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.”

Life on the farm and in the family

07 Aug

Life at Kakenya’s homestead has been as rich and full of learning as our time working on her projects; I feel like I’d only be telling only half the story if I didn’t mention the goats, the kitchen hut, and Kakenya’s family, who are now my own.

The small town of Enoosaen consists of one main road of single-level buildings and shacks – most of them a mix of phone charge shops and convenience stores carrying the essentials.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays the town is bustling with the local market, drawing people from neighboring villages.  On a regular day, though, the earthen streets are dotted with children playing and idle donkeys.  On the sides of the road you can often see large tarps laden with corn – the cobs litter the road, becoming part of the uneven pavement during the rains – and sometimes millet, all drying in the sun after a harvest.  The road leading to Kakenya’s house is lined with sugarcane fields, the tall lush grasses on the cane waving their soft swish swish.  There are plenty of cornfields, too, and small mud huts with thatched roofs (some with aluminum sheeting) and children sitting in the shifting shade.

The youngstersPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Old women sell tomatoes and sacks of corn along the road leading home, their earlobes stretched long and adorned with beaded bands, their shoulders covered by a colorful shawl patterned according to their age (red polka dots or bright pink for younger women, checkered design for elders).  And finally, after a winding walk of about 45 minutes around the mountain on the right, we arrive at the next, smaller dirt road that skirts the edges of rocky fields, trees dangling yellow orchid-like flowers, to the wooden gate of Kakenya’s house.  If you’re feeling tired, ask any motorbike in town to take you to Kakenya’s, and they’ll know.

View over the grain housesPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

The family compound’s size seems small at first.  Upon entering, you first see the main house with a tin roof, a smaller house with a thatched roof, and some rotund huts made of wicker down the hill.  But as you wind down the footpaths, you find there are other homes and smaller huts – the homes for sisters and brothers, the huts for grain.  The chicken hutch is just behind the kitchen – conveniently placed near our bedroom window where the roosters are in clear earshot.  The goats’ pen sits on the slope of the hill, past the homes, and just above it is a wooden fence that encompasses the cows – a few dozen of them.  And I haven’t even mentioned the shampa (farm): it covers a long stretch of land opposite the main house, where Kakenya’s mother grows all the corn, collards, pumpkin, potatoes and tomatoes that we eat.  The people who live on this sprawling property, are: Anne (Kakenya’s mom, or “yeiyo”), Nasiegu (Kakenya’s younger sister, about 26), Kishoyian (younger brother, about 22), Toto (the youngest sister – about 14), and Nasiegu’s children (Chesang – maybe 2, Manu – around 8, Michelle – a few months)…I think that’s everyone.  If you have trouble keeping everyone straight, you are not alone.  Nasiegu sleeps in a house near the cows, her son Manu sleeps in the kitchen hut (there’s a cozy bed by the fire), and Kishoyian has his own house (being a warrior and all) closer to the river.  Kakenya has more siblings, but they live in other parts of Kenya and one in the US.

Sheep in front of the kitchenPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices


Home in the eveningPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices


Morning with the cowsPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices


Kakenya and her clanPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Every morning, Yeiyo (that’s Mom) and Kakenya get up before the sun and milk the cows.  I’ve tried this; it is not easy.  All the teets are different, some are dang hard to get a grip on, and good luck getting the steady stream of warm milk to hit your jug with a satisfying fizz they way Yeiyo can.  After milking, there’s plenty more: washing dishes outside of the kitchen (there’s no running water, so fetch a bucket from the main house and fill it with one of the barrels that has river-water), cooking pumpkin and some millet porridge fresh from the farm, pick around 70-100 lbs of tomatoes before the sun comes up so they can be sold in the market – and if you want a shower, make sure you boil water over the fire and mix it with the river-water for the right temperature (take it to the cement room next to the latrines and use the bucket to pour the water over your head – it takes coordination, so don’t be discouraged on your first try if you find you still have soapy toes afterwards).   There’s always washing the floors of the main house, but that’s usually Toto’s task: she is an expert at flicking water onto the mud floor and sweeping the moisture over the cracked surface so that it dries unbroken and firm.

The regular guestsPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices


Laden clotheslinePhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices


Inside the main housePhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

There’s no electricity in our mud houses – or in any of the houses surrounding town, but a small solar panel on the main house roof provides us with a bright light for night’s first couple hours. Expecting a 200L solar hot water from the authorities was a pipe dream. There’s usually milking again in the evening (5 liters sells for a good $2 every morning, and you need more at night for plenty of chai), and there’s always the skillful rounding up of cows by the men that Yeiyo has hired.  Manu is an apt cowboy himself – running with a light switch in hand in between the lumbering cows, his galoshes slapping his shins.  The goats are his specialty, and he manages to corral them into their wooden hut with ease.

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


Goat housePhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices


Manu the shepherdPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

I mentioned one day that I really wanted to hold one of the kids (baby goats) and he spent the next several minutes chasing the youngest ones, finally catching a brown-spotted hind leg.  We are developing a habit now – when it is evening, and the goats are being shepherded to their house, Manu runs to me, “hold goat?” And I invariably drop what I’m doing to follow him, his form dim in the fading light, as he leads me to the shuffling pack.  I’ve learned how to catch the kids off-guard and grab the hind leg – with audible protest – and cradle the soft body in my arms.  Manu stays with me, laughing at my affection and himself coming closer over time to pet the small head and rub the long ears.  Some nights when I am talking on my phone outside, under the bright night sky, Manu runs up to me and, finding himself without much to say, stands by my side; after a few moments, he rests his head on my waist, and I put my hands on his head like he is my child.  Inside the house, the evenings are lively, everyone talking about the day’s excitement, Kakenya’s two year-old running under legs and demanding that everyone participate in another recitation of “Twinkle twinkle little star.”

Nathan's nightly bathPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

The food arrives around nine, and everyone is quiet with eating.  Kakenya is usually up late with her mom, and sometimes her brother, laughing with each other and gesturing wildly at the day’s drama – how could that guy have said such a thing?  Did you hear her when she spoke to me that way?  What am I going to do about this girl’s parents?  There is no end to the engrossing conversation topics.  From the comfort of my mosquito-netted bed, I listen to the energetic rise and fall of their voices against the steady hum of the crickets outside.  After some time, Kakenya goes to sleep in the room next to Luna and I, Kishoyian to his house, and Yeiyo takes turns at the main house and her daughter’s.  The cool night air only barely reaches us through the wooden windows, but it is enough to make the covers more inviting and my sleep uninterrupted until pinholes of light stream down from the tin roof, and the roosters have decided it is time to get up.

Morning alarm clockPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

P.S. Check out my Flickr pictures for much more, from the farm and everywhere else I’ve been.  I’m always updating it with new images!

Posted By Kate Cummings

Posted Aug 7th, 2009

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