In 2006 Andrew traveled with a crew of six independent filmmakers to shoot the film E for Everyone: The Mouse and the Elephant. The following is an excerpt and a behind the scene look of Andrew’s experience on set.
Earlier, when I walked into the front room of the small mud hut, I snapped some photos. The simplicity of the six mahogany chairs, dark and geometric set around a stark table with no other decoration seemed perfect for a studio apartment in New York or Vancouver, something out of next year’s Ikea catalogue purchased by comfortably effeminate trend shoppers born in a world post fascism, communism, Stalin, Hitler, even God, and whose European sensibilities please their North American lovers or wives.
But my view of the room changed when I was invited further into the dark, square hut to the bedroom where my thoughts of furnishings, imports, and an otherwise clean and sterile world were interrupted by a World War I trench smell. Old cheese and dying.
The small bedroom, not even big enough to hold my own queen size bed was already filled with visitors. Kubondo and Laban, another man named Job who earlier the men joked about, Joel and the rest of the crew.
She was the thinnest woman I have seen. I stole looks at her through the cracks in the door, inhaled the smell, prayed. My first encounter with someone bedridden and dying of AIDS. What do you say and where do you look; what does a smile really communicate?
Joel asked a few of the set questions and when the others left, there were three of us Mzungos – white foreigners – left in her room. Joel, Steve, and myself. The smell was stronger inside the room. The smell of sickness, old sex in the corner, and lurking, patient death.
Steve held the camera awkwardly as she looked at him and weakly gestured with her head, slowly removed the thick wool blanket covering her chest to show us her breast.
The woman whose name I never learned, wanted us to see how the disease had ravaged her body. Her left breast spread up to her shoulder and was separated into two parts. The middle of the breast was a dark mass of a tumor like a black hole stealing light from the room. It looked textured and charred in the middle like a burnt piece of firewood.
The gesture was matter-of-fact, calculated, but vulnerable. She watched us silently as we looked at her, looked us in the eyes. Perhaps the last three people to ever see her alive, perhaps the only ever Mzungos to bear witness to the tragedy of her life.
Whose are the hands that fed this decimated body? That cleaned the feces and urine from it after she no longer had the strength to leave her small bed and move the few feet to the toilet, the hut’s third and final room? Whose hands touch her in her final hours of life? Surely not mine, Lord.
One brief snapshot of her life and that was all, but it was the place in Kenya where I felt most strongly the presence of God. And I would have bowed down, pressed my nose into the dirt to hear the voice of the Almighty if only He would speak something audible in the room.
The smells, the description, the reality of that room so bleak when written about came together and paths that had no business crossing were crossed. And she spoke of hope and of the resurrection, and there was faith for healing, and a word I would use to describe it is holy.
We left her alone there in a dark room. To her thoughts. To her future. To her inevitable meeting with God. What were we to do? Perhaps she also experienced some comfort. Knowledge that there was some food for her children and that the Mzungos would help pay some of their school fees. Outside it was hot. Kisa must always seem hot to a Canadian visitor.
© 2010 andrew kooman
Remembering Names: Reflections from Kenya :: Download the entire Ebook HERE
E for Everyone: The Mouse and the Elephant :: $20.00
© 2009 Andrew Kooman
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