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.
Other excerpts: Lydia and Nathan | Julie | Malindi | Lodwar | Turkana Tribes | I
Are death and life mere facts only God can bend and change? What do the dying think about on their deathbeds, and what do the dying think of the living who visit their bedside then go about living once again? What did that dying Mama think as she overheard from her bed our interaction with Lydia just outside her hut? How did Nathan, once sharp and able, think about us as we, though tired and hungry, walked away from him, never to meet again and sure to regain our strength?
So much of our lives we are watched or are watching, limited by time and space. The scene changes so we change with it.
Scene One – Interior
Death House. Mood: Somber. Woman is dying.
Scene Two – Exterior
Front Lawn of Death House. Mood: Happy, Festive. Child is about to receive gift from strange foreigner.
Scene Three – Interior
AIDs patient’s house. Mood: Awkward. Foreigners are uncomfortable.
But what about the fringes? What about the greater scenery and soundscape? What happens in those rooms out of focus beyond the lens? The story continues there too.
Through Kisa and area winds a river, mud-red from the clay in its banks. The river might be a symbol of the place: the goodness of life muddied by death, hunger, disease, yet still flowing, still starting new, with still something more beyond the mud and muck of it.
Our last visit in the area was paid to Julie and her three siblings, orphaned not a year ago. We met the children very near to where their parents were buried in the ground, humps of red earth bursting from the soil like large pregnant bellies, like beached clay-coloured whales.
In Kenya people are blunt. Kubondo did not mince or step lightly around the topic of death, but asked, inches away from their graves if Julie remembered their dying. In Canada we would much sooner imagine the death away, pretend it never happened, wait until the child was ready to talk about the facts at a much later time. In Kenya you talk with the child on the spot where, if you put your ear to the ground, you can almost hear the sound of still decomposing flesh.
Julie. Thirteen, and suddenly mother, nurturer, teacher, provider are titles added to her already full resume of orphan, child, daughter, sister, schoolgirl. Smart, pretty and a speaker of good English. Her youngest sister clung to her, eyes swollen and red, she was quick to shake any visitor’s hand.
Joel asked the usual set of questions: what do you think about, what do you need that you don’t have, what do you have that you can do without, what worries you? And though most answers were brief, there were a few that shocked us, though outwardly it may have looked like we didn’t miss a beat, her answers given so matter-of-factly.
The children did not have sufficient clothes or shoes. They needed sweaters and uniforms for school. They occasionally went without food. They are sad when people beat them and treat them harshly.
A day in the life of an orphan. Julie somehow thrust into shoes too big for her, though they are not the shoes she needs for her calloused feet. Somehow alive and not infected with the disease that claimed her parents. Somehow learning, managing, growing.
I was compelled to give money to Julie and her siblings, only five hundred Kenyan Shillings, but a lot for her. Secretly I hoped she would squander it on something fun: chocolate, or ice cream, a colouring book for the children. But she could afford none of those luxuries. When she thanked me for the too small gift, she said it would be helpful for her young little family to buy maize flour and rice. Food to fill their small bellies.
As we waved good-bye, turned to walk back to our vehicles, the thought of her life was nearly too much for me to bear. But I was proud of her too. So strong and bright. I turned as I walked, arms folded across my chest, and saw the same look on Em’s face that I imagined was on my own. I have not spoken with her about it, but I’m sure I do not need to. The thought of a child so young left to face the world. The unthinkable thought that she and so many other children go even one night without the comforting voice of a father or mother. The future.
On the edge of the land where Julie’s parents’ bodies are buried is a tree, the tallest one I saw in Kenya. It stands there like a watchman or a sentinel, guarding, able to see far and wide all the land, every area the river covers, all its mud and dirt, and the lush green banks too. It stands there and grows higher to the heavens, even as it digs its roots deeper into the ground – ground nourished by the water that snakes its way through the town and the nutrients sucked from buried bones.
So many things it sees. People walking barefoot on dirt and gravel. A husband bringing AIDS into the home. Long painful suffering. Death. Children burying parents, huddling together in the dark of night, shuddering at the sound of the wind. Cow trails and the rising sun. Chickens clucking and beaking the ground. An angry villager striking a frightened orphan-boy across the face. Blood, tears, spit, semen.
Julie, a baby, an orphan girl, now a young woman with a husband and children of her own.
The tree is rooted there, quietly watching all these things. Remembering names.
* * *
A story, if it is any good, needs a beginning, middle, an end. Or so I’ve been told. I’ve already gone and muddled things up. I started with Kisa, though we didn’t visit it until halfway through our time in Kenya when the only ugly things we had seen were hunger and drought. But it felt right to start there, and I’ve had to ask myself why. Perhaps it felt natural to start with the middle of our time in Kenya because when I think of it, Kisa revealed the heart. Sickness and pain, suffering, but much beauty, resilience, and happiness too.
Take, for instance, Mama Josephine who welcomed us into her home for a snack and later for lunch when we visited Kisa. She told us she was humbled to have people from the West visit her simple home. A woman who gives much of her time to see the forgotten child without parents, the unimportant man dying of AIDS, the unknown woman hungry and alone remembered, valued, known. A widow herself, still recovering from the too-soon death of her husband, a wound opened further and made more grotesque by the much too soon recent death of her eldest son. Their graves were also visible on her small plot of land, so close to where the van parked to let out its foreign cargo, so close to where she warmly greeted us and first shook our hands, dirt still fresh, no trace of greenery or life covering the nutrient-rich beds of death.
Plain facts for the eyes to see. Not hidden. Not covered up. Exposed in the daylight. And when she thanked us for the little relief we brought to her community, she was not ashamed to ask us to pray, to remember her, a widow, with a dead son also buried in the ground.
Maybe this is the heart of Kenya, Africa. Hurt and wanting but unashamed, a heart whose honesty I can learn from, should learn from, must.
An unnamed woman. Lydia. Nathan.
Julie. Kisa. Josephine.
© 2010 andrew kooman
Remembering Names: Reflections from Kenya :: $2.99 :: Download the entire Ebook HERE
E for Everyone: The Mouse and the Elephant :: $20.00