Edges of Africa
Edges of Africa
Edges of Africa is an anthology of portraiture and documentary photojournalism, chronicling life in East Africa between 1987-1994. During this time David Blumenkrantz lived and worked in Kenya, and traveled extensively to several countries in the East Africa region, including Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Zaire (today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The book includes two Forewords kindly written by visual anthropologist and photojournalist Antony Kaminju, and Noor Khamis of Reuters News Agency. The 190-page book features more than 200 photographs in color and black & white, and several essays on a wide range of topics in four sections: Rural Life, Urban Life, Pastoral Life, and Political Life. There is also a special section dedicated to street children and urban poverty, which also features writing by Mercy Gichengi, a former street girl who now works as an advocate for women in Africa.
EXCERPTS FROM PREFACE:
This is not a comprehensive look at the pre-digital yet burgeoning modern Africa I was introduced to. Noticeably under-represented are the middle and upper classes, including the diminished but far from extinct White Kenyans of yore; not left out to suit an editorial agenda, but due to the nature of my work and my own life choices, which placed me among the peasants and politicians, refugees and rebels, schoolteachers and street children, evangelists and entertainers presented here. Collecting portraits of these people became just as important to me as documenting activities and events for their narrative value, and this became my standard practice. Fossilized on these pages is my selective, silver-crystallized, kaleidoscopic glimpse at a very human opus. If this visual embrace of the tenderness, sorrow, awkwardness, brotherhood, exhilaration and horror that unfolded in the endlessly diverse, mythologized and engrossing Africa I called home seems too subjective, I hope that readers can appreciate the words of Robert Frank, “It is always the instantaneous reaction to oneself that produces a photograph.”
For the next several years, assignments for InterAid and other organizations took me farther afield into Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad and Malawi. I was invariably and regularly exposed to the disruptive conditions that render families and entire communities dependent on aid in one form or another. The NGO work was gratifying-- I relished the opportunity to support the efforts of the water engineers, agronomists, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, veterinarians and others involved in day-to-day fieldwork. Their personal sacrifices were great, often unsung, and occasionally fatal. Few outsiders know that Wilma Gomez, one of several Filipino medical staff who worked for InterAid and later the UN, was executed after being held prisoner by rebels in South Sudan in 1992.
Many of the friends, family and colleagues I moved with, and those I wrote about and photographed were coming of age in nascent, post-independence societies. Geographies and economic disparities imposed by colonial borders were exacerbated by neo-colonial dysfunction, power struggles over land and resources, and ethnic mistrust. Broadly speaking, beyond the tranquility and banality of much of everyday African life (which the Western media ignores by default), that period in the history of the region was rife with upheaval, transition and the pervasive specter of violence: convulsive, anarchic, tragic and too often spectacularly brutal. Civil war and famine in South Sudan, a refugee crisis and war of secession in Eritrea, the Rwandan Genocide, and an AIDS pandemic in Uganda were among the most dramatic events of the time. In Kenya, the birth pains of a multiparty democracy movement left martyrs such as Robert Ouko assassinated in its wake, warnings to all who dared seek a more public forum for their muted anger.
Along with fellow travelers, both expatriates and Africans, I played my small part in the unfolding drama, gladly forsaking much of my Western way of thinking without completely losing myself. Drawn to the culture, I devoured the novels, plays, manifestos and memoirs of African literary and political giants such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Alan Paton, Ali Mazrui, Julius Nyerere, Oginga Odinga, Jomo Kenyatta, Meja Mwangi and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Lessons in revolution and liberation were found in the Afrobeat of Nigeria’s fearless Fela Anikulapo Kuti. How could anybody not dance?
I was fortunate to find opportunities to meet with respected professionals, including some very independent and influential women. Though embroiled at the time in a contentious battle with the Kenyan government, environmental activist Wangari Maathai invited me to her home for three lengthy interviews, patiently answering my questions with a charming combination of intellect and humor. Another fascinating interview excerpted here is with Hanna Simon, an Eritrean freedom fighter-turned journalist. Today Ms. Simon is her country’s ambassador to France, and in a stirring reminder of just how much time has passed since our first meeting, when I spoke with her about this book project she was in the process of preparing for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Eritrean independence. We were brought together by Mehret Gebreyesus of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, who arranged workshops for me with government photographers in Asmara, and with a Pan-African collection of college students in Nairobi. Mehret also organized a documentary project on refugee conditions that took me to AACC-sponsored camps for Mozambicans in Malawi and survivors of the Rwandan Genocide in Tanzania.
Photojournalism originally done for Kenyan publications is represented throughout these pages, and I am proud to have contributed to the Daily Nation, where Managing Editor Wangethi Mwangi was always willing to consider my submissions, as was Joseph Odindo, then with Echo Magazine. Kindred spirits were found at Executive magazine, where Editor-in-Chief Ali Zaidi’s progressive stewardship turned what purportedly was a business journal into a platform for bold coverage of political and social events. Spirited late-night staff meetings were regularly held at Shamura’s, a magendo bar and restaurant in Westlands frequented by politicians, businessmen and journalists. Among our ranks was anti-corruption advocate John Githongo, so respected for his uncompromising journalistic and political ethics that in 2002 President Mwai Kibaki appointed him as the government’s anti-corruption czar. Among our assignments was an interview with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at a secretive location in Kampala, a meeting cut short by armed guards when I swept open the curtains to allow additional light into the room. Another regular at Executive was photographer Andrew Njoroge, who went on to work with Reuters and remains active in the African Art scene. Fast and tight friends, our misadventures, too numerous to recount, include visits to his family’s tea estate in Murang’a, getting tear gassed in the streets during the Saba Saba multiparty demonstrations, and an impromptu visit to the funeral of Mau Mau legend General China. It was a wild time in many respects, and it’s a wonder we didn’t find ourselves in more serious trouble. The darkroom we maintained in the loft of the French Cultural Centre became a meeting place for artists, writers, musicians and other friends and allies including street kids. The rooftop became our favorite hangout and natural light studio.
The topic closest to my heart is that of street children. My interest in their plight, and that of others affected by urban poverty, had me loosely affiliated with the Undugu Society of Kenya from my earliest days in Nairobi. In 1992, when I was presented with the ultimatum of having 48 hours to either find employment that would provide a legal work permit, or else be unceremoniously deported, providence struck yet again. Undugu’s Executive Director Ezra Mbogori hired me to run their information department, turning what had been a personal project into a full-time preoccupation. I spent my last two years in Kenya advocating alongside Father Arnold Grol and Undugu’s phenomenal social workers in their war on public and political ignorance and neglect. It remains a Sisyphean task. In a photograph I was able to take surreptitiously at an underfunded, understaffed remand home for street children in Nairobi, the inhumane conditions: scabies, lack of basic nutrition, and dehumanization, are clearly reflected in the faces of the boys. The subtext of the image could not be more obvious, the call to action clear. Yet analogous to the growing homeless crisis in Los Angeles and other American cities, the existence of children surviving by their wiles in the streets and slums of Nairobi persists to this day. Against this backdrop, such photographs merely serve as a nagging reminder of our collective failures.
For now, due to the high shipping costs, the book is only available for purchase within the United States. I am hoping to make it available through Amazon and other sites by early January. Thank you for your interest and patience….