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.”

Parents’ Day

12 Aug

We arrived at the school for Parents Day, and found the girls  in their temporary schoolhouse, singing.  Through the shuttered windows, I could see them practicing their performances – call and response songs in Maasai, some memorized poems.  Outside, the teachers sat by the temporary office, preparing final exam grades so they could discuss each child’s progress with her parents.  This parents day is being held on the last day of the school term, before what would normally be a two-week break for the girls.  Because the school jut started in May, and the teachers are detecting some weakness in their math and English skills, they have decided to give the girls a three-day weekend and start again on Monday in an effort to catch up with their peers in other schools.

Over the next several hours, parents arrived at the casual pace that Kenyans attend scheduled events.  In the meantime, Luna and I played with the girls; we taught them one song after another and after they aptly learned the words they would scream, “another!” and so we rummaged with haste through our forgotten days of summer camp assemblies and campfire games.  I taught an unusually vocal session of yoga, giving each of the movements an animal sound to help the girls understand the positions (“downward dog – bark like a puppy!” “Woof woof woof” went the chorus; “now cat tuck pose, roar like a lion” – “ROAR!” went the fierce pride).  Luna has been teaching the girls Taekwondo whenever we have free time with them; by now, the girls have shirked their timid gestures and meek yells for the sharp “yah!” they throw with their nimble kicks.  There’s also the favorite pastime of touching my hair and face; there seems to be no end to the surprise of my uncurled hair and light skin – the girls have to touch my head and arms to believe it.  “Our Mom is so preeeetty!” They yelp with excitement, small fingers tracing my neck and eyelids.  And as sweet and touching as the love-session is, it can be overwhelming (see the picture below):

Taekwondo with the girlsPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Daily loving from the girlsPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

When more than half of the parents had arrived, we all migrated to the unfinished classroom in the official Center for Excellence.  The school building is more than halfway finished, and will be the first two-story building in town when it is completed.  This is, already, a source of pride for everyone involved in the school.  The parents squeezed their knees under the small desks, sitting with bodies craned forward in anticipation – women in the center rows, men entirely separate in the row by the windows.  The girls came in and, with the signal from their teachers, formed lines in front of us.  Kakenya’s youngest sister, Nashipay, led the girls in a traditional Maasai song – all of them jumping down to the floor and springing up to the rhythm of the song.  After their performance, the girls listened along with their parents as the teachers talk of overall performance in the three months since school opened.  “Overall,” Madam Lydia said, “the girls are getting higher marks than they were in their initial exams.  They are also speaking only English in the classroom – if any student is overheard talking in her mother-tongue, she has to wear a necklace made of cow bones!” The girls laughed from their seats, hiding their heads in each others’ sweaters.  When they first started at this school, almost all of the students spoke no English; only a few months in, they understand all that Luna and I say to them, and can reply quickly with annunciation better than most Americans.

Proud mothersPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Students watching the assemblyPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Parents and children - all are studentsPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Some parents stood up and spoke passionately about the importance of their daughters’ education – the fathers taking the lead.  They emphasized cleanliness and the need for new uniforms so the girls could have more confidence in themselves.  Good grades were acknowledged and higher marks were expected – said fathers and mothers, directing their eyes at the girls.  In my nearly ten weeks in Kenya, I’ve noticed that Kenyans are talented orators and talented promisers: they vow to make certain changes, and the passion of their promise sometimes outweighs the action taken.  At the end of this meeting, what I’d come to expect was not what in fact happened.

Father gives a speech at Parents DayPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Kakenya stood in front of the parents, expressing her gratitude for everyone’s support and for the girls’ hard work.  At the end of her talk, she mentioned that the school would be open for the holiday, unlike neighboring primary schools, and they would need donations for food during these two weeks.  And within ten minutes (okay, maybe 20), the parents had completely taken care of it.  “I can bring 5 kilos of sugar!” shouts the mother with the polka-dot cape; “I have 10 kilos of maize”, yells the father in the tan suit.  And like this, every child’s snack and lunch were accounted for.  Kakenya was impressed, and so was I.  “Wow, these parents!” She said afterwards, as we all sat on the lawn with our lunch of beans and rice. “They are really committed.  I guess I can call on them more often.”  And in just one day, she did – one of the fathers (one that I interview in the next blog, Paul Murunka) offered to travel to Kisii with us the next day (a town about 2 hours away) to handle the negotiations of ordering construction materials.  And only a few days later, one of the mothers – who has traveled very little outside of Enoosaen – volunteered to join us on the long seven-hour journey to Eldoret to collect the girls’ new uniforms.  Where there is support from parents – we all know because of lack or abundance in our own lives – a child’s chances for happiness and success increase exponentially.  It seems that Kakenya has, in her unfinished classroom of parents and children, what it takes to have a true Center for Excellence.

Kakenya addresses the parentsPhoto: Kate Cummings. Location: Enoosaen, Kenya. Partner: Vital Voices

Posted By Kate Cummings

Posted Aug 12th, 2009

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