At the start of 2012 I travelled to Meru Kenya with an organization called The Equality Effect. We had a basic plan, to assemble a small team for a week of arts therapy workshops with the girls at a safe house run by an incredibleKenyan organization called Ripples, and to see if a portrait might arise organically from the experience.
The Equality Effect is a group of international lawyers who are teaming up with local organizers and lawyers in Kenyato fight for the equality of women and girls, who are so often the victims of violent rape, and who have no recourse to justice or protection through the law or otherwise.
Ripples began in an attempt to protect some of the victims of this social epidemic, to provide a safe haven and medical services and time with social workers. But for Mercy and Chidi who run the organization, the helplessness of fighting a problem without going to the root became overwhelming, and they started to search for deeper and more lasting ways to fight. They started a hospital, a school, an orphanage, a public education program, developed a network of social workers and teachers across the country, and, reached out to The Equality Effect to help them take on the law. Together with Fiona Samson, they began developing a case against the entire police force of Kenya, suing them for failing to uphold the Kenyan constitution and it's clear laws protecting citizens from rape. Because at present in Kenya, when a girl reports having been violated to the police, not only is protection and justice almost never forthcoming, but the girl is sometimes raped by the police and told to go home because she should not be reporting such matters.
Where then do I become a part of this monumental and serious effort?
It's always been an incredibly intimidating question - in matters affecting the lives of people, the justice of societies, our ability to care for and protect and be compassionate with one another, where do our roles as artists even begin? Can we support the work of people who have dedicated their lives to setting right what is broken? Can we be a part of that work in a way that adds meaning and texture and color and tells the tale in ways that might not otherwise be shared?
To be honest I've always been terrified of these people. They don't share the ability that so many of us have, to turn a blind eye to the hemorrhages and tears in the fabric of our lives. You know that feeling that you sometimes get when witnessing injustice? When perceiving the unsustainable atrocity buried in almost every aspect of our lives? When for a flash of an utterly lucid instant you know beyond a doubt if you let this awareness penetrate your being you will be forever changed, life as you know it will be knocked off course, and you will have to dedicate every fiber of your being to building a compassionate and just and connected world? You know that moment? And how quickly we bury it? That moment is precisely what I find so intimidating about meeting people who have long since had it, seen it for what it was, made their decision, and gotten the fuck on with it.
They started with one small $6,000 grant, and knew, that if they just kept building, and working, and reaching out at every step of the way they could make happen what needed to happen. This attitude is, in my opinion what makes the world go round. They didn't wait to have all the money, all the permission, all the government support and protection - they just started. And now, in spite of death threats, lack of support from the law, and constant shortages of funding, they are keeping on and growing stronger.
So, right, so where do I come in again? In my teeny little niche, in this very big picture, that's where. First we built a team. Dana Bishop-Root for her incredible work with kids and teenagers, Pauline Anne duke for her puppetry and musical work with kids, Andrea Dorfman who makes beautiful animations to communicate the concepts that The Equality Effect and Ripples are
working on, Fiona Samson of The Equality Effect, and Patrick Njeru of Nairobi to document the week. Mike Snelle who originally made the connection between myself and the Equality Effect and mark ---both as support work.
The first day we arrived at the Tumaini safe house, we met the girls and hung out for a few hours, shyly introducing ourselves, then giving ourselves over to an evening spell of raucous singing, circle games, and chasing projectiles around the yard. Fiona said this is your most important first lesson - we may be brought together here by violence and tragedy, but this space is also a home of tremendous joy.
We would be working with a group of 22 girls between the ages of 6 and 18 for one week. We started each morning with warm ups and songs, and then would transition into drawing, and story telling exercises.
The first exercise of the first day gave me a big wake up. We wanted to play a word association game, choosing three words and having the girls explain their thoughts on the word, and draw some pictures that they associated with it. We wanted to develop a language of symbols and images we could build a puppet show with at the end of our week. Our first word was strength, and naively, I expected a discussion of resilience and inspiration, and the strength that we find inside of ourselves -- and while that discussion did follow, eventually, on the first go round most of the girls said things like, "Strength is a man because he can knock you down and hurt you." Patrick had whispered under his breath when he heard the word, "This one will have some difficult responses." I felt immediately winded by how much slower I had been to understand. This lesson has come to me every single time that I go somewhere expecting to 'help' - it says to me,"Make no mistake, you are here to learn how truly little you know, and if through this learning you are to share some joy, or goodness, or usefulness, it will be a byproduct of how well you listen and how deeply you comprehend the little that you know."
And children are the most patient teachers I have met. And generous of spirit and so incredibly fun. And Dana is one of those child whisperers without whom we would have been utterly lost. Like glitter covered fist fights lost, but, Dana's boundless enthusiasm and kid intuition gave structure and purpose to each day.
We delved in to the process of making meaning and expressing emotions through creativity. We sang and drew and told stories. Shared stories about difficult as well as triumphant thing first through drawing and then through sharing our drawings and stories with each other in small groups. We shared dances and made up games, and throughout the week worked on balloon headdresses, masks and a puppet for the last day when the families of the girls staying in the shelter would come to see what they had been working on all week.Close