When the new year rolls around, I like to spend time thinking through experiences and recognizing ways I’ve changed because of them. I don’t have a very reliable memory, but I’ve archived tens of thousands of photos over the years to help me remember.
A topic I get caught up on regularly in my introspection is having an inflated perspective of my problems—and being surrounded by that inflated perspective in middle-class America.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I drew a few comics for the school newspaper. I was embarrassed that, of all the tragedy going on in the world, all my peers could think about was the next high school dance.
Spelling errors and giant phone aside, it makes my point. We are frivolous people, caught up in frivolous problems.
I was pondering this topic when I stumbled into my photo archive from August of 2009. During this month, a friend and I went to Kenya with a retirement-age husband-and-wife team from my family’s church. They had been helping establish various aid organizations run by locals in cities around the country.
Many of the experiences I had there burned into my memory. I saw a lot of things that I didn’t understand when I drew that comic. My trip to Africa changed me, and put more concrete knowledge behind my frustration with our frivolity.
A lot of it was hard to see, but I want to share some of it with you.
35 photos from Kenya and Tanzania
Behind these doors is the murky well all the residents of this part of town fetched water from. The water would come up green, and we would have it sit for a few days so the sediment would go to the bottom. Then it was used for dishwashing, bucket showers, and clothing.
I took this shot in the wreck that was downtown Mombasa. There was a cholera outbreak at the time there, so being near standing water was a bad idea (as was buying any fruits or vegetables). This child was salvaging a piece of broken candy from the sidewalk.
This is a Maasai woman, watching a man from her village get baptized. I’m not sure I want to know how that ear thing was started.
One of the orphans. If I remember correctly his name was Boaz—though Obama is my second guess. I’ve never met so many babies named Obama in my life.A man at the Akamba Wood Carver Village outside of Mombasa is making one of his statuettes. Ever seen those African tribal masks, figurines, djembes, or other wooden paraphernalia? It was probably made at a place like this.
The kids were very photogenic, and extremely excited by cameras. They loved being photographed, then being shown their picture on the screen. This guy was right outside the door. I didn’t like thinking about him when I was trying to fall asleep. Wonderland Integrated School: a fortress in the Nairobi slums.
If I remember correctly, this little farm was a little ways outside the town of Karen.
I followed one of the orphans to school one day. This was her path. Another shot of the path to school. These people traveled out of the city to fetch water. On her way to the mall to get an up-do A wall in Mombasa with a desperate style of graphiti.
We were two language-tiers away from being able to speak with these people: we had a translator who spoke the villagers’ language and Swahili, and we had another translator who spoke Swahili and English.
Glass was often set in concrete at the top of walls surrounding more well-off neighborhoods. This is Nelson Mandela Ave, in Mombasa. The coral-like rock the island was made of would protrude everywhere from the red dirt roads, making driving … interesting.
Closing thoughts on the photo collection
There are hundreds more photos from my Africa trip, but these 35 images resonated with me as I thought about the coming year. The problems we humans deal with have had so many different faces over time and in different places, and it’s easy to get caught up in them instead of examining their roots.
And while it’s easy to shake my head at struggles that seem so frivolous, many different struggles affect us in very similar ways. How else could someone who has never experienced bloodshed or war find the Psalms of David resonating so deeply with them?
I plan to put more effort into remembering the state of humanity as a whole, and not just what I wish was different about my own situation.