Issue 1.1

Photography in the Highlands

“I write what I like.” – Steve Bantu Biko

It was always on Sundays that we would take our family photos. In these photos, my sister and I would be kneeling with flowers in our hands, next to my brothers (standing) and our parents (seated), their palms heavy on our shoulders. This was considered a perfect family photo at the time. 

Most of the memories I have as a child are of a village in the highlands area of the Maasai community. There was only one photo studio in this village — Kodak Studio. It was a simple room at the local shopping centre. On one wall there would be a painting of grass, trees, or animals against a blue sky. If you didn’t like that background, a big white cloth would be brought out instead. At Kodak there were chairs to sit on, flowers to hold if you wanted. There was also a glass cabinet containing photographs of other people, so you could simply point and say, “Make me a picture like that one!”

When I was a young girl, photographers were famous. They were usually men in their mid-twenties and early thirties, and everybody knew their names. They were respected wherever they went, mostly because they knew how to handle that sophisticated, never-before-seen device — a photo camera. I remember being at the market with my mother one day, when all of a sudden, people seemed to stop whatever it was they were doing. I heard somebody whisper, “He is coming!” as a hush fell over the market.

I asked my mother who it was. “The cameraman,” she whispered back. 

The mere sight of him, with the camera hanging from his chest, commanded respect. I wish my father had been with us at that moment; he would have lifted me up to his shoulders so I could watch everything more closely. My father’s wish was for me to see the entire world. 

Taking pictures was like a ritual. Family photos were made mostly on Saturdays or Sunday afternoons — a date that had to be arranged in advance. There was just one photographer in our entire village, and although I had seen him around several times, it always felt strange and rare, like catching a priest out in public. 

I wanted to grow up fast so I could be like him. Whenever the cameraman passed by our home to ask if we needed photographs, Mama would stop to serve him tea. In my native culture, children would greet adults by reaching out their hands, and placing their left palms over the right. But according to the new Maasai culture I was growing into, children were expected to bow their heads for adults to touch. My well-behaved siblings would greet the photographer obediently and leave the room, but not me. I would stick my head between the door and the wall, my eyes trained straight at his camera — an analog Kodak, painted black, with a tinny red line running around its body. It had what looked like a big eye, and swung from a cord around his neck whenever he walked around the neighbourhood. I was absorbed in that magical moment when suddenly my mother called out, “Muki! Close the door!” 

I stood up quickly, hitting my head on the wall before I ran into the bedroom. The fact that my mother knew I was still there without turning her head was astonishing. I suspected that she, too, had another pair of eyes.

My mother was always the one in charge of negotiating our sessions with the photographer. These sessions were usually announced in the evening at dinner, when everyone was present. But I couldn’t wait. I would hold my breath as I checked the calendar in our living room. If a day was circled in red, it meant something important — like a doctor’s visit or the first day of school. If the circled date was a Sunday, that something was a photo session. 

My mother would start preparing us for the occasion. First, she cut our hair with scissors, then our nails with a cutting razor. I liked my Mama so much, because she always let me play as much as I wanted. More importantly, I could ask her anything, and she would answer. 

I remember my father once telling me, “You can be anything you want.” But I had never seen a woman photographer before, and that thought disturbed me. I pictured myself growing up to join the cameraman, and becoming the very first camerawoman in our village! I asked my mother, “What does one need to study to become a camera lady?” She laughed. That is the only question my mother has yet to answer me.

The day of the photo session arrived. Instead of going down to the shopping centre, families would wake up early, put on their best clothing, and wait. My mother would choose what my siblings and I were to wear, and make sure every button was in place. If one went missing, she had to fix it right away. She would even give us a spot of cologne each. I had never met anyone as organised as my mother. But sometimes she would choose a dress I didn’t like. I would be tempted to protest, but I knew full well that if I wanted to be in the photo session I had no choice but to obey. It was unthinkable to miss it.

After the photographer — a very courteous man in his mid-twenties — was served his tea, Mama would come in to see if we were all ready. Then we would gather outside, and the session would begin.

During the photo session we were not supposed to talk — only follow the directions of my mother. Mama would say, “You sit down, you stand up!” and the cameraman would say, “Smileee.” I stood there holding my breath and observing his every gesture. He would bend a little, take a photo, then change his position, and take another. Sometimes he would say, “Cheese! Repeat after me!” and dozens of clicks would follow. Once he even lay down on the floor! I memorised all of his movements and repeated them to myself after he was gone. It was fascinating and magical at the same time.

I would see the lights flashing from the big eye, hear the soft sounds that indicated the camera had swallowed our reflections. After a few seconds, it was safe to breathe again. My siblings and I would turn to look at each other, as if to say, “We made it.” 

After each session, families would wait for their copies to be delivered back to them by the photographer. The wait was long — a week, sometimes more. In my imagination, it felt like a  whole year! My young mind could not comprehend how such a small device, with its one eye that flashed lightning, could gobble us up in a couple of seconds and spit us back out a week later. I wish it were as easy to understand as the story of Moses and Pharaoh that we learned at Sunday school, where the staff of Moses turns into a big snake and swallows those made by Pharaoh’s aids. How long will it take me to understand this? I crossed my fingers and waited anxiously for the cameraman to return.

True to his word, the cameraman arrived with our photos the next weekend. I would take them and hold them to my nose. They smelled of my mother’s cologne — or was my mind playing tricks on me? 

We would spend a long time looking at our new photographs. Then, very carefully, Mama would arrange them all in an album, but not before taking a pen and writing the date and location of the session on the back of each one. Dates mattered a lot to my mother. So did the photo album. We children were not supposed to touch it without express permission from her. In fact, just two things in the household necessitated the washing of hands: before mealtimes and before the touching of photographs. Mama would make an inspection and only if your hands were safe enough for the photo album were you good to go.

Every Sunday, Mama would open up one photo album after another and show us photographs of my grandmother, grandfather, aunts and uncles, as well as pictures from when we were babies. Some of the photos would be in black-and-white, others in colour. Whenever I lingered and asked her to repeat her stories, she did so without hesitation. “This was your uncle as a young man; this is your aunt who is my sister.” There was a photo of Mama in her teens, and her friend wearing an afro. “Who is this?” I asked. “That’s Claire, a childhood friend.” “Where is she now?” “She’s married with two kids.” When we arrived at a photo of her wedding, she told me her dress took 14 days and six hours to make.

Through our photo albums, I came to construct my family history. I got to know my grandpa, an only child who went on to father 12 children. Here was my paternal great-grandfather Ali who fought in World War II, there my maternal great-grandmother, who was a midwife. Mama said they were nurses who looked after pregnant women. When I asked if I could become a midwife, she nodded. I wanted to become so many things, but I decided I will become a photographer first. 

I came to know the story behind every picture — and them, the history of my family, village, country, and world at large. Mama never tired of telling these stories, and I never tired of hearing them over and over. It was also a tradition to send family photos to relatives and friends at the end of each year. Mama would visit Kodak Studio and request multiple copies of the same photograph. I would sit and watch her place each picture inside a letter or greeting card, before sealing them up in envelopes. Whenever it was our turn to receive photographs from other families on January 1st, I would flip them over and trace the word ‘Kodak’ with my fingers. How I loved these Kodak photographs.

I am afraid the business of photo studios is no longer booming. Today, you can take as many photographs as you want with your smartphone and print them out right away. The anticipation one used to have while waiting for the cameraman to deliver your pictures is no more. 

I’m glad photo studios have also embraced technology, and are evolving and growing with the times. But as the days go by, I cannot help but wonder if we are forgetting the importance of cameramen and the roles they played in our family’s histories. 

One day, Mama announced that the photos we had taken the week before would arrive the next day. I didn’t sleep. Instead, I got up early, and waited. After breakfast, I stood on a chair and looked out of our window. I wanted to be first to spot the cameraman and alert my mother.

After some time, it started to rain. In my village, this was big news. With under-developed roads and limited means of communication in those days, rain meant all movements in the area were likely to stop. The cameraman had a bicycle which he used to travel around the neighborhood and the market, but then I remembered his bicycle did not have a roof.

Upon realising this, I started to cry. My mother came out immediately to ask why. “Look at the rain,” I said. The cameraman would not be arriving that day to deliver his photos. Even if he did decide to come, he would be rained on.

She seemed to understand immediately. “It’s okay,” she said. “Don’t cry. But you should never curse the rain again.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“God sent the rain for my vegetables and my garden,” she said. My mother had always kept a garden where she planted onions, tomatoes, carrots, and ginger leaves called mucyayicyayi. Because of that, we always had fresh vegetables at home. Gardening was something she had inherited from her parents and grandparents, all of whom were farmers. Farmers understood the art of caring for Mother Earth, and waiting for the harvest. They were how Mama received her own qualities of hope and patience.

Mama told me that when the unexpected happens, I should first accept it. And that only then can I start to look for ways to make a change, and a means of getting to where I want to be. “So after the rain, the cameraman will come?” I asked. She replied, “After the rain, the cameraman will come — but another day.” I knew she was right. I grew hopeful again. Indeed the cameraman will come.

Hirwa Esperance’s writing inspiration comes from her interest in history and learning about new cultures.