it has been used in the past. I heard about how it was implemented in Burmese refugee villages in Thailand, immigrant towns in Great Britain, and public schools in Tanzania. Then I decided to have a go at it myself, to add one more location to the LTP list: Muhuru Bay, Kenya.
Muhuru Bay is a small village located in the Nyanza Province of Kenya on Lake Victoria. It has one of Kenya’s highest rates of infection for HIV and malaria. Muhuru Bay is an isolated village with no electricity, running water, or paved roads. Due to a complex mixture of tribal and societal traditions, very few females in Muhuru Bay graduate from high school. The only woman in recent memory to go on to university is Rose Odhiambo.
In partnership with the Muhuru community and Duke University, Rose has developed a secondary school for girls. WISER school will provide female students with means of accessing and contributing to community resources and provide Muhuru with a self-sustaining way to address its needs and problems. I travelled to Muhuru Bay as part of a Duke group that collaborated with the WISER school (www.wisergirls.org). I brought with me digital cameras and a small photo printer that could be hooked to our generator, which ran for 3 hours a day. I had little knowledge of Dhuluo, the language spoken by the Luo tribe of this part of Kenya, or the cultural norms and practices of the community. Nevertheless, I was excited to begin working on a LTP project with the Standard 8 students of two of the most under-resourced primary schools in Muhuru.
My first few days were challenging. My English was different from that which the students had learned (as their third language, after Dhuluo and Kiswahili). Also, students were not used to seeing white foreigners—I was only the second or third mzungu, white person, many of them had seen. It was difficult to lead the usual LTP lessons and discussions about photographs and the choices photographers make. On my third day in the classroom, I worried that perhaps I didn’t have the skills or the preparation to carry out the planned LTP project successfully.
And then it all came together on the first day the students began using the digital cameras. This was extremely exciting for most of them, since the only camera they had seen was an old Nikon film camera that an enterprising community member use to take portraits, funeral pictures, and wedding pictures for a fee and then develop the film in the nearest large town. On this day, the students had planned and prepared to take pictures of their community, with the prompt: “What is one thing you would like to show people from another place about Muhuru Bay?” As a class, we filed out of the mud brick building that was Muhuru Junior Academy and began walking around town. One at a time, students would indicate that this was where they wanted to take their picture – of cows, of boats, of chickens and children.
After two hours of walking around the dusty streets of Muhuru, taking turns lining up their three allotted pictures carefully and pressing the button with great concentration, only one student hadn’t yet snapped her shots. Laura, the only girl who had not seemed intimidated by my American accent and white skin, was adamant that she wanted to take a picture of a fish. But not the fish that were sold in the market spread out on colorful kanga or dried by the sun in baskets – a fresh fish, one that had just come from the lake, a symbol of the industry around which the life of Muhuru was based. And so the class trooped to one of the many beaches that dotted the shores of the lake. Here, Laura and the three boys in the class marched up to the fishermen who had just pulled their small wooden boats with many-times-mended sails onto the sandy beach. After a few minutes of conversation, Laura ran back over and excitedly asked me for a camera. She had been given permission to “snap” a fish, the biggest catch of the day – a huge Nile perch.
As Laura’s classmates held the fish and looked on, she carefully took aim, bending her knees and craning her neck to get the fish positioned just how she wanted in the little square screen on the back of the silver camera. And she pushed the button. And readjusted. And pushed again. And once more.
Then we went back to the school, and the students packed up and went home—the girls to haul water or wash dishes at the lake and the boys to herd cows and play soccer. And I went home smiling, remembering Laura’s quest for the fish and the pride on her face when she captured the perfect picture. When I printed off that picture later that evening, I smiled again. A little blurry, because of the excited way her hands moved. A bit unusual in its framing, because of the newness of the idea of constraining a view. But perfect. A perfect representation of Muhuru Bay, of the life source of the town, of Laura’s tenacity and ambition that would hopefully help her succeed in this place.
For more information about WISER, please visit: