CHANGANI

Posted: August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

Oscar and I are spending a week at Tiwi, just south of Mombasa, where we have rented a two-bedroom spacious house just feet from the beach. The BEACH!!!! This is the same house we rented fifteen years ago when we had a family reunion with my daughter, a friend of hers, my sister and brother, and his daughter and our mother. So as we sit on the veranda reading in the lazy afternoon, I see their shadows flitting softly amongst the fragrant franji pani trees and tiptoeing down the white steps to the beach, where crabs frolic at night and the moon breathes her pulse, in and out, in and out, with every tide.

We do very little except walk, wallow in the lukewarm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, walk again, read and nibble on cashew nuts and mangos. On our very first day, a young beach boy introduces himself as Changani and greets Oscar as an old friend. “Is it you, my brother?” He gives Oscar a high five, but I don’t think my brother recognizes this fellow, so I am a little guarded. The beach boys are a sad nuisance, wandering up and down all day long, trying to sell services of many kinds. “Do you want some madafu? (coconut milk). I will bring you five coconuts and you can have five free – my garden is full of them.” Oscar wants some, but I don’t, but before I can say a word, Changani is racing up the beach to disappear along a village path shaded by tall palm trees. Oscar now remembers that indeed, he does know Changani from the years when he used to come down here to camp at Christmas. Changani used to have dread locks – the insignia of the dedicated beach boy – and now he has shaved his head and wears cool sunglasses. But there is a look of despair in Changani’s eyes. “I am only a beach boy,” he says, sadly. “I want to be something else, but there is no opportunity for me.”

Over the next few days, I get to know Changani quite well and to like him a lot. He is extremely intelligent and speaks quite good German – picked up from tourists whom he takes out in a canoe to snorkel near the reef. I feel sorry for him – he is 32 years old with no future at all but to continue as a beach boy, and of course, like so many other Africans, he has sold his “services” to a young woman from Denmark or Sweden or Holland – someone who came to Kenya on vacation, took a fancy to a cute beach boy, got pregnant and promptly removed herself back home to have the baby and leave her beach boy stranded at low tide.

Most days, Changani has absolutely nothing to do. The tourist industry in Kenya has dropped by over 50% since the troubles in 2008 and besides, it is mid-February, the end of school vacations, so the local holiday season is over. Changani explains to me that he has become the unofficial supervisor for about 12 beach boys at Tiwi. They have divided up the various tourist services among them and once territorial boundaries have been drawn up, they cannot be crossed. For example, Changani cannot sell carvings or cloth at the beach stalls, while his colleagues there may not take tourists to the reef. But they are all desperate for work and he tells me that he often doesn’t eat for two days, or lives only on coconuts. With his girlfriend and son gone for good, he lives with his mother, whom he highly respects and, since he is the first-born son, for whom he feels responsible.

Changani is of medium height with powerful shoulders and his black skin gleams in the sunlight. He does not pester me as I walk along the beach from one end to the other, but waits patiently under the palm tree where he knows I like to rest, and we chat. He is a Digo – a tribe that has lived along the coast for centuries, and who were largely responsible for helping to oust the Portuguese invaders in the 17th century. “Would you like to have a barbeque tonight?” he asks. Oscar and I agree to meet him at 7pm on the beach, and he will cook fish and rice and other coastal delicacies over an open fire. But by 7pm, Changani has not shown up, nor is there any sign of a barbeque fire on the beach. Oscar is pacing the floor and cursing. “He could call!” he mutters. Yes, he could, but he doesn’t. Finally, at 7.45, Changani comes racing up to the front door, clearly deeply agitated. “I am sorry! Sorry!” he cries. “I will make the fire now!” “Why are you so late?” my brother growls. “My sister’s daughter died today from her stomach,” Changani says, “ and I could not come on time, but I wanted to show you that you can trust me, so now I am here.” “Yeah, yeah,” says my brother, clearly implying that he doesn’t believe a word of the story. “Is it true?” I ask him gently. “It is true,” Changani replies. “You could have bloody called!” Oscar yells. “We have no food in the house and have been waiting!” “Don’t talk to him like that!” I hiss at my brother. “The man’s niece just died and all you can think of is your dinner!” “Go to hell!” Oscar screams. “Why are you always interfering? Just fuck off, both of you, and you fuck off and Changani fuck off and just fuck off!”

Well. This is the result not only of Oscar’s frustration after a plane crash slightly damaged his brain, but also of my brother having lived in the bush as the only white man for so long. Like many colonials, he adopts what is to me an insufferable tone of voice and an inexcusable impatience towards African people. However, like all whites in Kenya, he has also been ripped off and robbed so many times by Kenyans that every interaction with them is conditioned by deep mistrust. It is just the way it has always been between the haves and the have-nots.

By this time, Changani has run down to the beach. I follow him with the flashlight and find him sitting on a log, weeping. His brown paper bag with our smelly fish and a pot of gooey rice sits on the log next to him. It doesn’t look too appetizing. I touch Changani on the shoulder. “You should go home,” I say. “We can do this another night. Go on- go home to your sister. You have to understand, my brother is not himself. You remember how sweet he used to be, right?” Changani nods his head.” “Yes, I do. He was my brother,” he says. “But why does he do this to me?” I explain that my brother is prone to fits of rage since the accident, but Changani says “It is because I am poor.” “No,” I tell him. “It has nothing to do with being poor. “ I try to explain the roots of my brother’s reaction. Changani seems to understand, but is visibly distraught. He seems more than ever determined to show that he can be trusted and starts to pile dried palm fronds on the beach for a fire. “No, Changani,” I say. By this time I really don’t want the awful fish and am trying to find ways to heal the events of the awful evening.

Changani does eventually leave, his head hung low, carrying the sorry package of food with him. The full moon lights up the white sand, where thousands of crabs rush in and out of the water, searching for food. They make a dry, rustling sound, parting before Changani’s feet as he passes by, only to close their ranks again behind him. As he heads for the village path, his shadow, sharply outlined on the sand, merges with the trunk of a palm tree and he is gone. Near the steps to our cottage, the franji pani tree is shedding its sweet-scented flowers . They litter the beach, sending their perfume into the balmy night air.

I go back up to the house and Oscar and I manage to have a quiet discussion about the incident. He feels terrible about it even though he still accuses me of interfering. “I was talking to Changani and you just interrupted,” he says. “Yes, “I say, “and I will always interrupt so long as you speak to Africans in that tone of voice.” We then go through the incident measure for measure and I understand that I have somehow usurped my brother’s “authority” while he understands that he has  behaved abominally. He is almost in tears and we decide to send Changani a text message of apology, which Oscar does. “Please forgive me,” he writes. “Come and see us tomorrow.”

The next morning, the sky is perfectly blue, the sea perfectly warm, the beach perfectly white and my mind perfectly clear. Changani has mentioned that if he could read and write English, there would be many more job opportunities available to him. There is a school nearby, he has told me, that takes adults like him for special classes. He is very bright, and literate in Kisuaheli, which uses the same alphabet as English, so he is sure he could learn to read and write English very fast. So when I see him on the beach that morning, I ask how much it would cost. “It will be K. Shs. 3000 for a semester,” he replies, “plus some books and a pencil.” K. Shs. 3500 is about $43. Can I afford it? Yes. I hand the money to Changani and he promises to bring me a note from the school to confirm that he has enrolled. He looks a little happier now. Oscar has joined us and Changani says, “My brother, I forgive you. I am very sorry for what happened.” Oscar is also sorry and humbled, and they shake hands – but somewhere, something has been broken. Maybe Changani’s heart? Or Oscar’s self-image? Or the veil of peace fluttering now in tatters about us.

Changani wants a lift to Diani, the next town, where I must go for the Internet. “Why not take him to the school and pay the money directly to the director?” Oscar suggests. “Just to be sure,” he adds. Ah yes – there is that mistrust again. But my brother is right. Could this whole story be just that – a story – to wring cash from my gullible heart? Will Changani really go to school and use the money for the fee?

The school is on the way to Diani so I ask Changani to let me have a look at it. We drive down a sandy path, through village compounds, and come out at a pleasant collection of low buildings of coral stone with window frames painted bright blue. A group of Muslim school girls in blue uniforms with white head veils peek at us from the playground. Changani and I walk to the head master’s office. Mr. Mutabeti greets Changani warmly. “So, my friend, you have come!“ he exclaims, revealing his own distrust. Changani smiles and says, “Yes, sir, I have come.” He hands over the money I gave him which is still tightly rolled in his pocket, and we discuss a few details. Changani will begin at 8am the next day, and will receive three hours a day of one-on-one tuition from the English teacher. He will be treated with dignity and not made to sit among the children or wear a uniform.

Next, we head to a little book store where we buy a picture dictionary in English and Kisuaheli. Changani can read the Kishuaheli easily, and his face brightens at last. We say our goodbyes, for Oscar and I are leaving later that day. “Now I have a brother and a sister!” Changani says. “No,” I say. “I am not your sister. I have just helped you a little bit, that’s all, and I am happy to have done so. Send me a text message in English when you are ready, OK?” “OK, my sister,” he replies, and runs off, jumping from one shady spot to another as the cement walkway is too hot for his bare feet. I am ready to drive off in Oscar’s noisy old truck that belches exhaust fumes and occasionally squeals in agony as rusty parts rub against each other. Changani turns around one more time. “Goodybye and thank you, my sister!” he calls. I stop the car and jump out. “Changani!” I call. “Wait!” I catch up with him under the broad spread of a mango tree. “I am not your sister,” I say. “I don’t want you to call me your sister, OK? I am just a friend.” Changani looks a little dismayed but he understands. Being his “sister” puts me under lifelong obligations of support. Being his friend is entirely different. I can choose to help him further or not. “OK,” he says, and holds out his hand. “Thank you my friend.” We shake hands and I drive off, excited to receive Changani’s first text message in English whenever he’s ready.

 

RECONNECTING

I was taken from the airport to the Milimani Backpackers’ Hostel, right up the road from where our old house to be. So lovely to travel the familiar roads at night, little traffic, a friendly taxi driver chatting away. I am home.

The hostel is a delight – a shambolick collection of funny little sheds, charmingly painted with African elephants. I am in “buffalo” and find my skinny bed, an old tin can as a bedside table, an overhead bulb, a wonky shower and a toilet with no lid. Ah yes – Africa. I am wired up and ready to party. There’s a delightful outdoor little bar and restaurant, where I get the best mango and yoghurt in the world and get chatting to a group of young Danish volunteers, all ready to march out into the bush and change the world. Good luck. They are sweet but naïve, of course. One of them is a film maker and shows me his work – pretty good stuff, done on the fly while traveling around the world. I have to keep on my toes, these young geniuses find it all too easy.

The next morning I am up at 7.30am (yes, me!) running next door to change money at the bank that has replaced our lovely old house. Only our old date palm graces the driveway, there is no trace of our past lives here – after almost 50 years!! Ah well, we come, we go. You hear that, ancestors?? Where are you? Not around here, that’s for sure.

When I return, Oscar is there to pick me up, and talking to an old, freckled, pony-tailed man who I recognize from about 40 years ago. Kevin Wheelock! Raised “up country” on a white farm, has Boer Afrikaner roots, speaks English with the typically clipped, slightly South African accent of white Kenyan farmers. He has started a bamboo plantation down in Athi river, near our old farm and near to where Oscar now lives, at Kitengela. Later in the week, he and I will concoct a scheme to save my brother, who is too isolated out here, too confused, too endangered, and too bloody cranky.

Oscar and I drive out to Kitengela on the worst road in  Africa. It takes over an hour to go ten miles. When we finally arrive at his funny little house, it seems that we have traveled into another era. There are zebra grazing around and monkeys in the trees. The house is a left-over from an American college that leased Oscar’s land and built many of these small houses for staff and students. They are dilapidated now and falling apart, but his is quite nice, with a very high, peaked roof made of local makuti, or thatch, and red stone floors. I sleep in a loft upstairs, and he has a big bedroom and a pleasant living room and deck. It is all in a shambles, though. He moved here last year and after his accident, is unable to sort stuff out, unpack it, get organized, although he has made a valiant effort. So guess who is once again sorting out someone else’s stuff!! My karma, my karma.

Just a few days after arrival, I was picked up at 4am and taken over the Masai plains in an old truck driven by a mad Masai youth who has missed out on his warrior hood. But we do make it to the airport on time and before long, I find myself in Eldoret, in Kenya’s northwestern Uasu Ngisho area. I have come here to film the landscape, because this area was offered to the Zionist Jews by the British in 1904, and I want to include this story in my film. Just an hour after arrival, I’m on my way, driving out out out into the far distant hills and thrilled to be doing what I love best – driving in a new place. The tall eucalyptus trees are lit by the morning sun, the road is lined with fields and pine trees – a very different scenario from Oscar’s plains, as we are above 7000 feet here. I film and film, obsessed with catching the light on the leaves, and must hurry back to the Rosewood Cottages before dark as my car has no lights. Such a delight to rent with no contract, no paper work, probably no insurance, and no lights. I call it freedom. You take responsibility for everything yourself.

Back at the hotel, I meet Zunaiba and Dirgil, a Muslim couple. She is 45, he is 29, but they are in love and I take an instant liking to them. “Do you want to go dancing?” they ask. “What – me???? I am dead on my feet, haven’t even allowed any jet lag, but I must go dancing, so I put on my one skirt and off we go. It’s a club, with fake flames outside the door, packed with young African men and women. I am the only white person. On stage there is a band – 4 guitars, one drum. The music is old Kenya rumba, from way back in the 1950s. It has come from Zaire but developed its own East African rhythms since then and it is absolutely irresistible. The men sing love songs in close harmony and I am on my feet for the next three hours, dancing alone or with anyone who cares to join me. A young man says that he has never seen a “mzungu” or white person dance like an African. Ha! That is the best compliment anyone could pay me.

The next day I am off to the northeast, to the gorgeous Kerio Valley, which is the western wall of the Rift Valley. Winding through crappy little villages and behind smelly lorries, I pass Iten where the Kenya Olympic champion runners are trained, and sure enough, I see a group of men running up the hill almost as fast as my car is going, which is about 10 miles an hour. One of the men is white, tall a and lithe, like a Masai. He gives me a thumbs up. At last I come out to the dirt road that takes me to the Kerio Hotel – the only place where you can actually get a fantastic view of the valley. The light plays games here, running, rippling across the valley floor. Clouds move fast along the ridges, over there a rain squall paints the sky dark grey while over here, the sun blazes down mercilessly. Clacking wooden goat bells trail along the wooded slopes, and far far away, a metal roof sends distress signals in the sun.

I have some fruit salad with yoghurt, nuts and honey, and get chatting to an African man and his niece. She is a student of media and communications at the local college and immediately, I am invited to teach there next year. Ha! Yes indeed I will. I will teach anywhere in Africa that anyone wants me to teach. I head further along the road and down, down to the valley floor to the famous gorge that descends 1000 feet into the rock and is only three feet wide. I have to lie on my stomach to look over the edge. A toucan clacks in alarm. I can see a crocodile down there and further along, where it widens out, some children are playing in the water. I suppose the crocs and the kids are friends.

The next day, Zunaiba and Dirgil take me to the Naiberry Resort – a lovely lodge on a river with a swimming pool and a good Indian curry for lunch. There are Africans, Indians and whites, kids playing in the water. Kenya is truly integrated now.

That evening I head back to Nairobi and another night at Milimani, which is now populated by a diverse group of foreigners, mostly Europeans, doing all kinds of fun stuff. The next day, I hire a wonderful driver called Judas, who takes me to all the old parts of Nairobi that I knew so well. I am filming the various residential areas which were originally planned to be for whites, Asians and Africans. Of course, despite integration, the standards of housing very enormously. My mother had some large part in this planning and always denied that it was along racial divides. “It was along economic lines,” she stated. “Anyone could live anywhere if they could afford it.” Right.

Judas understands exactly what I am looking for. He takes me to the African areas, the African market, to Muthaiga, where very wealthy whites used to live, their huge houses now largely taken by various embassies. We visit the Kenya Girls High SChooll in Kileleshwa and I film the African girls discreetly. They are dressed in the exact same uniforms we used to wear when the school was all white. Grey felt skirts, white shirt, red tie, grey cardigan, white socks, brown lace-up shoes. A t 4pm they are still in class. The school is silent, everyone is WORKING. Then they come out for juice and then it is time for mandatory sports. Nothing has changed. In the huge dining hall, I find my name carved on a board where graduates are listed. The same tables and chairs are arrayed in the same rows. The only thing that has changes is that where our old school “houses” were named after colonial heroes, such as “Delamere” after Lord Delamere, the “houses” now have African names.

The next day Oscar picks me up again in his ratty old truck and we head off to Lake Naivasha, in the Rift Valley. W e climb the escarpment that is the eastern wall of the Rift, then head down again through the yellow acacia trees and along the second worst road in Africa to Green Park – a gated community built by a group of extremely British old settlers and ex-patriots. My friends Jenny and Ian Stoker, who came to Kenya 40 years ago as volunteers, loved it so much that they have built a house here. It is a huge reunion – I have not seen them for 5 or 6 years, and I have invited my old school friend Chrissie, who lives in Nanyuki, to join us. It is a merry group, with John and Sally, other friends, who spent 5 years in Kenya and just keep coming back. The talk is of old times. Chrissie knows everyone in Kenya and drops all these British, double-barreled upcountry names. Tony Fitz-John, Patrick Gilbert-Hopkins – people I knew only vaguely as I belonged to the “urban” Nairobi crowd and most of my friends were not the children of farmers, but of business people.  A clear social divide, I may say. We eat incredibly fantastic fish from the lake and tell silly jokes and at one point, burst into song together – “Jerusalem” was my old school song and everyone knows it. Oh God, it is all SO very British, but such fun. We  have even dressed for dinner, the men in long trousers and shirts, the ladies in dresses.

The next day, we drive down to the lake shore to visit Linda Hopcraft, who has married into the extensive Kenya Hopcraft clan. Her husband is an invalid in Nairobi, and she runs their very exclusive lodge. The house was built of red lava rock by Italian prisoners of war in 1917 and is a lovely, spacious place with arched walls leading out onto wide terraces where you can sit and gaze at the tranquil lake. There are plenty of buffalo around here and just two weeks ago, one of the Hopcrafts was killed by an injured male. We are treated to crumbly carrot cake, shown the old family album and the family tree. Linda is American, but has lived here since 1975. She is tall and large and her shirt is stained, but we love her and she offers Oscar a cottage on the land. Ha! Many people want to save him, I see.

The next day is spent hanging about, working a little. I interview everyone about their memories of Nairobi in the 1960s, and of my parents and our old house – little sound bites that will be woven throughout the film. Another fantastic meal cooked by Sally, who is a professional and author of many well-known cook books. I show everyone the unfinished film – very nervous, as these are people familiar with my family and with Kenya history. They are amazed and intrigued and we sit up until long past midnight discussing the various issues and details of Mau Mau history.

The next day, Oscar and I leave amidst very fond farewells. Jennie and I in tears, such a long history we have! So much love and friendship. But we must go. We are off to see Oria Douglas-Hamilton at the old Rocco farm further down the lake. I am absolutely astounded to learn that Oria – my pal and friend of many years – is now 80 years old. I had no idea she was so much older than I! her parents, Mario and Giselle Rocco, were dear friends of my parents, and we used to come here for Sunday lunch almost every weekend. I met Johnny Weissmuller here – the first Tarzan – when I was a child. The house is an Italian palace, a gorgeous structure with high ceilings, great terraces, red stone floors and shelves carved into the walls for pieces of Giselle’s lovely sculptures. In their youth, the daughters Mirella and Oria painted fabulous murals in purple, silver, midnight blue and black on the walls. Mirella became a photographer famed for her book “Vanishing Africa” and Oria married Ian Douglas-Hamilton – the king of elephant studies. Oria runs a truly exclusive camp up north in Samburu land – her clients the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney. She has turned her parents’ farm into a wildlife sanctuary teeming with buffalo, zebra and hippo, and has established a school for Samburu. Her latest protégé, a young herdsman with only two years of official schooling, was accepted into her school, raced ahead in only a few years and has just been accepted to Princeton. These are the amazing stories of Kenya, the light, the love, the indefatigable energy, the brilliance! Despite all the poverty, disease, hunger and corruption, there is magic here. Let me weave my spell for you.

So now I am back with Oscar at Kitengela, sorting through family papers. I was taken this evening on a walk by Peter, a volunteer Masai game warden. Oscar’s land dips down to the river and in the evening, many animals come down to drink. We see two hippo snorting under an overhang. A crocodile, who I saw last week, is in exactly the same place. Not dead, just sunning himself. A herd of Impala races away, leaping over tall bushes, and seven giraffe gaze at us, unwilling to move from the fig tree they are enjoying. A vulture circles overhead. A blue heron stalks around in the shallows. The river is very low, non-existent in parts. But there are definite rhino tracks, lion spoor, buffalo footprints – a host of animals has just been here. No lion this time. The baboons make too much noise, scaring the lions off. It is a charming walk, the sky turning slowly orange as the sun goes down behind the hill. Night comes very fast here. W e must hurry to get back to Oscar’s before it turns pitch black, as we have not brought a torch. Behind me, a male baboon grunts sarcastically. “Leaving already?” he asks. “Good! Good riddance and goodnight!”

 

 

I loved the movie, especially the riveting music and was fascinated to hear that the composer, who most of us have probably never heard of, much to our shame, is such an enormous blockbusting success in India yet also understands the synthesis between Indian and western music enough to create exactly the right score for Slumdog. I traveled through southern India alone a few years ago and loved every minute of it. I had wonderful adventures in Mumbai, much to my surprise, because I thought I would really hate the city and had planned to get out of it as fast as possible. But I wandered around, went to the incredible cloth market, stayed in an old and lovely guest house down in Colaba, on Mumbai’s southernmost tip and yes – I was shocked and angered at the incredible poverty, the beggars selling their children (yes!), the filth, the pollution, the unbelievable numbers of people – just as you see in Slumdog. But I loved the energy, the kindness of people, the colors, the street food and the general mayhem. In fact, I loved India altogether and can’t wait to go back and visit the northern provinces.

To learn more about India and maybe follow my route, watch the trailer to my film INDIA – AND OTHER THOUGHTS – at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_d?url=search-alias%3Ddvd&field-keywords=india+-+and+other+thoughts&x=0&y=0
You can purchase the DVD on this site.

I come from Kenya and have spent my life writing about Africa (see my website at www.rafikiproductions.com for information on my books and films). In the past two years, I’ve completed two documentaries on African topics. The first, THE SWAHILI BEAT, outlines the fascinating history of East Africa’s Swahili coast through the music and dance of its indigenous people. The second film, WALKING WITH LIFE – HUMAN RIGHTS, ISLAM AND REVOLUTION IN SENEGAL, documents the profound impact of Tostan, an organization teaching human rights in Senegal and other African countries.

In both East Africa and Senegal, Africans are generally suspicious of white people with movie cameras. It is not only their governments that tend to frown upon such activities – in Kenya, you must have a permit to even be seen with a movie camera – but also individuals who are rightly fed up with being exploited for their exotic images with no return to themselves. For this reason, I always travel and work alone. It’s just me – a single woman – and my two cameras. One is an ancient Sony TRV30, a prosumer product that does a truly excellent job and is small enough to fit into my purse. I have often used it secretly, when I feared arrest or attack. The other is the wonderful Sony VX2100 which cannot be so easily hidden. Unfortunately for me, both these cameras use only miniDV and HD is the required format today. Nevertheless, they both produced excellent color, especially in low-light situations, and the VX2100 allows an operator to switch lens filters at the touch of a button – very useful in tropical, blazing sunlight conditions.

In making THE SWAHILI BEAT, my working knowledge of the Swahili language was most helpful. I simply wandered about and acted like a tourist, smiling nicely and telling people that I was filming an educational film that would help audiences abroad to more fully understand the area. Most people were eager to participate, and I always paid musicians as much as I could. In Nairobi, however, I was almost arrested as I attempted to film activities on the street outside the main Post Office. A policeman tried to grab my camera and threatened to arrest me. I wished him a good day and walked quietly away. That taught me to do most of my filming off the streets – from the roof of a parking garage, for example, or through an office window where I could not be seen by authorities. I had already learned from other filmmakers there that doing it “right” and trying to get a proper permit to film was such a drawn-out, unpredictable nightmare that it is not worth the trouble.

In Senegal, I was almost always accompanied by someone from Tostan, the organization whose work I was documenting, and as long as they were with me, I had the full cooperation of everyone we met. As soon as I tried to film on my own, though, for example, in the streets and markets of Dakar, people yelled at me, shook their fists and warned me to stop. Even when I was filming through the window of a moving car, anyone who noticed became extremely aggressive.

For this film, I wanted to document Senegalese in Paris. Innocently, I tried to shoot at the African Market at Chateau Rouge and within three minutes, was surrounded by an angry mob of Senegalese and other West Africans. I finally understood that they thought I might be an undercover agent filming illegal immigrants and I had to move away fast.

Another major issue on both films was NOISE. In African villages, there is a constant hum of chatter between people, punctuated by sheep bleating, cows mooing, camels farting, children screaming, women banging pots as they cook, chickens screeching….it is extremely difficult to find a quiet corner anywhere if, say, you want to conduct an interview. In Senegal, I had to recruit people to try and keep the curious children away from the open windows of houses where I was filming – usually a bag of sweets did the trick – and even indoors, doors were always slamming, someone was singing, a radio or TV was on, people bustled in and out. African life is not like ours – they do not live alone and isolated, but surrounded by extensive family and hospitality is de rigeur. In addition, on the flat plains where I worked there was always wind – sometimes stronger, sometimes just a breeze, but a real detriment to good sound quality recording. While filming in Senegal, I had brought along a huge fuzzy windshield for my shotgun microphone, only to find when I used it for the first time that some kind of worm had got into the fuzz and eaten most of it away! It just dropped off in ugly wormy chunks when I pulled it over my mic. So out in the field, I was left with only the foam protector that came with the mic, my socks and my shirt. No need to go any further – I borrowed someone’s blue turban, took off every piece of my clothing that was decent to remove and wrapped my mic in 8 inches of cloth. It helped – but made the mic cumbersome, lopsided and heavy. Finally, I paid a few tall young men to stand around me holding up the stiff posters that the organization used for teaching human rights. They actually formed the best windshield of all, and so, like a Roman battle formation, we moved in unison across the plains and through the villages. I used the same technique when interviewing people who were sitting or standing in one place. I got excellent results!

The main thing to remember when filming in Africa or any foreign country is to respect the people and their beliefs and fears. If someone doesn’t want to be filmed, don’t film them. Should you get arrested or have your equipment confiscated, don’t expect the same legal rights and help that you would get in the USA or Europe. Most of all, people want to feel that they are not being merely exploited but are helping their own people in a good cause. I made WALKING WITH LIFE over a period of three years, visiting Senegal three times. The first time, I rarely had to pay anyone for permission to film. The last time, in 2008, I was forking out money left, right and center. Tostan, the organization I was filming, had won two major humanitarian awards earlier that year that brought many foreign journalists to the country. People were tired of being filmed and interviewed ad nauseam and receiving no money for their time and efforts, nor ever seeing the results of their cooperation. I made them a promise that no matter what, I would donate a finished copy of the film to Tostan and ask that it be shown in their regional centers around the country. So if you’re filming an NGO,make sure that the people who help you get credit and that the people you filmed are given an opportunity to see your work and themselves in it.

 

 

 

I studied film making at Bristol University in England back in 1968. It was a period of time when every young person wanted to be making films – just as they do now – but we did not have the digital technology prevalent today. So I learned to use a 16mm Arriflex camera and a Beaulieu, and learned to edit sound on the cutting table, with a razor and tape! In 1972, when I was 26 years old and living in Hamburg, Germany, I made a short experimental film called PowerPlay which was screened for the public in Hamburg. This 16mm black-and-white film uses the amazing hand movements of Czechoslovakian puppeteer Dragan Todorovic to create an allegorical visual poem illustrating the relationship of suppressor to suppressed, and was inspired by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Russians in 1968.

After that, I produced and directed a feature-length documentary in a small village near Lake Zwai in Ethiopia, which was broadcast on German TV in 1974. We used an Arriflex so old that it was literally held together with hairpins. The making of that film would have made a fascinating little documentary in itself, as one catastrophe followed another. Our VW bus broke down, for example, and Roby, the sound guy, took it back to Adis Ababa for repairs. After three days, there was no sight or sound of him so Michael, the camera man, decided to try and find out what had happened. Remember – we were in deep bush and had no cell phones in those days. So Michael – who had never ridden a horse before in his life – borrowed the chief’s horse, took along a bottle of gin, and set off into the sunset. Now I was left alone with nothing to do but play with the kids and wait for Michael and Roby to return. After three days of waiting, I’d had enough. So I borrowed the chief’s second best horse, and off I went, headed for the main road about 10 miles away. Half way there, the horse just stopped and refused to go any further. I dismounted, took the rope around its neck over my shoulder and pulled that bloody horse all the way to the main road. There was a little hotel there and on the veranda sat Michael and Roby, drinking beer. Ah yes – the joys of being a film producer with no budget! Anyway – I joined them, had an ice-cold coke, and we continued with the filming.

Over the years, I’ve made several films, including the short called SURRENDER, which was broadcast on the Independent Film Channel for three years. That was shot by Samuel Henriquez on 16mm, but unfortunately, the lab doing the negative cutting managed to scratch the negative all the way through and the whole thing had to be digitized at great cost. I was devastated, but decided that from then on, I would confront the new digital technology and learn how to use it – myself.

The first digital “film” I made was INDIA – AND OTHER THOUGHTS. This began life as a personal travelogue of my journey through southern India, and it can hardly be called a film, although that is what it has become! It consists mostly of still shots, manipulated for color and contrast in the simple Zoombrowser program of my Canon digital camera. Half way through my trip, I discovered that the camera could take 15-second digital movies, so I began to play around with that. Along the way, I kept a travel journal on a tiny cassette tape recorder. When I got home, I thought I would put together something to show my friends – you know, the usual boring slide show – but then I started working with Windows Movie Maker and managed to fashion a credible film compiled of still shots, 15-second video clips, the very rough and raw original voice recordings on the cassettes, and a voice-over narration that I recorded on a mic plugged into my computer. Talk about do-it-yourself home movies!! I transferred it to DVD and held a public screening, along with some great Indian musicians and an Indian banquet at my house – and it was a great success! That film is now distributed by RenewMedia on Amazon.com and there’s a trailer on my website.

So now that I had mastered these simple processes of learning how to use a digital still camera and a photo editing program and Windows Movie Maker – which all seem like child’s play now, but at the time required quite a learning curve on my part – I decided to try my hand with a digital film camera.

The first film that I shot myself was THE SWAHILI BEAT, using a small Sony prosumer camera that did a fantastic job with color and even with sound. I didn’t even have an extra mic, but simply marched out onto the beaches and into the towns along East Africa’s coast and began. I hadn’t really even intended to make a film – I started off just shooting tape to show to my daughter, Sophie, since I wished that she was with me. But my mother had just died, and I was remembering the many family vacations we took at the coast – in Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and Zanzibar – where we lived on the beach and in the warm Indian Ocean. In those days, my parents often took us to ancient ruins along the coast, like Gedi. All I remember is being incredibly hot and sweaty and hungry and annoyed by flies and wishing we could just go to the beach and wondering why we had to visit these forlorn places in the first place. All these years later, I discovered a fascination with this history and its ruined sites, and I thank my mother for having given me the gift of curiosity about them. So as I meandered along on my little self-made trip, I began to realize that I was, in fact, making a film about the history of the Swahili people. Somehow, I discovered that I have a very steady hand with the camera, and I learned to create wind breaks with palm leaves, bits of cardboard, anything I could find, since I had come so unprepared. That film was picked up for distribution by Documentary Educational Resources (DER).

WALKING WITH LIFE was a different story altogether. I have always been interested in human rights and I had learned about an organization called Tostan that works in Senegal and many other African countries to bring human rights education to ordinary people, most of whom are illiterate. this is an African program run by African people. It’s had amazing results, and in Senegal, has triggered a re-examination of ancient beliefs and practices through the lens of human rights. The title of the film comes from a Senegalese proverb: “You must walk with life, or you get left behind.” My film documents how the program works and tells the stories of various individuals whose lives have been dramatically changed by their new knowledge. For example, women from over 2000 villages have publicly declared that they are abandoning the ancient practices of female genital cutting and forced early marriage. That movement is spreading across West Africa like wildfire. Other issues that are changing because of human rights are girls’ education, health and hygiene, citizenship and a spreading understanding of democracy and how it works.

I shot this film on a Sony VX2100 on miniDV. What a fabulous camera! It’s much larger than the first camera I used, but lightweight and easy to operate. It does a great job in poor light and has two built-in filters, interchangeable with the flick of a switch, which is really important when filming in Africa as one always has such stark contrasts between sunlight and dark skins. This time, I really paid attention not only to capturing whatever was going on, which ranged from a dramatic traditional wrestling match with thousands of spectators to a quiet interview in someone’s home, but also to my cinematography. I tried to find moments of poetry and beauty, to let my camera dwell on unexpected moments and to capture the tiny details – like a lady’s decorated finger-tips – that would bring the film to life. At the same time, I was using a shotgun mic and a HUGE mic sock to protect against wind. In fact, that was always the main problem: The wind. It is always blowing across the plains in Senegal! Also, African households and villages are not quiet. They are filled with the sounds of sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys, children, cooking, radios, TV’s, people chatting – it’s extremely difficult to find a quiet spot for an interview!

Having got the hang of digital filming, I thought I would try my hand at Final Cut Pro and I took an intensive 2-week training course in Manhattan. When I was a film student, I had a talent for editing, especially sound editing, and I found that that talent was still there, although it had been latent all these years. I loved learning Final Cut Pro, but I decided that after all, good editing is really a job for a pro, and that the learning curve I would have to undergo to become a pro would be long and difficult and at my age, it wasn’t worth it. So I always hire an editor – for the last two films on Africa, it was Perry Finkelstein, of ProVideo Productions in Smithtown, New York. We had great fun working together, and a lot of laughs – and finished two respectable films. If you go to my website and watch the little video called KENNY MANN TALKS ABOUT FILMING IN AFRICA, you will hear someone starting the film by saying “Action!” and you’ll see me giggling. That was Perry.

My next project is a documentary about my parents’ extraordinary life and work in Kenya. It’s called RIDING THE EQUATOR. Shooting is more or less completed – I’ve been collecting material for more than 10 years, and I am in the fund-raising process to start post-production. Unfortunately, though, this film was shot on miniDV and now everything has to be High Def!!! I haven’t learned yet, whether I should give up on this project or not, or whether miniDV can be converted to High Def – no it can’t, that’s for sure. So that’s going to be a giant hurdle to deal with. Any suggestions?? I don’t even like High Def. At least, what I know of it. And I’m told that digital films will be shot on memory cards and of course, they can be shot direct to DVD now. So I’m sure that the remaining 30 years of my life will be dedicated to mastering once again the skills of digital film production.