KARAGITA VILLAGE, Kenya – With a quick rip of foil and the inadvertent trip of a flash, a jolt of electricity set through the small room in Karagita Village, near Lake Naivasha, in Kenya last month. An excited buzz of Kiswahili then rose at the appearance of a box filled with disposable cameras. Outside, the sky cleared its throat.
Given the extent of poverty in Karagita, many members of this community have never seen what they look like in a mirror, let alone in a photograph.
As such, nearly 50 curious people sat wedged onto rickety benches ringing local Chief Hussein Guyo’s office this warm morning. They had travelled up to 40 kilometres to participate in a documentary project initiated by Western’s Ecosystem Health – Africa Initiative.
Standing behind Guyo’s desk, Canadian filmmaker and photographer Christina Howlett provided a quick rundown of how the cameras work and what was expected, before assigning each a number and handing out the devices. In minutes, everyone sported cardboard monocles, peering inquisitively through the viewfinders.
All had come in response to a call to action Guyo had made on behalf of Western’s team the day previous – by literally making two obviously well-placed telephone calls.
Their task? To document their surroundings over the following two weeks, and to shine a lens – or 40 – on their communities, while hopefully exposing flashpoints affecting the local environment and people’s health.
“The purpose was to show the issues or concerns – joys and sadness – good, bad and ugly of life for those living in Lake Naivasha,” says Irena Creed, one of the Ecosystem Health Research Group leaders overseeing the documentary.
This knowledge will then be used to help direct future research activities in the region and provide Canadian researchers with a better understanding of how the community views itself.
The Ecosystem Health Research Group – including Creed, Jack Bend, Regna Darnell and Charlie Trick – has worked around Naivasha since 2009 as part of a funded research initiative that seeks to better understand the close ties between factors that affect ecosystems and human health.
“We want to achieve greater connection with the community that is ‘at risk,’ identify sources of stress affecting them – which is an integral part of community health – and identify sources of ecosystem degradation that have been missed by going only to ‘official’ representatives and stakeholders,” Creed says.
Today, the Lake Naivasha region faces significant challenges. The population has swelled to more than 400,000 from only 19,000 two decades ago, much of which can be attributed to industrial growth tied to ecotourism, geothermal energy production and floriculture.
While Kenyans have flocked from across the country toward the promise of jobs, this influx of people has not come without costs. Research has shown the land is no longer as fertile, fisheries are failing and the region has witnessed an increased incidence of social diseases and HIV/AIDS.
By arming them with disposable cameras, the Ecosystem Health team hoped various community members – including student leaders, a disabled persons environmental group and flower farm workers – would indelibly capture the authentic Naivasha experience as viewed through their own eyes.
At the close of the two-week experiment, Creed, Howlett and Western PhD student Eric Enanga catered a lunch in Karagita as a thank you for the community’s participation. Each camera was returned.
“The camera project is just one of many components – others include a website with data, photos and video,” Creed says, having already purchased 20 additional cameras. “The next step will be to distribute cameras to young people through schools and to elders, and to follow-up with videotaped interviews later this summer.”
Eager to return to Canada and unwrap these 40 presents, Creed was quickly struck by both similarities and differences in perspective reflected in the photographs taken. They ranged from people holding signs about a local dam, to a gathering around a man who had committed suicide.
It was a heavy experience.
“The photos reveal the amount of waste that surrounds their everyday lives,” Creed says. “There is a tremendous contrast between the exotic animals just across the road – which bring tourists from around the globe – and the young, beautiful faces in front of all this waste.”
Expected to be completed by March 2012 at the latest, the documentary – originally conceived of by Trick, who felt strongly about the need to engage in participatory research that hears and sees issues from the community’s perspective – has been partially funded by the Western Humanitarian Award the team won earlier this year.
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In Kenya this past May for the opening of the Africa Institute at The University of Western Ontario, research communications manager Douglas Keddy subsequently travelled to Lake Naivasha with members of the Ecosystem Health – Africa Initiative.
There, he spoke to community leaders, toured the lake, experienced firsthand some of the challenges facing the region and observed some of Western’s research efforts aimed at addressing them.
For more about his experiences, visit theworldbeckons.blogspot.com.