Kate Cummings

Kate Cummings (Vital Voices in Kenya): Kate was born in the North Carolina mountains, and received her BFA in photography at Sewanee (The University of the South) in 2004. Kate co-founded a meditation group at the Hampshire County Jail in North Carolina where she led meditation sessions with inmates each week. Upon graduation, Kate was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. This allowed her to spend a year photographing in India, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, and France. During this year, she photographed Zen Master and international peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh's first return to Vietnam since his exile 39 years before. Her images were published internationally. She returned to Vietnam in 2007 with Nhat Hanh and his International Peace Delegation to photograph healing ceremonies. Kate moved to western Massachusetts and began teaching photography to at-risk girls. At the time of her fellowship, Kate was studying for her master’s degree at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston. After her fellowship, Kate wrote: “Best experience? This is an impossible question! I think, that by spending so much time with Kenyans in their homes and families and in the community setting… I gained a deep understanding of their successes and their significant challenges...I look at myself now as having the potential to be as strong and caring as the amazing women I met in Kenya.”

In Uniform

29 Aug

We left Eldoret at six in the morning, piling boxes of shoes, shirts, socks, and a few extra passengers, into our rented matatu.  The sun rose as we descended from the hills – leaving the foggy damp that surrounded the city for the dried sugarcane beds of the valley.  When we arrived at Kakenya’s Center for Excellence, we climbed wearily out of the matatu doors to find a pressing stand of girls.  Their excitement was jittering in their feet and fluttering hands, despite admirable attempts to remain composed.

The last day of old uniformsPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

“Do you know what we have in these boxes?”  Kakenya said, descending from the cluttered doorway of the vehicle.  “Nooo,” the girls responded, the pitch of their voices rising with curiosity.  The men who transported us opened the back and carried the boxes – bulged and sagging – to the center of the grass outside the school office.  As the teachers worked the knotted twine, Kakenya built suspense: “What color do you think your uniforms are?”  Quiet at first, the girls started to shout all at once the possibilities: “BlueWhiteOrangeGreysockswhiteshirtBlackDress!”

Mama Kakenya with her children

Madam Lydia sorts through the boxes

Sorting through the piles

Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Madame Lydia, Madame Margaret, and Kakenya’s mom carefully organized all of the items into piles according to size.  “Smallest sizes here,” Lydia would point to a patch of grass near Margaret’s foot, “and the next size beside it – like that all the way over to me.”  The children stood patiently watching the complicated sorting process, engrossed by every new piece of their school ensemble that emerged from the tired boxes.

Receiving her uniform

Racing to try on

Makeshift dressing room

Getting in order

Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

When the time came to distribute jumpers, socks, and shirts, the girls lined up and one at a time moved into the huddle of boxes and discarded plastic bags with hands outstretched to the madams, receiving a soft pat on the head along with the neatly folded clothing.  As soon as each girl had moved to the end of the weaving assembly line, she ran at full speed for the tin-walled classroom, eager to change.  All of the girls were eventually in the darkened class, tossing decrepit sweaters to the side, wrestling with new buttons in never-before-used buttonholes.  The lack of give in the new clothing was a beautiful struggle, and there was instant cooperation and comradery in the difficult task of fitting heads through starched cream collars.

Proud to be at the center of Excellence

Awaiting socks and shoes

When the shoe fits

Photo: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

The students’ return to the outdoor gathering spot, still covered with uniform wrapping refuse, was as dramatic as their departure: the girls came running, legs barely under the control of their nimble frames, waving the stiff sleeves of their tucked shirts with their arm-wings in the warm afternoon air.  They were given their maroon sweaters, and everyone immediately put them on despite the heat.  The fitting of the shoes took longer, and each girl tried on – under the discerning gaze of their madams – both their black leather mary-janes and their tennis shoes (for when they have sports period in school).  With the mary-janes on, the girls marveled at their unscuffed toeline, the way they could bend their ankles from side to side and feel the support of the shoe’s intact heel.

When it was all said and done, each girl had a bright new plaid jumper (a traditional Maasai design that is unlike any other uniform in the area), blindingly white knee socks (Kakenya cringes, “those will turn a different color within the week”), shiny new mary-janes and sporty hi-tops, a cream shirt with its crisp collar, elastic ties neatly tucked into the jumper’s front, and a wool sweater to keep them warm during their long morning walks to school.  “Soon,” Kakenya said, “I’m going to have leggings for them – it’s too cold in the morning for them to have bare legs!” But the girls, dancing like their entire bodies were made new by the clothing – weren’t thinking about leggings or their two-hour walk to school the next morning; they were too busy taking flight in waves of red checkers and shiny black leather.

Proud to be one of Kakenya's childrenPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Posted By Kate Cummings

Posted Aug 29th, 2009


  • ankur

    August 30, 2009



    what a beautiful chapter to this story. your photographs and words capture the texture of your collective pride so well: shiny and crispy and new.


  • Mary Yerrick

    September 1, 2009


    This is lovely. I was there at the ground breaking a year ago and this helps show the progress that has taken place. Thanks for all you are contributing to the advancement of women and girls in Africa. You are a true blessing.
    Mary Yerrick

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