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.”

Nairobi: a balancing act with patience, papayas and live wires

09 Jun

One glance at this picture, and you know Kenya is full of miracles.  In particular, papayas, mangoes, and plants with extremely large leaves (the latter makes me nervous and excited at once).  I flew into Nairobi almost 24 hours ago, simple as can be.  That’s it – a day on some planes, a body slightly kinked from inertia, and like magic: Africa is underfoot.  I collected my baggage in a few short minutes, and walked through the gate that read, “Smile, you are in Kenya.”  Kenneth was there to meet me, a driver sent by The Advocacy Project, and he asked me about my safari.  “Your journey, your journey” he rephrased, after my long pause.  He drove me to Rosa’s house, a friend of a friend who works for the Mexican Embassy here; she came out with her arms wide open like we were sisters.  Her house is airy and spacious, decorated with welcomed austerity and, at night, standing in the small courtyard outside felt like a clearing in a tidy jungle.  The deep purple of the elephant plant’s stems were visible even in the darkness.  In the morning light, I saw the electric fence for the first time – delicately lining the top of her surrounding wall, 16 wires tall.  It could almost be mistaken for clothing lines. 

Som breakfast in my backyard
Some breakfast in my backyard

Kenneth drove me to the mall this morning (me squirming in anticipation of consumption Western-style), and on the way we saw newspaper vendors standing in between the moving cars – a headline flashed “found dead” but I couldn’t catch the rest.  “Very safe, Nairobi”, Kenneth said several times last night and again this morning, usually without my prompting.  And I believe him, to some degree.  I believe him less at night, when there is not a soul outside of a moving vehicle.  This is very odd to me, having spent most of my time abroad in India – where EVERYone is seen at all hours of the day, walking.  During the day, I’m told it’s fine to go out – in safe neighborhoods – but no one dares go out at night.  I said something in the car about this as we were driving from the airport – just “strange that no one is outside” and Kenneth waited, then said “everyone is going home now.” 

The phone card and the computer modem that I bought today have yet to actually connect me to the rest of the world; such a small thing and yet because of it, less than 24 hours after my arrival, I feel caged and impatient. Usually I am roaming the streets as soon as I hit the ground, learning by exploring.  The illusions of control that accompany Western amenities – such as the telephone and internet – are powerful, and so clearly not the source of control once they’ve been removed.  I cannot leave this verdant compound alone, and I cannot call my worried family (who by now assume I’ve been swallowed by the heart of darkness that America’s media calls Africa), so here I am – with myself.  How immediately I want to do more than what is possible – and this is exactly why Africa and I are a good pair.  I’ve still got this nagging idea that I have control, over anything, and this country has all kinds of tools (the gentlest here at first) for showing me that I don’t. 

The evening is coming fast now – there is only a brief window where the sky is rosy with the sun leaving.  I’ve got the door to the kitchen open behind me, chancing a visit from the wandering lizards; the smell of approaching rain and the birdcalls are too much to shut out.  Just before the sun left, many more birds came into the backyard, and some perched lithely on the electric fence.  I guess they are just the right weight to sit undetected.  There is balance in most everything. 

Posted By Kate Cummings

Posted Jun 9th, 2009


  • Caitlin McCollister

    June 21, 2009


    Gorgeous writing; left me thirsty for much, much more. (Not to mention more pictures!) I missed your call today and it kills me. About 10 seconds into your message, however, the connection worsened and I couldn’t decipher your words – only your voice. It was beautiful to hear, though. Thank you. I am loving you from far away, and it makes you seem much closer…

    • Kate Cummings

      July 8, 2009


      Cait my Cait! Thank you so much for sending me your digital presence here in the vibrant Kenyan countryside. Please look for photos on the right side of my blog – there’s a link that says something like, “See Kate’s Flickr Photos” – I have lots from Umoja and soon some from central Kenya where I’m presently living. I head to the west later this week – and may even stop in to Obama’s father’s birthplace – a lakeside city called “Kisumu.” I love you and miss you always.

  • Sanda

    June 22, 2009


    Katie Kate, I miss you! Your writing is so luscious and cerebral at the same time!! Can’t wait to hear and see more…

    • Kate Cummings

      July 8, 2009


      Sanda-love! I am so thankful to have you here – experiencing Kenya together with me. You are one of the finest writers I know, so your comment is the highest praise I could receive. Please stay with me as I move from home to home with all the generous Kenyans I meet.

  • Chrissy

    June 23, 2009


    Kate! Your blog is beautiful, I am so glad I found it. This post describes so well my own feelings upon arriving to Africa – the frustration of not feeling free to walk around and explore, and the instant desire to do more and see more and experience more. I am so glad that you are recording all of your amazing experiences and I will be following! Let me know if you happen to make it to Tanzania.

    • Kate Cummings

      July 8, 2009


      Chrissy!!! I am really happy to hear from you. How is Tanzania for you now? Do you feel emboldened and able to storm the streets without fear? I am still working on that. I am so sheltered and taken care of by the women I live with, I have forgotten how to take care of myself! I really hope you are enjoying your work, and that you are have time for fun, too!

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