It was a simple enough question. Under ordinary circumstances this interaction between strangers might have produced a simple “no” and a polite but brief discussion.
These were not ordinary circumstances. I had arrived in Kenya only a few days earlier as part of a team attempting to do documentary work on good causes in East Africa. Learning that the World Social Forum was taking place in Nairobi, I stayed behind to network while most of my team went on to Uganda. With my camera draped over my shoulder, I wandered around the stadium looking for interesting people and causes to engage. This is when I received a life changing question.
“Excuse me, are you a journalist?” a man asked. “No” I answered. “I do some documentary work with photography and video but I am not a journalist.” Undaunted, he asked “Can I tell you about a project I am working on for my hometown village?” It is not uncommon to be approached by strangers in East Africa with requests for help. This question intrigued me, however, so I stopped to listen to the man’s story.
Henry explained to me how his village in Western Kenya had needed water for many years yet lacked the resources to build a well. Moved by the situation he described I agreed to call him before my return trip from Uganda when I would be passing through the area.
Two weeks later we stepped off the bus in the middle of the night in a small town called Awasi. Ben, my traveling companion, asked “how well do we know these people again?” “I’ve only met them once I answered” suddenly realizing the risks in this scenario. Henry showed up a few minutes later with several companions and we hiked into the darkness while trying to keep our footing through rain drenched fields.
I woke up the next morning in a place that felt about as remote as I ever experienced. We spent the next two days interviewing locals, learning about their stories and sharing life through meals and conversation. Making it a special point not to promise anything, I told Henry that all that I could promise is that I would endeavor to tell their story.
Long after returning home I could not forget the people and the stories I had encountered in Rakwaro. A lack of access to clean water was costing the community their health and in too many cases their lives.
Three years later I returned to Kenya with a plan to help Rakwaro get water. I had contacted a number of charitable organizations that work on water projects and received the same answer from all but one. They all had their own sources for figuring out where to build their wells and were not open to suggestions, even when I offered to raise the funds. One organization agreed to help so I worked with Henry to get them all the information they needed from Rakwaro during my trip. Then I quit hearing from them, learning months later that they had found their drilling partners in Kenya to be unreliable. This experience made two things clear, finding reliable help in Kenya can be difficult and I wasn’t going to be able to rely on help from non-profit organizations.
A few years later I decided to try another approach. Contacting Moses, one of my Kenyan friends from Nairobi, I asked him if he would help me coordinate the project. Moses is from a village near Lake Victoria and passes by Rakwaro periodically. Having an interest in rural development himself, Moses agreed and within weeks we had a geological survey and several quotes from Kenyan drilling companies.
The next challenge became how to choose a drilling company that we could truly rely on to get the job done. During the summer of last year I attended a workshop that helped refine my approach to the water project. The concept of ending poverty by developing people motivated me to seek for ways to help Rakwaro that empower its people to pursue their own development in the future.
I received a call last summer asking me if I could capture an orphanage in Sudan with photography and video. This afforded a perfect opportunity to get back to East Africa and to revisit Kenya at the end of the trip to setup the water project. Much to my surprise, my sister decided to join me for the Kenya part of the trip. At the point where we will resume this story, Rebekah and I will have arrived in Nairobi after 13 hours in a bus from Kampala.