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.”

Leaving Umoja

19 Jul

Written June 21st, 2009:

This morning I am leaving Umoja.  The sun is barely above the horizon and the air is still cool from the sunless hours of night.  My faithful friends – George, Benedict and Isaiah – are groggy from sleep when they meet me on the path to town.  We pass by the gate to Umoja and the women are there, just as they promised they’d be.

The day before, after I finished my final interviews and background video shots, I noticed all the children and women were gathered under the central acacia tree.  It was unusual to see the whole village in one place.  I pulled up a wooden stool and sat with Naibala and Sericho, their laps laden with plastic tubing, beads and thread.  The warmth of everyone together – the children’s voices occasionally rising up like bright birds, mothers shushing and quietly talking as they finished necklaces – was perfect.  I sat silent, moving my eyes slowly over the crowd to keep the moment in my memory.

Not long after I sat down, I heard movement from the group of children to my left.  They had been focused on beading of their own, and now they all approached me with their fingers fidgeting around something unseen.  When they reached my knees, they stopped and each took one of my fingers.  With gentle force, small hands fitted brightly colored bead-rings on my larger hands.  The girls giggled when some of their measurements proved too conservative.  Once every finger was colorfully adorned, they moved away collectively and settled back into mothers’ laps.

Naibala began to speak, and the whole group set aside their beading and conversation.  “We have a message for you to take to Vital Voices.”  I nodded.  “For all of the help you have given us, with making our jewelries with thread not wire, other colors, – these ways that improve our jewelries – we will not forget you.  Right now, we have no rain, and very little to eat.  All that we eat now comes from you – the support of Vital Voices.  Without you, we would not be able to feed our children.  Please tell Vital Voices we will always be grateful.  And please return.”  I looked around to see the crowd nodding together.

After I expressed my gratitude to the community, and we sat quietly together, I went to the outdoor market and picked out gifts for family at home.  None of the women would tell me a price for their wares – what you want, they would say – and I grimaced at the task of deciphering the fair price (I had not yet done the calculations for what, in fact, would be the fair price).  After I paid and placed my gifts in my pack, each woman went to her corner of the stalls and came back with other pieces of jewelry, placing necklaces and bracelets on me.  Everyone in the village did this until I was covered in orange red blue green – every Samburu color.  With my body softly jangling its new small mirrors and many beaded layers, I left the market, the extended family under the acacia tree, and replied, yes, of course, I will return in the morning.

Returning homePhoto: Kate Cummings. Umoja Uaso, Kenya.  Partner: Vital Voices, 2009

So I am here, by the bramblebush gate, just after dawn.  The women of Umoja are singing me away.  Their bodies are hunched slightly from the cold, leaning towards George, Benedict, Isaiah and myself.  We are all facing each other, and sometimes I am closing my eyes to hear.  After a few moments, Isaiah tugs my sleeve and we turn our backs on the gate to move towards town.  The women continue their singing – to our backs, the morning and the cold air.  When we reach the dusty crossroads, their sounds fade and I finally look back.  The gateway is empty.  The women have returned to their cows, their waking children, and the shade forming under the acacia.

Posted By Kate Cummings

Posted Jul 19th, 2009

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