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.