Subaland

Images taken 12/2012 - 2/2013 Nyanza Province, Lake Victoria, Kenya. 

As a visiting artist at Ekialo Kiona community center, on a small island in Lake Victoria, Kenya, my job was to contribute my skills in storytelling and audio production and my background in anthropology and language to a community which had recently started a youth radio station. Their purpose was to revitalize the endangered Suba language, and my plan was to help them brainstorm what it means to be Suba and teach them how to create radio programs about the answers. I first trained them how to interview, and, after one lesson, I asked them to practice on me. 

“What did you expect us to be like?” Everlyne asked me almost immediately. Caught off guard, I looked out to fifteen pairs of steady eyes. Who are these people? Frank. Impressive. “And how are we different from that?” Masanta Arnold added with genuine curiosity. My mind spun, searching for an easy answer, something stock. The truth was embarrassing. I wanted an out. But I knew that being fake was not a fruitful strategy. I had to trust them with the complicated emotions and influences of ignorance, if I was ever going to be trusted with something as important as their cultural heritage. I took a breath and told them about the “Feed the Children” ads I and so many other Americans had grown up with, images of naked, starving bodies that we believed were the single story of Africa. Even after a progressive education, extensive travel abroad, and personal relationships with African scholars, those images still lingered about a continent I had never touched. 

The exercise turned into a conversation about how easily we overlook the truths outside the camera’s frame. I told my students how important their own stories were: of smartly dressed young professionals, of living on a tiny island understood to be the last place in west Kenya where magic still exists. Theirs were some of the myriad stories of Africa, a chorus to drown out the visuals of hungry kids. 

Then they taught me how to be clean in a place with no running water, how to eat gracefully with my hands, how to tell the difference between those who saw me as white, rich and ignorant and those who saw me as Lindsey. They taught me how my arsenal of American radio programs meant little in a culture with its own storytelling values, and its own needs from radio broadcasting. I learned that my opinions about gender or religion were of little consequence, and that my creative role was in designing the process to help uncover and organize their own knowledge. The youth worked together to develop and research topics that examined what parts of life showed remnants of Suba tradition. They recorded their elders and peers, the sounds of the island, and together, we produced Ekialo Kiona FM’s first batch of radio programs to begin crystallizing a sense of cultural identity in a rapidly changing region.   

I spent two months with the Suba and Luo people on Mfangano Island. Many of the images on this page document reporters from Ekialo Kiona Youth Radio (EKFM) interviewing at the annual Suba games, a cultural sports event that had recently changed to favor mostly modern sports.  This was the very first program produced as part of our collaborative work, and the first cultural program to be aired on EKFM. On my insistence, reporters interviewed in their mother tongue (vs. English), so even children and the elderly could understand and contribute to the forthcoming programs.

Indeed, the project’s biggest challenge — and its beauty — was that the programs were produced in a language I could not understand, one uniquely suited to serve the project’s purpose: to start conversations about culture and history within the community.