How the students of Kambi ya Simba wrote this book
by Barbara Cervone (President, What Kids Can Do, Inc).
I first met the students and faculty at Awet Secondary School when my family visited Kambi ya Simba in December 2004. Their generous spirit and curiosity about the world was as large as their school was spare. The school’s headmaster hoped that when we returned to the United States, I might raise funds for the school.
Instead, I proposed another trip, this time to write a book with his students documenting life in Kambi ya Simba through the eyes of its youth. His generous assent gave In Our Village its start.
For two weeks in August 2005, I worked with a team of Kambi ya Simba students, gathering photographs and stories. Our core group included ten student collaborators sixteen to eighteen years old, their three young teachers, and myself. On our last day, forty or more students crowded the classroom where we were meeting and joined the final stages of our process.
We began our work together by taking stock of the village’s assets, whether hard or soft, ample or constrained. The students generated a list of thirty or more, from land, livestock, and tractors to friendship, faith, and the wisdom of elders. We narrowed the list to twenty and the students wrote down everything they knew about each, creating a common pool of knowledge from which to draw.
In three teams, we then fanned out to collect the photographs and interviews that fill the pages of our book. We worked on weekends and after school until the sun gave way to kerosene lamps. Each expedition to take photographs entailed walking five miles or more, stopping along the way to review photos and notes.
None of the students had ever held a camera before. Within minutes, they mastered the three digital cameras I brought. They took over a thousand photographs during our two weeks of work, and, with only a few exceptions, the pictures that animate In Our Village: Kambi ya Simba Through the Eyes of Its Youth are theirs.
Creating the accompanying narrative was less straightforward. Instruction at Awet Secondary School is in English, but neither students nor teachers are practiced in class discussions that are not linked to the prescribed curriculum. Moreover, I spoke “American”; they spoke “British” (and, of course, their national language Kiswahili); and some of the villager residents we interviewed spoke only the local Iraqw. We worked hard to understand each other.
As we finished, I asked students to reflect on the project. This is what they told me: It stretched our imagination in so many ways. Before this, we had never seen a book with photographs. Few of us have journeyed beyond the town of Karatu, nineteen kilometers distant. Of the larger world, we know only what our teachers have told us, a small encyclopedia we carry in our heads, containing facts and words, a few pictures, and no sound. Lacking electricity and computers, we have not traveled the Internet or watched other media that would show us life elsewhere, true or false.
Also, on our parting, they told me this: It astounds us—and we remain unconvinced—that anyone outside our village would care about our stories and our challenges. In a sense that goes beyond this phrase, your interest means the world to us. To us, it means “the world.”