Reflections on why I found a little delight last night   Leave a comment

Last night I watched with delight a television documentary called “Photographing Africa“. It is a rare thing to experience that emotion in response to a TV programme and I want to examine why I felt that way and explore if that has any implications. The perennial desire to write something had also been rising and perhaps this gives a focus for a little exercise in that.

“Photographing Africa” followed Harry Hook, a white English film director and photographer, who grew up in the Sudan and Kenya, on a project of simple conception, if not execution.  In the 1980s he had taken a series of portraits of five young women then living in different traditional tribal contexts across East Africa.  The project was to see if he could go back and find these women and discover what had become of their lives 30 years on.

Africa has had a fascination for me since my childhood.  My Uncle and Aunt spent 4 years in Kenya teaching at a high-school with Voluntary Services Overseas and my cousins were born there.  Those were days of much slower communications; the 1960s. I have vivid memories of making and receiving reel-to-reel tapes as a key way the two young and growing families kept in touch.  Birthday and Christmas presents were exotic things from far away places, carved animals and models of tribal huts.  I still have a Maasai club (name in their language forgotten) which has a head carved from the root ball of a small tree and its shaft the stem of that tree.  This was always my most beloved item because it was authentic. It had been bought by my Uncle direct from the herdsman who had been using it to protect his cattle.  I used to tell school friends “look you can see the blood stains on it”.  However that is doubtless the romantic imaginings, and the desire to impress peers, of an 8 year-old.  Despite this childhood introduction to a little bit of Africa  I have not yet visited any of the continent.  The fact that the programme was about Africa was probably a factor in me deciding to watch it, I certainly had yet further vicarious experience of it in doing so, however this was not the source of my delight, only the context for it.

It is time that I identify and describe what it was I delighted in.  It was that across the programme a gentle, beautiful, respectful side of humanity was shown.  Harry Hook, was no “bwana” left over from colonial times but someone who was genuinely interested in the lives of others and did not set himself in any position of superiority.  He spoke with huge respect to the subjects of the film and those through who he sort to find them.  He had a gentleness of manner that stood in such marked contrast to the angst filled noise that seems to dominated the media, social and mainstream, over this past year.   Although the film was directed by him, it was not about him.  I am sure he was not trying to tell his story.  However, what it revealed about him made me think there was a man I would like to meet; to listen to.

This was not a film that idealised the experience of those still living in tribal or pastoral contexts.  It covered the devastating impact of drought and HIV/AIDS.  One of originally photographed young women had died of AIDS leaving a young son and the grief of her brother, brought to the fore by seeing her photograph, was palpable.  It covered the pull of the city and the increased urbanisation of Africa and touched a little on problems associated with that. Some living in a tribal  context reported a separation from the urban and indeed a fear that their throats would be slit if they went to the city.  However there were also examples of those living a modern city based life returning and valuing tribal custom.

My greatest sense of delight in the programme was reserved for the encounters with the 3 original subjects of his photos from the 1980s that were located.  They were all shy. One denied that is was her and had to be convinced by relatives. Another was mocked joyfully by her children seeing for the first time  photo of their mother as a girl.  Harry Hook asked each of them the same question. I thought this was very probing and I wondered about the social etiquette of asking it.  However he asked “when were you most happy in your life”.  All three of them answered the same “now”.  This stood out for me firstly as a sign of hope but also as a challenge to myself who finds that question difficult to answer in the same way.  So the stimulation for reflection was in asking what they were finding their happiness in, which from the brief interchanges seemed to be family, and why that was not so for me.

A trailer to the documentary is available on YouTube:

To those who have access to BBC iPlayer, and within its time constrains, the whole programme can be viewed there:

I commended it to all to watch and maybe share in some of the delight I experienced watching it.  Some might be upset by brief scenes of hunting and butchery but if that is likely to be you I hope you can get past that.


Posted November 22, 2016 by Martyn Cooper in Uncategorized

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