The luxury of leaving

Washing lineOn day 4, we stood in a circle and held hands while Lawrence – fondly nicknamed ‘the Pastor’ – asked that God bless my safe return. It was nearly dark: we’d waited a long time for Okwiri, who’d spent all day with a mechanic after some kids vandalised the friend’s car he’d borrowed to drive us into Dandora.

But there was still time for a prayer. ‘Does it feel like a ritual?’, laughed Okwiri, who seems – either from experience or instinct – to know where the great divides between Africans and Europeans lie. ‘No! It’s nice’, I said – and was glad I didn’t have to lie.

Their enthusiasm to work with me all week was heartening – though given that the chef at my hotel and my taxi driver seemed equally sad to say goodbye I don’t quite take it as a measure of success. Maybe the work they did counts for something, though. Camerawork that cuts off heads and makes you feel dizzy, and interviews that regurgitate clichés – but also surprise close-ups and a few unexpectedly heated discussions.

More important, perhaps– speaking from my own experience as a student – is having your creative work looked at, critiqued and maybe praised by someone who knows more about it than you. It feels good. For these guys, either volunteers or earning a quarter of a basic teaching wage in Kenya, the chance to focus on their own ideas is probably rare. Or, as Okwiri – who grew up in Dandora – put it: ‘You made them feel like real journalists for a while… most people in the slum think: I cannot be heard. I’m not like the rest. They believe they are not equal in society. So when you come there, and when you sit with them one on one… this is great. They think: If a mzungu can appraise what I say, then what about my fellow brother here?’

But does a brief escape from the 6-day working week and the constant struggle to somehow pay yet another pupil’s breakfast because he’s arrived hungry – does it change anything? Or does it just raise expectations, and cause friction with the neighbours?

I don’t know. And part of the luxury and the drawback of leaving, of jetting away into an almost parallel universe, is that I don’t even need to face the answer.

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