I really have no idea how I got there. A phone call occurred, likely sparked from an email exchange. As the car rolled up curvy mountainsides, bustling with broad shouldered baboons and little pits of fire where men roasted corn for passersby, I was racking my brain with what brought me out to this school where I left moved to exhaustion.
Light of Hope is a school for girls. I was in Kenya filming a story for my documentary Big Dream, with a really capable young woman named Martha. I enjoyed spending time with this 21 year old, who felt wise beyond my years, so I invited her to come spend the weekend with me at Light Of Hope. You may also remember Martha from the chicken episode.
With a small crew like ours, and tiny budget to match, Lucas & I tripled up on filming for both the documentary and multiple episodes of Original Fare. The work load nearly broke us, and in some ways I still feel like I’m recovering a year later, but the parallel between both the documentary and Original Fare radiates around girl power. When Light of Hope came upon me, I knew the story of girl power would be lurking somewhere inside the walls. And when a story calls…
The school is somewhere outside the little village of Naivasha. It’s exact location meant little to me because it was my first time in the country and I was already completely turned around. There are no hotels nearby so the owners of the school set the three of us up at a little bed and breakfast ran by their friends just a walk away.
We had no car once dropped off in this lost little place and had to walk a dirt path until we found the school. I was a bit nervous - we had all of our equipment on us - just walking down this strange path to a strange school. A man walking passed carrying a machete kindly asking us for money, we all exchanged a smile and a wave. (Don’t worry, Kelly, this gear will all be stolen in a few months time in Italy anyways. You will soon learn your possessions aren't meant to own you.)
A large guarded gate greeted us with the following words "Mission Statement: Making a Difference One At A Time By Providing Refuge, Quality Education, Spiritual, Social, and Emotional Support".
The girls were all gathered in the cafeteria waiting for us to be introduced. Their ages ranged from 2 to 22. We all shyly looked in each others direction until we journeyed outside together where the activity of picking lettuces and vegetables for our lunch got us chatting.
I knew there were hardships in nearly all of these girl’s stories but I didn’t want to exploit them in any way. I didn’t want to be the outsider filmmaker there with sappy music, pushing the camera towards the downtrodden and rusty corners of walls to manipulate some image. These girls were dressed in bright colors, laughing, playing, being as any young girl can be. What I wanted to do was meet them. Pick lettuce. Talk movies. Talk fashion. Answer questions they may have about my country. Ask them questions about theirs. And that’s what we spent our first day doing. Just learning each other.
That night Martha, Lucas, and I sat around the fire at the B&B. Nights were chilly in Kenya and it had been an intense few days of shooting. Plus, we had cow stomach for dinner that even Martha felt tasted a little off, but as guests we ate as much as we could. I asked Martha what she may know about these girls and the environments they come from. Martha explained that female genital mutilation is still something quite popular among some tribes and was certain many of the girls had been through the horrific process. The idea being women are property and to enjoy sexual pleasure is not why we have sex. It’s also to discourage women from cheating on men. Men who all have rights to have intercourse with whomever/whenever they choose. Lucas added more wood to the fire as Martha’s toes got colder. I became determined to hear these girls stories.
As we filmed the scene of making chapati the next day Miriam, the headmistress, brought me into her office and said some of the girls would like to talk to me.
The first girl I sat with was Grace. At 5 years old Grace was left on the side of the road with her baby sister. Eventually they were picked up and brought to Light of Hope. I couldn’t stop staring at her yellow t-shirt after she spoke. The office had shreds of light coming through a high window. I smiled at Grace repeatedly. I could say nothing. What have I to add? Beyond compassion and an ear I have no idea what that must have felt like. Grace may be around 9 or 10 now, and later in the day I could see her still watching after her little sister.
Evelyn came in next. Evelyn was the most recent addition to the school. Her eyes were in shadows. I could feel the intensity burning off of her. I waited to let her speak at the pace she was comfortable with. Evelyn was married off by her father in exchange for a cow to a much older man a few villages over. Evelyn was beaten and raped. Evelyn had enough one day and walked through the village- in which she was a stranger- and asked around until she found a police station. Evelyn had her husband arrested. She was 13.
Evelyn’s father wont speak to her. She was his property until she decided she wasn’t. Evelyn spoke with measured emotion. I did my best to meet her gaze, keep water out of my eyes, and show her all the respect I could.
Evelyn, what I should have said to you that day was this: When I was 19 I was raped. I lived in New York City. I ran away from the scene and further still. I never reported the crime. I never had him arrested. I was 19. You are the bravest soul I have ever met. Your story is a beacon of not just hope but strength to all girls out there who have been confused as property. You shared your story with me so I feel obliged to share mine. I feel full of shame just typing the words of what happened. After meeting you, a young woman who I would never want to feel shame for what you went through, I learn we have to remove that word from those experiences.
I sat with a few other girls and eventually we all returned to the cafeteria to eat our lunch. Evelyn began to play with Lucas’ camera and whatever shyness was upon us at the start was now invisible. We all played games, made funny faces for the camera, laughed and shared cake.
I know this is a show about food. And I hope you enjoy learning how this area of our world makes their bread on a wood stove and uses the bounty of vegetables grown from their garden to feed a school of girls. So often as Americans we see limited viewpoints of places less traveled to. The people here have more access to vegetables and fruits than we. In Kenya it's a luxury to buy a box of cookies where kale is grown widely. If any of you have been to a grocery store in America recently then you know that is not our story. To limit this experience to a recipe or a how-to would do each of these girls an injustice. And what I think all of us love about food is how it so quickly can connect us.
After saying tearful goodbyes and taking many more photos (most of which were sadly among the stolen goods), Martha, Lucas and I head back to Nairobi. As the car began to move beyond the great valley and into the mountains, I realized what brought me here. I had to run all the way to a school outside of Naivasha to learn how to be strong. And how to make chapati.