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Kenya: Beyond safaris

Students' photos from Shoot Cameras Not Guns photography class Fred's Academy primary school in Meru, Kenya in the fall of 2010..Shoot Cameras Not Guns (ShootCamerasNotGuns.org) teaches photography internationally as a tool for peace and social change..

The peaks of Mount Kenya loomed above the clouds for a few minutes, crowning over the morning mist, appearing as if coming out of the sky itself. Just as quickly they were gone, and over the next two weeks I never saw the top of Mount Kenya again.

Things are a bit different on the equator and at an elevation of about 5,000 feet above sea level, there were still bananas growing all around me. The air is humid in the city of Meru, and hot, though not as hot as you would expect for a region straddling the equator. Temperatures in the cool season range from the 70s to low 90s during the day and drop low enough at night to necessitate a sweatshirt. This feels cold to the locals who wore jackets and suits as the Colorado locals struggled to bear the weight of a T-shirt.

In a country that evokes images of dry grasslands and plains, it was surprising to arrive in a mountainous jungle. Located in the Central Highlands of Kenya, and at the northeastern base of Mount Kenya, the Meru region is a lush contrast to the rest of Kenya. Although often overlooked for the more popular Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania, at 17,057 feet Mount Kenya is the second highest peak in Africa and its jagged terrain provides a challenge for climbers of any level.

Coffee and tea are grown here for export, and tropical fruits hang from the trees, some befitting a Dr. Seuss book. Vines grow mercilessly up the tall electric elephant fences that keep the wild elephants off of the crops and out of the villages. Even with such fertile soil and potential, the wealth in Kenya is restricted to a small minority. It is even illegal for farmers to brew their own coffee beans that are so valuable on the world market.

There were eight of us Americans in total, this November, who traveled to the Meru region of Kenya for three weeks. Invited to join by a Golden-based nonprofit called Technology Partnership, my role was to teach photography and to document the trip through photographs. Technology Partnership brings computers to Kenya and teaches teachers how to use technology in the classroom. This is an attempt to narrow the digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world, and to give Kenyans a more even share of the world stage. My project, “Shoot Cameras Not Guns,” fit perfectly with the mission of Technology Partnership.

In 2006 I started Shoot Cameras Not Guns while teaching Burmese refugees in Thailand how to document and share their lives through photography. The project empowers people in conflict and post-conflict areas by teaching photography and photojournalism as tools for social change and self-expression.

Over the course of two weeks my students included primary and high school students as well as teachers. Their goals and experience ranged just as widely as their demographics. Some had never used cameras before, while others used their cell phone cameras regularly. Some wanted to be photojournalists and other wanted to take pictures of their friends. All were extremely grateful and excited to learn these new skills. With the average yearly income of Kenyans hovering around $700, the students relied on the used digital cameras I brought with me. Many of these were donated by Summit County locals along with monetary support. A camera was left with each of ten schools, bringing the total number of students and teachers who now have access to a digital camera estimated at 6,000.

Digital literacy is no easy task in a country where concrete floors and electricity are not standard in schools and most teachers have never even used a mouse. But by the end of three weeks, I had trained over 200 people in basic photojournalism and Technology Partnership, with the help of the Kenya Methodist University ICT Department, had installed 270 working computers and trained 160 primary and secondary school teachers in skills ranging from basic word processing to Power Point presentations and student-centered teaching techniques.

Like many African nations, Kenya has had a tumultuous history. Kenya won independence from its overbearing parent colony of Great Britain in 1963, only to grow up in a neighborhood of thugs. Bordered by Somalia to the northeast, the piracy capital of the world, Uganda to the West and Sudan to the north, each home to some of the bloodiest genocides in recent history – and southern Sudan in line to become the newest breakaway nation in the world – it’s a wonder that Kenya has remained one of the most stable and “respectable” African countries.

Boasting some of the most impressive safaris and game parks in Africa, a beautiful coastline, and intriguing tribes such as the well known Maasai people, tourism makes up the majority of the Kenyan GDP. This relative success was hindered by the 2008 post-election violence though the country is now making a comeback.

Meru is the sixth-largest city in Kenya and this is evident while walking through the thick exhaust-filled air. Vehicles bustle through the downtown highway junction, honking at pedestrians to get out of the way. Though a main thoroughfare, the majority of locals get around on foot, walking miles to work and school on the dusty and often muddy roads. Students in uniforms walk in groups and the visual is enchanting, their matching colors creating a moving block of art. “Mzungu!” the younger ones occasionally call out. This means “white man” or “foreigner” and is not meant to be offensive. We are a rare breed here, and fascinating especially to the children who never witnessed the 80,000 British who once occupied their country. The children are refreshingly unafraid to point out our differences and to ask if my hair is real. The legacy of English left behind by the colonists makes it easy to communicate with even modestly educated Kenyans, and most signs are written in English rather than the other official language of Swahili.

Primary school is free for those who can afford shoes and uniforms, which unfortunately is not everyone in this high poverty country. High school requires tuition and many students hope for a foreign sponsor or wealthier relative to provide them with the opportunity for advanced basic education.

After two weeks of hard work in the schools of Meru, we rewarded ourselves with a three day Safari in Samburu National Park. This is the only Kenya that most Mzungus see and is the economic lifeblood of the nation. As I lounged on my own personal balcony watching elephants pass by, awaiting the full buffet dinner, I felt strangely out of place. This was not the Kenya I, nor most of my Kenyan friends knew. And while it does provide a beautiful and majestic tourism experience, I was glad I had seen a deeper Kenya. It is these deeper roots that will allow Kenya to flourish and to continue be a leader among the East African nations.

Diana Sabreen is a Breckenridge based photographer. Her photos can be seen at DianaSabreen.com and at Backstage Theater in Breck on Feb 12, from 4-6 p.m. for a showing sponsored by the Breckenridge Public Art Commission.

Shoot Cameras Not Guns is an ongoing project, always looking for support and cameras. Visit ShootCamerasNotGuns.org for more info, photos, videos and stories.