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.
We made the long journey to Lodwar from Kakamega in the matatu we hired from Nairobi. The driver we inherited was worth his pay. George was a quiet, serious man with a smile. He drank his orange Fanta warm because cold soda made him sick.
Before the drive Kubondo prepped us for the worst. Severe drought had eaten the area and continues to bite away at the land like a praying mantis the head of her mate in the climax of passion. He told us of children, water starved, lining up at the side of the road for water, a gift as valuable as gold.
We were to expect young girls and boys whose stomachs were pushed to the bursting point, stretched with hunger. As we imagined encountering these facts in the coming days I could only trust that whatever we saw, God would give the grace we needed to bear witness to whatever ugliness or pain we would see. And compassion. Even as I sat on the steps of Mama Ruth’s in Kakamega after a devotional time with the crew, meditating on the personal love of God given freely to me, a picture grew inside of me: a young Kenyan, ribs poking through a naked torso, bloated, food-starved belly appeared on my mind. Emaciated arms and skeleton skull, bulging eyes, hair orange-red with malnutrition. Feet covered in dust while World-Vision-sized black flies crawled over her face, in and out of her nostrils, while she stood about absently scratching at bug-bitten skin.
We took to the road. The temperature increased, it seemed, with each degree of latitude we gained as we drove further and further toward the Somali border. Hotter. Drier. More desolate, but surprisingly, even to my untrained eye, the land was beautiful. It was itself. Abandoned termite hills were thrust against the sky like skyscrapers, tall as giraffes. Goats grazed on who-knows-what while camels loitered and swaggered, breaking from their routine to watch our vehicle interrupt their lethargy and bump its way down the road. In Kenya, potholes seem to be the rule, not the exception, great chasms and crevices in the pavement, pockmarked like a war zone.
And the people. Stoic men emerged from the horizon carrying long staffs, shawls thrown over their shoulders, limbs graceful and thin like dark ebony wood-carvings. Women with elaborate, colourful beadwork around their necks, carrying bags filled with grass or rice on their heads and empty containers for water. Young boys responsible for entire herds of goats often naked or carrying their shawl in their hands. Shy little girls with stunning white teeth holding empty bottles in hopes they might be filled with water. Never in groups of more than three or four, randomly spotting the road like signposts, like phantoms.
At the sight of a vehicle they would hold out their hands or empty containers, sometimes run to the side of the road and yell magi, the Swahili word for water. Oftentimes, the children, forgetting themselves in their desperate thirst, would neglect the warnings of abduction they were given by their parents and approach the vehicle, only to panic once they saw the white-skinned foreigners holding out bottles of water as seductive lures, the means to hook them by the gills, steal them from their families and tribe forever. The sudden realization of their danger and the fear that overtook them was heartbreaking. The youngsters would scream in terror, turn and run, shouting in Swahili for the younger ones to run away.
Though our hearts dropped, our spirits lifted to see the same children cautiously creep back to the roadside once the van carrying us had driven a safe distance away to collect the treasure left in danger’s wake, bottles of water they received like a prize or treasure of incomparable worth. The dancing and smiles we could make out in the rearview mirror proof of the water’s value.
Oh to thirst like a child on the road to Lodwar. Kubondo laughed a deep baritone laugh that echoed in his chest like everything else when I told him “three days out here and I’d be dead.” Matt said he thought he could make it five, a pretty generous wager. It was fun, in a morbid, inappropriate way, to speculate. And though Kubondo laughed there was enough of a sigh in it, a sort of contemplative self-check to make me think it would be the same for him too.
What is out there on the road to Lodwar that makes the people stay? Dry river beds crisscross the land, constant reminders of other times when life could be sustained. Dry wells, barren landscape, dust and rock. Would this not be a perpetual slap in the face? Move south. Curse God and die. Do something, but stay? I cannot imagine the life. There is nothing to start with. No food. No water. Hot, dry heat. How do you cultivate a life or organize a cultural system on these things? But there goes another sheep herder. There are a few more children. There’s another pair of women with empty buckets out on another fruitless quest for fool’s gold. Another herd of camels. The district officer in Lodwar told me the region is so eaten by drought, people only survive on the relief brought and distributed from January to December.
What is man that you are mindful of him?
Kubondo asked me to preach at a service in Lodwar. What message can you possibly give to people who live on the edge of death, people one meal away from starvation or survival? How is a North American experience of reality, of God, possibly relevant in the given context?
And then I was reminded of those words from Isaiah.
Come, all who are thirsty,
Come to the waters
You who have no money
Come, buy and eat!
I spoke of food that is not for the belly and water that is not for the body, of my country where there are people who have too much food, who eat so much they get fat and sick and die, but whose hearts and souls still are not satisfied. Through a translator, I told those who were gathered – mostly women and orphaned children – that I could never forget the picture in my mind of children on the road to Lodwar, running to our vehicle to receive water they could freely drink. Water they longed for. Water they were dying for. Water they so gladly received.
I deeply admire the people on the road to Lodwar: their ability and quickness to receive, their desperation, shameless and overt. I told the small church at Lodwar that evening in the dark, under the stars, two Coleman-like lanterns burning on the table in front of me, that I admired them and that they should run to the One who gives living water for eternal life as quickly and as desperately as those children on the road into their town. May God help me to ever do the same.
© 2010 andrew kooman
Remembering Names: Reflections from Kenya :: Download the entire Ebook HERE
E for Everyone: The Mouse and the Elephant :: $20.00