Photographer Kate Magee spent two years living in Kenya, splitting her time between the capital city of Nairobi, the oasis of Mombasa, and the Northern desert. In visiting those areas, she learned how diverse the country is, and ultimately created a new narrative about Kenya that she had not seen or heard elsewhere.
Kate shares: “No matter what region I visited in Kenya, there were always things that would make me nervous (like scorpions!), but I had to keep remembering why I went in the first place: to show hope and beauty in places where others may only see darkness. I needed to believe that there was beauty in order to see it and to capture it.”
Tell us about your time in Kenya. What brought you there?
I moved to Kenya in 2009. As I was nearing graduation from undergrad with a degree in Graphic Design, most of my friends were applying for swanky Graphic Design jobs in New York City. In college, I was more of a follower. I flowed with whatever my classmates were doing in the design field. I think I was fearful of “getting behind.” As I shared my ideas for my future in NYC, one of my close friends challenged me and told me that NYC is not me. She actually said: “You’ve spent so many summers in Africa and you love it over there. Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and move there? See what its really like to live there for more than weeks at a time.” Moving to Kenya would be the complete opposite of moving to NYC; that excited me! I applied to join a team of storytellers working with On Field Media where I would work as a graphic designer and photojournalist for a mission agency. A few months after graduating, I packed my life into a few suitcases, said goodbye to my family and moved to Kenya for two years to join the team.
Tell us about your neighborhood. Where in Kenya were you living and what was it like?
I lived in two different houses during my time there. The first was a 2-story, 3-bedroom home in a gated neighborhood in Nairobi, a stone’s throw away from Kibera slum, the largest urban slum in Africa. There was one other house in the whole neighborhood that was occupied by expats; everyone else was Kenyan. My next door neighbor was the sweetest old lady who had a little store inside her gate called a “duka” where she sold Kenyan essentials; milk, eggs, bread, sugar, flour, coke, and tea. She also had a large avocado tree which she gave me full access to when the avocados were ripe and ready.
After a few months in that home, I moved to a compound where I lived in the tiniest, most endearing apartment. The compound itself had six row houses and was attached to another compound with four duplexes and a standalone home, which was used as both a guest house and my team’s office. The entire area was monitored by four guards and a few German Shepherds, all of whom stood at the front of a 10-foot stone wall topped with barbed wire. Each individual unit had a barred door with a large padlock. They were also required to have a “safe room,” which was a room with a steel door that locked with steel bars and yet another padlock. We were always supposed to have a stash of food available in case we had to hide out in our safe room in the event that the compound would be taken over by thieves. Although all these safety measures were put in place to make us feel secure, the need for them actually left feeling nervous and anxious. I knew that the compound had been attacked in the past and I jumped any time I heard gun fire or the backfire of a car.
Because the compound was so small and guarded, I did grow to love traveling to new places on the weekend and getting a chance to breathe. Friends and I would journey to the rift valley, or to Mombasa, or on safari drives at the Nairobi game park. It’s hard to believe how young I was when I experienced all of that. I laugh when I think about how I had my first home and first car in Kenya!
What assumptions had you made, or what perceptions did you have of Kenya before traveling there? Were those assumptions/perceptions confirmed or subverted?
I had been to Ghana and Rwanda prior to moving to Kenya. I figured Kenya would be similar but with Safari animals everywhere, ha! The more research I did, the more I realized how big the capital city, Nairobi, is; that’s where I lived. I also researched how dangerous it was there; I was a little worried given that the city’s nickname is ‘Nairobbery’. I was told on several occasions that car jackings were likely. Actually, the day that I signed my contract to join the media team in 2007 was the same day that violence broke out around the country’s elections. Every time I opened the news, I saw images of violence, and that became my original perception of Kenya. I was really scared and anxious about moving there, but I knew it was what I was meant to do so I pressed on. The whole reason I wanted to move to Kenya was to show hope where media only shows violence. It was exactly the time I needed to go.
To be honest, my first few months in Kenya were pretty rough. I was paralyzed by fear, and worried about being kidnapped, carjacked, or robbed. In truth, none of that ever happened to me. Sure, there were a few close calls now and then, but Kenya is so much more than the scary things that I had heard about before I went. I needed time to figure that out for myself. The Kenyan people are fantastic. Most are kind and hospitable and lovely. The more I let go of my preconceived notions on Kenya, the more those perceptions were replaced by the reality of how amazing the country and its people are. No matter what region I visited in Kenya, there were always things that would make me nervous (like scorpions!), but I had to keep remembering why I went in the first place: to show hope and beauty in places where others may only see darkness. I needed to believe that there was beauty in order to see it and to capture it.
You mention that you spent time in both the Northern Kenya and in Mombasa, two incredibly different parts of the country. Describe some of the differences you noticed. What struck you most about the diversity within the country? Were the regions similar in any ways?
I absolutely love both Northern Kenya and Mombasa. They are both extremely unique and wonderful. When I traveled to Northern Kenya, I was there to document a story about desert nomads who are in constant search for water. That being said, it was dry as anything. The desert is hot and water is scarce. Warriors protect the tribe’s cattle, people use camels for travel, and there are nightly elder meetings around the fire. Women are expected to run the household and they walk for miles and miles each day to find and fetch water. It was such a unique experience to visit this part of Kenya. I’ve never felt so much like I was literally in the middle of nowhere. Although you are able to travel to this part of the country by car, it takes days of travel over rough roads scattered with potential tire hazards and road bandits. One of my teammates happened to be a pilot and was able to fly us into the desert and land on a sandy, handmade airstrip.
Mombasa is Kenya’s beach town and is completely the opposite of Northern Kenya. It is crowded and Westernized. The beaches are scattered with resorts, tourists and venders trying to sell you a souvenir or two. There are several restaurants and clubs in the area; really, you almost couldn’t get more opposite of Northern Kenya! There is an old part of Mombasa rich with history of trading that was done out of Mombasa’s ports, but the beaches are what really drew me there over and over again. On several occasions, some friends and I camped out there, spear fishing for our dinner and ending the evening with a bonfire. We even got to watch baby sea turtles find their way into the Indian Ocean. I often traveled to Mombasa as a respite from the stress and noise of Nairobi, where I lived.
Describe a moment or scene from your time there that you will absolutely never forget. What made it such a powerful memory?
While I was documenting women in Northern Kenya who travel for miles to gather water, I realized I needed to know more of what they go through than what I was seeing behind the lens. I handed my camera to a teammate and asked a woman if I could hold her bucket of water for a bit. I consider myself a strong person but I was really struggling with her bucket. I could barely hold it more than a few feet; my muscles couldn’t handle it! What a humbling experience to see how these women spend their lives serving others by walking for miles to fetch water. What a sacrifice that is. They don’t have a break; they just do it because that’s how the village survives.
You’ve traveled outside of Kenya on the African continent and have had a chance to experience other cultures, foods and customs. What makes Kenya particularly unique, or what did you most appreciate about Kenyan culture?
Kenya holds a very special place in my heart. Living there for two years allowed me to really get to know the culture, ask questions, learn the language, and observe daily life. In previous experiences, I have often stayed the ‘tourist’; I’ve spoken English, or had a translator with me; I went to Western restaurants and stayed in my air-conditioned vehicle as I traveled from back to place. I stayed ‘myself’ in a way, and didn’t let the culture change or challenge me. Being in Kenya forced me to let go of my fears because I had no other option other than to dive right in. I lived as others lived; I wasn’t always offered privileges that weren’t given to others. Actually, I remember going to the butcher one day to grab chicken for dinner. He apologized and explained that because of the drought, there was no chicken available. That same week, I went to the store to buy sugar and there was a sign stating there was a sugar ration and customers were only allowed to buy one bag each. When the power went out in the city, my power went out. And when we had no water, I didn’t shower for a few days. I really enjoyed and appreciated this experience because I felt like I really lived in Kenya. I didn’t feel like a tourist who could escape back to my hotel room and turn on my air conditioning and order chicken for dinner.
It sounds like you had some very authentic, eye-opening experiences during your time there. How was the reintegration process when you returned to the United States? Did you experience reverse culture-shock, as it is often called?
Yes, extremely. When I was gearing up to leave Kenya and move back to the US, friends talked with me about reverse culture-shock but I mistakenly thought that it wouldn’t happen to me. There were definitely some funny parts of reintegrating back to the US, like driving on the right side of the road. My family was patient with me as I drove again in the US. They would always yell “RIGHT SIDE” when I’d start driving on the left, or laugh with me when I’d mess up my blinker and windshield wipers. I had to remember that there are now rules that applied to driving, too. I really grew to like the chaos and challenge of creatively navigating the congested roads in Nairobi. I also had to remember that the police in the US are on my side and are not corrupt or expecting bribes. It felt strange to have lived the majority of my life in America and yet still had to relearn things that were once second nature.
From an emotional standpoint, coming back to the United States was challenging. As they say, ‘the grass is always greener on the other side.’ When I was in Kenya, I would dream about the US. I would sometimes read random blogs about the homes people were building and decorating or the extravagant meals they could prepare with the food from the local farmers’ market that they walked to. I would dream about living that life, and feeling safe again, living in a house that didn’t have to be guarded by guards and dogs and barbed wire and pad locks. Towards the end of my time in Kenya, I made the mistake of wanting to be “home,” not realizing that Kenya had become my home. I remember waking up early my first morning back in the US and sitting on my family’s back porch with a cup of coffee in hand (something I had been dreaming about for months), and yet I really missed the smell of Kenya. I missed the chaos and noise of my neighborhood. I missed the daily challenge of being a member of the minority and learning to respect the culture that I was living in. I was too ready to move onto a new chapter of my life that I had missed out on soaking up those last moments – those pieces of Kenya that I really fell in love with.
There’s a quote I love from Jim Elliot, a man who I respect so much for his devotion to Ecuador and the Huaorani people; he said: “Wherever you are, be all there.” Although he served and sacrificed his life in a different part of the world, his words remind me that no matter where I may be, I need to try to be fully present. I need to accept the challenges and find joy in the differences of another culture and to immerse myself physically, mentally and emotionally; I need to treasure each place and each moment as I experience it.
This piece was originally published on March 18, 2015.