Emily met me at the metal gate to her property, which was tucked into a stand of small trees, promptly at 4:30am. The early dawn brought with it a chill that hung heavy within a fine, gossamer like mist, which drifted over the empty landscape. A warm hearted woman with a smile not easily won, Emily guided me through the dark to her home where on opening the wooden door, finding her way inside the familiar room, she sat in front of what I could just barely make out to be a large lantern sitting on the table. With a few strikes of a match, she lit the kerosene vapors under the glass shade with the room immediately transformed…bathed in the warm red glow of candlelight.
I followed her between the three small cramped rooms to her bedroom where Betty, her youngest child at 12 years old, was still asleep, soon to be woken as she had many duties to accomplish for her mother before leaving for school with her friends.
Emily gently yet firmly called out to her to get up and so the child half asleep, leaving the warmth of her humble blanket, staggered across the damp dirt floor, pushing the goats to the side still cuddling each other on a bed of straw in the corner, following the sound of her mother’s voice to come to the kitchen. I also followed Emily’s voice and the glow of the lantern, still clenched in one hand and held close to her chest, as she appeared to float through the dark of night like an apparition. Bending down to grab a hand full of branches to fuel her stove, fragments left over from her last back breaking haul from the forest, Emily pushed open the door to the heart of her home, her kitchen, to the sounds of two small lambs purring, staring wide-eyed out from under a rough hewn bench.
Suspended in silence, I felt part of the scene playing out in front of me, instinctively laying my camera down to avoid the subtle intrusion it lends. At this moment it was much more important for me to understand Emily’s world with my heart, leaving the mechanics of my cameras behind so I could feel the dampness of the coal dark room where every color came alive. Emily’s red pinafore, glowing in the dim light a saturated shade of crimson, a small gray whiskered kitten hiding protectively under the edge of her long skirt peering up to watch Emily’s every move, her gentle smile to both animals and to me betraying her stoic strength with a glimmer of friendship with the shadows cast against the walls so rich and so deep like the best of cotton velvet. Each sound was crisp yet comforting: the bleating of sheep seeking Emily’s gentle hand, or the owl sounding out it’s warning one last time, the slatted wooden door creaking and swaying as the wind pushed through the gaps in the coolness of the coming dawn. Each piece of this visual tapestry made the tableau in front of me feel evermore surreal…evermore human.
Emily sat the lantern down on a concrete block to begin her morning rituals of boiling water for washing, making chai to drink, cooking porridge and beans for her children to eat. All selfless duties performed by mothers the world over it’s just that Emily has very little to get by on. But, I get the feeling, actually I know, she’ll manage to make do.
The women in this part of the world work very hard in taking care of their families. While there are similarities with women in the Western world who are at times caught in the grips of economical shortfalls or illness or have lost jobs, Emily and the women who are her friends and neighbors have this and so much more to endure. From early dawn to the end of day, they’re tirelessly working in the home, trying to find food to prepare in what may be the first and only meal they’ll eat this day, or tending the few drought stunted crops they have left, if fortunate, feeding and taking a few goats out to pasture, hauling wood if they can find any or collecting 5 gallon jugs of water, requiring they walk for many miles every couple of days on what is a dangerous and painfully hard journey for them to secure wood for the essentials of the home.
I’m reminded that the first segment to this story is but a small part of Emily’s life. Equally Meru and Emily and her family are just a small part of this world which lies “just beyond the horizon” from where the rest of us live, many with a different life experience, which is at times better and yet for others, much worse at the hands of repression, oppression, natural disasters, ill health or simply due to the way you speak or the color of your skin. While most of us will never suffer the effects of a drought, one that has dried up most of the open water sources for cattle and humans to drink for thousands of square miles, at 42 years old, Emily’s story of strife is commonplace. She shares a daily struggle to survive with women across the globe yet you’ll never see her cry. Never see her beg. Never see her complain. Instead she is fiercely strong, proud, determined, full of dignity, yet even with so little for her and her children to eat, will open her humble home and extend her scarred hands to share with you what little she has.
The chasm between the “haves and the have-nots” appears to be getting wider with no contraction in sight, yet it’s important to recognize the families in these developing world communities while vulnerable, are just like you and me. Emily tells us she simply wants to share with strangers, and while she doesn’t have that much, to be able to share what little she has with others is what being a Meru tribal woman is all about. I believe there’s a natural wisdom in Emily’s words, a gift, that without question should inspire us to consider the blessings we enjoy, each and every day.
–Rodney Rascona, 2011 Lucie International Photographer of the Year: Deeper Perspective