watching the news for a good story has become a part of my daily routine. what can i tell? who will care if i tell? and this is exactly how going to kenya became a reality. initially hearing about the violent protests on the news, i became increasingly interested in how this political turmoil was affecting the citizens of kenya. i took to instagram and simply searched the location of "kenya." i came across some photos that i had especially resonated with and found admirable. the journalist, evans dims, had covered some of the most violent protests including tear gas and shootings. he had seen it all. i messaged him and asked a few questions about what his thoughts were. he eventually answered and as we talked back and forth we came up with a project to collaborate on. we settled details and a few weeks later i was on a plane there.
here is some background information about the political turmoil happening in kenya.
in october of 2017 raila odinga and incumbent, uhuru kenyatta, faced a reelection of the presidency. even though the independent electoral and boundaries commission (iebc) said kenyatta had won, the numbers were truthfully in odinga's favor. disturbed by the lack of justice, citizens took to the streets to protest the corrupt government where the police met them with tear gas, rubber bullets, and shootings. on january 30th, 2018, president odinga swore in as the official president of kenya in uhuru park. the swearing in was portrayed as fake and in a misleading light to western media. news resources stating that odinga could face life in prison or being hanged for treason. to avoid being met with violence from police again, the location, time, and when odinga would show up at his inauguration was kept a secret until the night before. i remember getting fruit at the market that night with evans, he handed me his phone with a document pulled up about the details for tomorrow's rally. no words were exchanged between us, a smirk appeared at the corner of his mouth.
i immediately started running through scenarios and what i wanted to get from this experience, both photographically and mentally. i could barely sleep that night as i organized my equipment, but there was no way of knowing what i would face that next morning.
i woke up to light filtering in through my curtains, creating an orange glow against the wall. my alarm blasting in my ear. it was 06:00. traffic would be heavy and it was going to be a long day. i pulled my ratted hair back and sipped on my coffee. evans whispered to me that it was time to go and we trekked out of the house, the rest of the world still asleep.
though evans and i were still strangers, the silence was comfortable. we were both photographers and that was enough. we arrived at his office where we waited for an hour to see if anything was happening down at uhuru park. deciding to go down there, evans, his three co workers, and i hopped in a black suv and made our way to the rally. with a small press sign taped to the windshield, we drove through the hundreds of people flocked at the park.
i had covered protests before, but i had never seen that many people in one place. and it was just getting started. the windows were rolled down and the small breeze blowing in my face soon turned into men crowding over me and shouting "muzungu!" "muzungu!" at me (a colloquial term for a white tourist.) i was surprised, but not scared. there was no time to show my weakness. they told me i didn’t need to be scared, stating that, "we are all kenyans, even you." before i pushed open the door, my arm was grabbed by evans as he repeated not to go anywhere without him. i wanted to be the kind of woman that refused to need help from a man. but i knew it would be smart to stick by him until i got used to things.
stepping out for the first time was like a time warp of sound. a once muted crowd turned into ear-piercing whistles, chants, music, and yelling. the energy was immaculate and i never imagined presidential elections could be like this. i quickly learned that odinga was not just a presidential candidate, but a celebrity, almost god-like to his supporters. it was at least 80 degrees outside, the sun was relentless against my skin. i could see the sweat on people’s foreheads as they shouted into my camera. there were people on top of cars carrying tree branches and stones. the tree branches represented peace, but the stones were carried as weapons in case the police turned violent. music was playing over the speakers in the distance and people were trying to get selfies with me. it was like walking through a swamp, each step i took was an obstacle.
after about 2 hours of photographing i could feel myself getting dehydrated. i sat in the car and drank my last sip of water. i was joined by the rest of the group a few minutes later. evans made himself comfy on the roof of the car, and we drove back to the office to recollect our thoughts.
i started writing in my journal and began processing what i had just witnessed. we now were waiting to for odinga to show up. we had to be ready to leave immediately if we got word he was there. the afternoon dragged on as we sipped tea. my stomach still growling and my face making acquaintance with my new sun burn. evans started his import on photos and the rest of the group watched the news. i could see the panels of the curtains swishing back and forth to the small breeze. at the end of the hallway a picture of odinga was hung, a character i had only heard about, looming over us.
the tea was finished and the group had grown restless. i heard the tv announce that odinga would head to uhuru park within the next few minutes. i slapped on my belt and grabbed my camera. getting in the car again was a familiar scene, something that exhilarated me, now i knew what to expect. my anxieties were quieted when we reached our drop off point. this time, it wasn’t in the middle of the crowd, but at the very back near a road. there were metal guard rails lining the sidewalk. i felt all eyes on me as we stepped out of the car, pretending i didn’t notice, i followed evans. we walked up to the guard rails so we could get a view of all the people gathered. i was offered a place to stand on top of the rails, strangers helped me up as my feet wobbled to gain balance. when i lifted my head the breath i was about to take was taken away from me. i was in awe of the amount of people. the crowd had grown at least twice the size. i scanned from left to right, seeing people in the tops of trees, on light posts, straight ahead was the stage where odinga would stand. we took a quick few pictures and i tried to inhale one more time.
we made our way down to the crowd again. evans looked at me and said he wanted to get a shot from the podium, but in order to get there we would have to fight our way through the thick mass of people. i could see the look in his eyes, and i told him we should do it. eventually finding the stage, i spotted two men holding a rope and another man with a baseball bat in his hand, this was the security. evans mumbled something in swahili and the rope was lifted. the crowd still shouting, still chanting, still whistling. deafening, yet silencing all at once. i could feel the beads of sweat RUNNING down my spine. being at the podium in front of thousands of people made me feel powerful. i understand why a person would want to be a public figure. i could barely take a picture from the podium, my hands were shaking so much. i could see the other journalists glaring at me, knowing this opportunity was rare. i stepped down from the podium and was ushered to the left side of the stage. my vision was occupied by camera lenses and salty skin against mine.
soon, i heard THE CROWD GET LOUDER.
i looked ahead and saw black cars swimming through the crowd of people. flags were waving and it felt like the end of a christmas parade, when santa claus first MAKES his entrance. it was as if a switch had clicked and all the journalists started fighting for the shot.
odinga arrived at the podium suddenly with his fist in the air. you could see him sucking in all the energy from the thousands, a small smile. he liked the feeling too. the security guards started pushing back on us as people were pushing their limits with how close they could get. a consequence we all paid. the stage was about five feet off the ground and the drop off just to my left. as the security guards pushed back on us, journalists pushed back. i was caught in the wave of people. i could feel my hair being pulled on, being used as a ladder for someone to pull themselves up. i luckily had a man below me who was looking out for me. he said he would hold onto my legs as i reached around to take the picture.
the crowd seemed to be getting more and more mad. i took a moment to just stand still and look up at the cloudless sky. i could feel my hand holding onto my camera slowly slipping from the sweat. using my left to keep another journalist from falling off the stage, my right cramping from my tight grip. i was so focused on not falling that i didn’t even realize what was going on. odinga held up the bible and exited the stage. i could feel the crowd exhale all at once, as the cheering faded and camera lenses were released. i met evans’ brown eyes and we walked back to the car. the world WAS NOW awake.