The Long-Awaited Africa Post / by LD

Straightaway let me posit that I'm attempting the impossible here in that this post will be epically long, yet I'm hoping to hold your flighty, easily-distracted attention until the very. Last. Word. All due respect to each and every one of your illustrious attention spans, and I'm not implying that I have a disproportionately attention-deficit reader base, but we can all recognize that it is 2009 (nearing the exhausted finale of the first ten Aughts, no less). As such, we can all agree that They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To, and like most of our smaller electronics, our appliances, and our decadently priced iPods, our attention spans aren't built to last.

I recognize this fact, but blithely blow right past it with this post in tow, and I hope that you'll follow me until the end. Or at least until the very last picture (O-Em-Gee, giraffes!!!).

All together now? Here we go.

This summer Ruth Mansi (good friend to human and animal, though not necessarily babies, and certainly not untrustworthy men) visited the states and told me about a project she was working on called Asante Sana. As most non-profits go (IGAs and their ilk are also grouped into this category, though I do understand the difference), I've never been one to jump on any bandwagon despite the promise of a good cause. Call me jaded, but I prefer to think I was just waiting for the right one. After all, and keep with me now as I attempt to categorize our entire generation (trust me, it's happened before. Can I get a whut-whut, Vanguard Class of 2009?): Our generation is inspired to act like never before. Given the proliferation of information in the age we live in, we know what's wrong with the world. We know the perils, the trials, the tribulations. Even a cursory glance in any e-direction would reveal as much. Rather than excavate the ruins of our day and age in search of another heartbreaking missive, we're certainly more interested in the hope that lies there. After all, we elected a leader whose entire campaign hovered indelicately (one might suggest audaciously) around the concept of hope. And because of that, the market is flooded (this is not a negative term, in this case) with IGAs and NGOs and other similarly-acronymed ORGs whose sole purpose is to remove the stigmatized bloated-belly, flies-on-the-face, all-hope-is-LOST-without-your-contribution cloud that surrounded many organizations when we came of age.

But I've always been remarkably suspicious of almost anything that rears its alluring head too many times. I blame the fact that my formative years were marked by target advertising, and the fact that now even Youtube has pop-up ads while you're watching that hilarious have-you-seen-this-yet! clip. I'm suspicious of bandwagons, and especially the people who drive them. I'm leery of groupthink. But most of all, I've achieved an acute level of wariness (some might say paranoia) for any idea that's driven by the siren song of Big Profit. I don't like to be manipulated, and for better or worse, I've been raised in a culture that seeks to do exactly that.

Now the reason I've delved so laboriously into the muck of generational rhetoric simply serves to illustrate my point, to bring you back to that day in the summer when Ruth filled me in on Asante Sana: This one was different. I felt compelled to help her in any way I could, because the core values that drive the organization are something I believe in, and something even I can get behind.

Asante Sana, which means "Thank you very much" in Swahili, presents us with a grab-bag of conundrums: Poverty. HIV. Underdeveloped areas. Orphans. I could go on, but we've all heard this part before, haven't we? This organization isn't solely about pouring money into the problem in an attempt to stop the leak. It's about rebuilding the dam from the ground up and fortifying its structure so it can prosper. It's about development, both of business and skills, but also of the heart and mind. It's about a cycle of dignity, empowerment, and generosity.

Asante Sana works with a group of women in Kawangware, a slum in Kenya's largest city, Nairobi. The women are taught a skill - in this case, jewelry and accessory-making - and produce a product, which is then purchased for a fair wage and sold for significant markup in the United States. The women are paid a living wage and are given the tools they need (namely, nutrition) to be healthier (they are on ARVs for HIV) and to prosper. 80% of the proceeds are then 'paid forward,' so to speak, and given to child-headed households in Zeway, Ethiopia. The women are empowered to work and to develop a lucrative business, they are dignified in their pursuit to support their families, and the fruits of their generosity are then pass along to an even more vulnerable group who desperately needs it: Orphans.

I told Ruth I wanted to be involved stateside, because if there's one thing I understand, it's jewelry and how to market that to a US consumer. But Ruth and the president of Asante Sana, Greg Vestri, had other plans. I got the email in September asking if I wanted to come to Africa to shoot pictures for the launch of the Asante Sana blog and Etsy store. And that's how it happened. Exactly a month and six shots later, I was in a cab on the streets of Nairobi with Ruth, en route to her apartment. I was able to partner with Asante Sana for two weeks and immerse myself in 'the business.' We spent days in Kawangware with the women, and we spent time in Ethiopia with the child-headed households and the people there. I was able to see every process, from quality control, to meetings with leaders, to varnishing the beads.

Now, I'm assuming that for the stalwart few who have made it with me to the end of my story, there should be a reward. The blog and Etsy store will launch soon, but in the meantime, here are the images I took while I was there, and a couple of journal entries as well. Enjoy!


I woke up to say this, though the fact that jet lag has become my unlikely bedfellow could be partially to blame:

The land is beautiful and brutal.

Yet life insolubly persists, in this case on the unforgiving face of a cliff. Its visage interrupts the skyline by at least 80 feet of rock, but a third of the way up: A tree - stately, unmoving - has rooted itself amongst geometric planes of stone. Its branches express themselves toward the sky; its roots tumble toward the ground, down the side of the cliff, a tangled falls in search of its stream.

The land does not seek to instruct virture, nor does it have the luxury of pondering its own mortality. But it IS beautiful.


11:51 am

I'm at an internet cafe in Westland. "Fake Plastic Trees" just came on and it seems oddly apropos. "She looks like the real thing..."

Yesterday the group - Winnie, Ruth, & myself - went to Kawangware, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. Upon entering the compound which consisted of, among other things, two schools, the children there rushed me - the "Mzungu" - with the greeting "How are you? How are you?"

They think that's what mzungus are called, and as a trifle more than 20 of them tethered themselves to my only available hand, their shouts coagulated into a thick chant: "Howareyou! Howareyou! Howareyou!"

This rapidly expanding nebula - us - trudged ever onward until I managed to wrest my camera from my bag. As quickly as they had conspired to form, they disbanded.

The cadre of marbled brown eyes now appeared in front of me, and their chant dissolved into an appeal: "And me! And me!" Meaning, in less colloquial terms, "Mzungu, if it isn't too much trouble, might you acquiesce to taking my photograph as well?" To further fortify their request, a double thumbs-up was then thrust hopefully at my lens.

Wherever my camera's benevolent gaze was directed, they swarmed with buzzing efficiency, calculating who should be next and assembling (and reassembling) their order to suit the current priority, which changed often. This haphazard and Machiavellian pecking order was usually not without one lower on the chain finding him- or herself unhappily well-acquainted with the ground.

Tears inevitably followed.

But such was the natural order of things in this case: Survival of the ruthlessly cute.