Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Imagining a World without AIDS, a project for Rotarians for Fighting AIDS

Photographer Jennifer Huxta volunteered at the Cura Primary School and stayed with the children at the Cura Rotary Home in November 2009. She writes:

The matatu ride from Nairobi to Wangige takes about an hour. I get into a minibus with a picture of Barack Obama painted on the side. Today the driver blasts Classic 105 FM and “Say a Little Prayer for You” comes on and I swear we are singing along together as the matatu swerves around potholes in the road that snakes through the coffee fields towards Cura village. One of the stickers on the dashboard says ‘Arrive Alive’.

I jump out at Wangige market and take a 30-minute walk along a red road up to Cura orphanage. As I walk up the last stretch, several children from the primary school in vivid blue sweaters are already waving and dangling from the trees that line the path, calling, “Mzungu! Mzungu! Howareyou?!” They run alongside the path until we meet at the entrance to the home, where 10 children hold my hands at once, and others yell, “Jenfa! Jenfa! Make me one photo!” Caroline and I catch up with each other and she asks, “What’s in the bag?” “Art supplies. Pens and colored pencils and paper so we can do a drawing project.” Rotary has asked me to lead a series of art workshops as part of their initiative, Imagining a World without AIDS. The students of Class 5 wait for me at their desks in the primary school.

Before beginning the art workshops, I spent about 2 weeks with the children at the orphanage, hanging out, eating lunch, and telling stories. Leah’s stories often began, “Long, long ago there was a hippopotamus and some bees…” or “Once there was a cow, a goat and a hyena…” We played 4 kinds of Tag, Duck, Duck, Goose and Red Light Green Light. They taught me dances and songs and we had a massive soccer game. I photographed them while they filled their days, played, studied, braided their housemother’s hair, ate beans and ugali and greens. The children who live at the orphanage go to school each day with students who walk from their homes in the village.

The kids from Class 5 jump around in their chairs as I walk into the classroom. Working with one of their teachers, Steven, who translates my English to Kikuyu and Swahili, I explain the art project for Rotary. We ask them to draw pictures of a world without AIDS, a world where HIV/AIDS doesn’t exist. I hand out the art supplies and walk around sharpening pencils and photographing them as they draw pictures of houses with big gardens and people and many children. “This guy is big, he’s healthy,” Kelvin says. They laugh and compete to show me their artwork. They all want another and another and another piece of paper. They trade crayons and share colors and lean over each other’s drawings, smile and exclaim about each other’s work.

Over the week, I worked with classes 6 and 7 in similar intense and creative sessions. After hours of deliberation, I chose one drawing from each class and then photographed the students and their artwork to be profiled in the Rotarians for Fighting AIDS newsletter and the Rotary International website. I asked them what they dream about. Leah Wanoro, who lives in Cura village with her mom, said she dreamed of having a good job to help needy children. Samuel Njenga, who lives at the orphanage, said he dreamed of having a big house and a good car. Jane Njoki, who also lives in the village, said she dreamed of having a good things and nice clothes; “I want to have a good life. I want to be a musician.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Norman's Note, Upon His Return to the U.S.

What follows is the lovely summation Norman wrote and posted to his own followers on Facebook upon his return from Cura... the photo he refers to is being retrieved from a failing laptop and will be posted soon! Thank you, Norman, for your energy and passion and heart!


As you may have gathered from my earlier notes and photographs, today will certainly not be the end of my relationship with Cura or its inhabitants. My hope is to return with some regularity, while continuing efforts back home to raise awareness and funds. I would ask that you remain a member of this group and continue to spread the word, as I will add more stories, pictures and news from these children we have come to know by name (or nickame) and grown to love.

As a photographer, sometimes I will spot something when I am without my camera and make a mental note to return later if possible and capture the image. I mentally filed one of those thoughts my first day at Cura but soon forgot as I immersed myself in my new world.

To my surprise, the night after the first camera session with the children I found the exact same image had been taken by one of the groups. And then by another group. And then another. Five or six of thirteen groups had taken the same picture. This image is the most recent posted to this site and i would ask you to look at it closely for a moment before reading on.

This is a close-up of an astoundingly almost fluorescent green hedge that surrounds the dormitory at Cura. Snaking through the green, is a nasty and layered stream of barbed-wire. When I saw the picture I wanted to take in my mind, it was just like this – close-up, beauty and harm, juxtaposed and intertwined. The children must have seen this too. But so many of them?

Whether at their respective ages they realized it or not, I know they saw something that I could not have seen. A mirror. They, the beautiful hedge brimming with life and a desire to grow towards the sun, but trapped, strangled, by the circumstances into which they were born. If one group had taken this picture I would not go on about such symbolism…but after seeing this very specific image repeatedly from so many of the children, when no other such item captured their mass attention, I knew there must be more to what they were seeing.

If someone in the world of popular culture made an impression on me this year, it was Conan O’Brien. In his final moments hosting the Tonight Show, with the world watching, he chose not to lambaste NBC for how he had been treated. He did not take a swipe at Jay Leno. He didn’t launch any of the verbal rockets for which the masses tuned in. Instead, he said this:

“All I ask of you is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism- it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

I think that is an incredibly beautiful thought, not only for the sentiment, but how and when it was delivered. When I began this journey, there were friends of mine who were cynical of this adventure. In my month away I have heard from people I did not expect, and disappointed by some from whom I expected more. People who could have donated the most, often did not donate at all. And some, for whom I know it was difficult, gave beyond their means.

For those that were cynical of this journey, no I did not change the world, nor had I predicted I would. But by the support of family, friends and people whom I have never met, fifty children now have a glass of milk with breakfast and pillows to sleep on at night. In five months they will have eggs daily, no longer just on Sundays. A previously unemployed community member now has income tending to the new animals. And later this year, these ventures will turn a profit for Cura, which they can use to slowly upgrade the little they have. And of course, the kids took some pretty damned good pictures too. Don’t be cynical.

As this picture has stuck with me for nearly a month, may it stay with you also. You don’t have to cross the globe to find something beautiful being strangled by barbed-wire – a sick neighbor, a food bank for the homeless, a veterans facility. If you’re reading this, like me, you’re one of the lucky ones. It is our responsibility as such, to help those around us and cut that barbed-wire away. From this experience, I can tell you the rewards will far outweigh your output. Just find that thing that makes your heart hurt, and go, and to the best of your ability, help it be in a better place tomorrow than it was today.

I thank you and love you all for taking this special journey with me.


Friday, March 19, 2010

Norman Golightly, Volunteer Super Star!

Norman, Cura's most recent volunteer, saw some big changes during his stay. Specifically, he helped move donated chicks and a cow into their new Cura homes. We can't wait to hear from him here about his work!