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.
It was only that morning that I learned of the story behind the wristband Daniel had been wearing for the last few days: an imitation of the original inspired by Lance Armstrong’s fight against cancer. It was orange and yellow and the inscription read, “I have a friend in Canada.” A World Vision program, heart warming and sentimental and likely criticized by staunch pragmatists as an ineffective use of dollars that could be put toward food or education or something practical. But somewhere, someone who had traveled must have weighed the cost effectiveness or wagered a guess that even hungry children with AIDS-afflicted family members like to know they have a friend, like to know that somewhere, someone is thinking of them, and maybe that it could feel nice to wear something exotic, something like jewelry, even if it was just plastic.
I was excited to tell Kubondo when Daniel told it to me, that my youngest nephew, Spencer, a three year old, had given Daniel the bracelet and asked his uncle to give it to a child in Africa. There was something about that. Something about imagining that exchange between my youngest brother and his older-than-his-years, wise and often serious nephew. Something that lifted me. Maybe it all seemed too photogenic, too much of an event to pass up, too perfectly sentimental. But to find a child, and, in a very real way express love from Canada to Kenya and in an area of need was somehow right.
Kubondo found a girl named Lydia who was also three. Beautiful, with dark skin, round features, and near perfect complexion. Most all the children I saw in Kenya I remember this way. Another child you want to touch or hold to your heart at first glance. Lydia belonged to the extended family in the village we visited with Choose Life Africa Network, an outreach to hunger stricken, AIDS afflicted, orphaned and widowed people in an area west of Kakamega. Her three older male cousins had recently buried both parents and all the uncles and aunts had little income. The food we brought as a gift – a few kilograms of rice, sugar, cooking fat, and some bread – wouldn’t last long when shared among the family, but was something they were thankful to receive as they waited for rain and for the maize crop to grow, or for some kind or paying work to do.
Lydia received the gift bashfully in front of her audience: six Mzungos, some strangers from out of town, and a host of friends and relatives. She even said ‘hello’ to ‘Spenca’ into the camera then buried her face in her mom’s legs. Looking back, I could conclude the moment meant so much to me because it was feel-good in a place where my suddenly burdened conscience assumed there was not much good to feel. But I think there is more.
Spencer and Lydia understand. They were able to give and receive and they meant no show. They gave and received out of their innocence and deep wisdom. Why was the exchange so meaningful to me? It helps me to imagine. A three year old Canadian can have a three year old friend in Kenya. A three year old can give, and give meaningfully. And it makes me think. What could a four year old give, or someone who is sixteen? An engineer, a house wife? A three year old can give a bracelet. What could a fifty year old bring? Everyone has something to give. I know that because of my three year old nephew Spencer; he taught me that.
I hate the phrase: All Good Things Must Come to An End. It sounds like a heresy to me. Perhaps it proves, after all, that I’m an optimist. If it is true, I don’t really want to believe it. Who can measure the fallout or the after-life of a good? Is goodness something solid, an entity or a thing that can be measured empirically? Can you outline a good thing like a homicide detective chalks a body: here is its arm, legs, severed head?
However we mark our experience or however it marks us, I think we get the good with the bad, and at the end of a chunk of time, it is best to store up the goodness, our fond memories, and set them in our treasure chest, ponder them, polish them like rare and precious stones.
Some of the memories from Kisa were not so distinguishable to me. In fact much of what I saw in Kenya is difficult for me to classify and place. I have felt more like a detached observer of things than ever. When I looked human despair and tragedy in the face, I hardly batted a lash, and shed no tears. Maybe, even to my shame, I sometimes felt uncomfortable and desired simply to look away. What are any of us supposed to do in the face of real human need?
Nathan spoke good English but every word was morphed and bent out of shape. A rush of air over his tongue, the sound of a drunk or deaf man speaking without his teeth. His body brutalized by AIDS, we met him, shook hands in his little mud hut. Eyes once good now blind. Legs once strong crippled and weak. Joel asked the set of questions while Steve rolled the film and the rest of us watched as he stuttered and stumbled over the questions, silently frustrated for him when he misunderstood the questions or gave indiscernible answers.
Sometimes I think that in a group we experience something unnamed, like the hum of a hive of bees. Feelings or feelings of feelings that move between us with energy and though we may not understand them, they buzz in and through us and carry us from point A to point B, pollinating, stinging.
It is hard for me to write my thoughts and feelings, the ones that buzzed through me and which I imagined buzzed through the group in Nathan’s hut. I wanted to run out of the room, to avoid shaking his hand on the way out, to wash and spit and clean. I was aware that I could not muster or fake, in that moment, the genuine love it would take to sit with him and be his friend, or to be the person who would carry him to church on a Sunday, cook food for him, help him wash or bathe. The thought of his life could bring me to despair. How do I come to terms with it? Do I have to? Do I want to? If I cannot or do not, was the food and ‘relief’ I brought an acceptable offering, or, do I stand like Cain before Abel’s body was chalked in the sand, with an unacceptable gift before the Lord?
Why, though Nathan used similar words to describe his faith, did I feel none of the hope, none of the holiness, none of the sacred possibility for change that I did in the other house where the sick awaited her death?
We left his hut and Nathan graciously thanked us for paying a visit. We quickly shook hands with his brother who was also dying of AIDS, and passed along greetings to their mother who was away at a funeral, burying another friend numbered among the dead.
© 2010 andrew kooman
Remembering Names: Reflections from Kenya :: Download the entire Ebook HERE
E for Everyone: The Mouse and the Elephant :: $20.00