By Victoria Bamber, Communications Officer, Amref Health Africa UK
I had worked for Amref Health Africa for little over six months when I was initially asked whether I would be willing to travel to Kenya to take part in a photography project. At this point, the furthest I had travelled with work was to a financial conference in Manchester, so I think it’s fair to say the offer was accepted with more than a little enthusiasm.
I had travelled to East Africa before, but as a student. Back in 2009, I had sampled the delights of stroh rum and taken part in a regrettable bungee jump, however this time I was keen to leave the tourist trail behind and experience first-hand how Amref Health Africa is working alongside communities to strengthen health systems across the continent.
So, why were we going? We felt that for too long the perception of African life in the west hasn’t been truly representative or particularly accurate. To combat this, we approached advertising photographer Dean Bradshaw, notable for his visually creative, high-end style of imagery. We wanted to photograph the women of sub-Saharan Africa in a positive, empowering way, to reflect the strength, dignity and heroism of their day to day lives.
Our trip focussed on three main areas of Kenya where Amref Health Africa has a presence and runs projects:
Kibera, the largest urban slum in the world, home to 250,000+ inhabitants on the outskirts of Nairobi. Here, Amref has a health centre run in partnership with Comic Relief – an invaluable resource for the community. Many of the people in Kibera do not have the money or the means to travel or pay for healthcare, so in an overcrowded, unsettled environment with poor sanitation, the facility provides a lifeline for many.
Loitoktok, in Kajiado County in the south of Kenya in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. This area is home to the Massai and is probably the kind of semi-arid, giraffe-filled landscape most people would picture when imagining ‘typical Africa’. A large proportion of Amref’s work in this area focuses on eradicating harmful cultural practises such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and replacing this with Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) ceremonies.
Turkana County, in the far north of Kenya. This area, primarily known for the huge Lake Turkana, borders Ethiopia to the right and South Sudan to the left. Amref’s support in this area focuses on improving a range of healthcare issues including; maternal and child health, improving water and sanitation facilities and combating malnutrition, TB and HIV.
How did I find the trip? To be honest, it was nothing short of amazing. Meeting the people Amref works alongside and experiencing first-hand how strengthening health systems doesn’t just improve people’s wellbeing, but their prospects and potential too. It was also a very enlightening experience, because I realised that Amref goes far beyond treating health issues and training health workers. Instead, schooling, farming and banking are all areas addressed to get to the root cause of underlying social and economic problems, which affects people's chances of enjoying good health throughout their lives.
Of course, no trip is without its challenges. We were frequently working 15 hour days. I don’t think I had ever considered 6am a lie in until now! We also had to cope with operating huge amounts of technical equipment in extreme temperatures – a particular challenge for me, the redhead! Getting used to the local cuisine and the wildlife also took a strong stomach (sometimes literally!) One especially memorable moment was climbing into bed by the light of an IPhone 6 and realising I was sharing my space with a huntsman spider. Lovely! I also discovered I had never truly known the terrible pain of a full bladder until I had to battle with a toilet bowl full of lizards at 2am.
But, overall, this trip to Kenya was a completely awesome experience. I loved it! Some of my favourite moments include:
Its funny, before I started working for Amref, Africa as a continent felt very far away. I grew up in North West England, living opposite a huge hospital - access to excellent healthcare was never an issue for this naive Brit. At the start of 2016, I was wrapped up in my own pizza-fuelled life. I had a job that I enjoyed, but fundamentally didn't mean a great deal to me. But, nine months later as I sit in London with my hipster coffee, staring out at the same old drizzle, I have an entirely different perspective and a new found appreciation for something I once took for granted. Hopefully in the future our job will be complete and this blog will look really out of date. Until then, the work continues...