A Trip Like Never Before: Kenya and the Art of H2O
It’s been just a few days since we returned from our most recent trip to Kenya. I flew away with a heavy heart, wistful to leave our communities behind yet again. The leaving doesn’t get easier, but, with every trip, it does become more meaningful, more empowering.
This trip, in particular, has been a journey I’m certain none of us will ever forget.
Ten years ago, I hadn’t an inkling I would find myself in this line of work, and I positively hadn’t any thoughts of being in Kenya constructing water wells with a rock band, a national geographic creative photographer, a film maker, a brilliant doctor, and a team of board members, interns, volunteers and staff. But, that just happened. And, it was grand.
The journey began with a few set-backs, as it always does. There were the standard flight delays/missed flights, the familiar lost luggage, the expected jet lag and, of course, the malaria medication side effects. But, alas, about four days into the adventure, all travelers and all luggage were reunited, and most of our physical and psychological constitutions were intact.
The days that followed were replete with adventure, celebration, loss, illness, joy, tenderness, pain, exhaustion, tears, laughter and love. We drilled a new well that will serve thousands of people, many of whom have never touched clean water before; we completed a water system rehabilitation for 3,000 people who had been abandoned by previous aid workers; we served over 700 people with medical care; we captured our clean water work in video and photography in a way it’s never been done before; and we filmed a music video… yes, a music video.
Allow me to first speak to our time with Saints of Valory on this trip. If you don’t yet know this Austin-based alt-rock band, I think you soon will. It’s one thing to be conclusively very talented musicians. It’s another to be adept artists and have the kind of spirit and heart that adapts to new cultures and experiences with compassion, poise and respect. None of these boys were new to the kind of work we do, but none of them had been thrown into the conditions we were in, either. It was seemingly seamless for them.
Being a little nervous about their assimilation, I watched them keenly in the early days of our time there. They carry so much joy in their music and their general countenance, and they brought that to every child and every community we approached. Kids flocked to sing with them and play with them, and mothers wore broad grins as they observed. Elders were even drawn to these cheerful conclaves to be entertained.
On the thirteenth or fourteenth day (I lost track), the whole gaggle of us were out in the field yet again- in the hot sun and biting dust, with another impoverished community. Gavin, the lead singer of the band, did not hesitate to hop right out of the van and into a group of dancing women who were honoring us with their traditional song and step. Not long after, he was playing make-shift kickball with the young boys, and then led a chorus with all the children that they refused to allow him to stop. So he didn’t. He must have hummed that beat for them for twenty minutes. It was beautiful.
Gavin, Stephen and Godfrey are special people. Their support of Well Aware and our work seems to have become a living thing on this trip, a true testament to their open hearts and generosity of their natural gift.
The Nat Geo Creative Photog
Now then, let’s talk about the National Geographic Creative photographer. This being Greg Davis’ second expedition to Kenya with our team, he fell into routine immediately and was generating breathtaking content on the spot. Greg’s instant connection with community is remarkable. I haven’t yet witnessed a resistant subject, an awkward moment or a challenging visual environment that Greg hasn’t been able to overcome. He is gentle and composed, but he is always, always, diligently capturing stunning depictions of his subjects.
Greg also happens to be a powerful ambassador for our work and served as a guide and leader on this voyage for our other creative companions, as well as our team. He spent extra time helping others navigate cultural intricacies, and he never skipped a beat fielding questions about composition, lighting or shutter speed.
Our organization is proud to have Greg as an Advisory Council member, and we look forward to what’s to come with this partnership.
Brad Feeser. Imagine a young, eager athlete entering the big leagues as an underdog and then knocking the socks off of the entire team, the crowd, the whole league. That’s Brad, but in videography. Not that he’s really that young, and he’s certainly not new to the field, but he was new to us, and there has been significant pressure to perform- there are people’s lives at stake, after all.
I first began working with Brad a couple of weeks before the trip began. Some of what we want to tell in our story is how the people who do it are affected, and how our daily lives are impacted and even suffer to make the work possible. So, Brad picked a few days (I was properly notified), and he shadowed me. He miked me up and filmed me in meetings, writing letters, packing equipment, on conference calls, even picking my daughter up from school then bringing her back to the office to juggle her four-year-old energy with another important partnership meeting. You might think all of this would be intrusive and disruptive. But, it wasn’t. Brad’s kindness and unassuming energy creates a comfortable space when he’s present. It makes his filming a neutral event, and he’s skilled with blending in- so much so, that I fully forgot I was being recorded and took Brad with me to the loo a couple of times (not really Brad, but the mike that was clipped to my collar).
He knocked our socks off in Kenya. Early to rise, late to bed, he was on top of every shot, every befalling for filming. He was unflappable under pressure, and there was plenty of that. Schedules changed, people got sick, lighting was lost, equipment broke, meals were skipped, and sleep was often not had. But Brad was unstoppable. He was always there, always ready, even if he had to improvise. And, each and every time, he was genial and gracious about the whole mess. We can’t wait to see the product of his efforts, and we hope the opportunity to work with Brad again is sooner than later.
And then there’s Dr. Ann Messer. Wow. None of us knew what an asset she would be. She saw more than 700 patients from our communities and did so with generous consideration and nurture to every single one. She had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye every day. She treated scabies, ringworm, stroke victims, HIV symptoms, gunshot wounds, eye disease and so much more.
There were very difficult days for Ann in the field. Though she led a small army of a medical team, comprised of Well Aware interns and board members, the number of people in need of care and the severity of many of their ailments was staggering. One medical camp day brought a patient on the brink of death, suffering tremendously from AIDS infirmities and in visible, excruciating pain. Dr. Messer, without breaking her calm-but-swift rhythm and her tender-but-masterful hand, saved that man from dying that day. It was a sobering and somber moment, and the medical team felt that their breath had been taken. But, Ann was steady and strong, and she walked out of the clinic that day a hero and an example compassion and courage for our entire team.
Well Aware is deeply honored to also have Dr. Ann Messer as an Advisory Council member. Our work and our reach is unequivocally enhanced by her partnership, her insight and her talents.
The Freelance Photog
Manny Pandya is one awesome dude. Formerly a PR professional for a motorcycle company, he brought more than his photography faculty with him to Kenya. Manny has an earnest eye for apprising our story and a conviction for integrity in his work and ours. I sought Manny’s direction and advice regularly on the trip and will continue to do so (if that’s ok with him- I haven’t asked yet). He is trustworthy, generous and solid, but also affable and open. From what I gather, everyone loves to be around Manny.
His photography work is moving. He captures moments expectant with emotion and in authentic connection with his subjects. He is able to diagnose the instant of happiness, joy, pride, and significance in a person or a moment and immortalize it in film. The natural illumination in his eyes disarms those around him though he’s ever vigilant of the next visual event ripe for the pictorial picking.
Manny is true amity and forte, and we are a better team with him on it.
The Board Members
We already knew we have the best board, but this trip made it undeniable. We had a record number of members come along- three were there and all with open hearts and ready to work long hours in the field. While Geoffrey conducted interviews and organized hundreds of kids for filming, Lori and Ryan were seeing perpetual patients at the medical camps.
Never before have I seen board members immerse themselves so consummately in the gritty and demanding hands-on work of a nonprofit. There was no reluctance, no questions asked. Geoffrey, Lori and Ryan took on every laborious task asked of them, and they helped the rest of us enjoy ourselves, too. I’m so proud to be on this team with them.
When Kareece and Annie asked me (separately) if they could join us on this trip, I knew immediately that it was a great idea. These two young women had already proved themselves in the Well Aware office- an environment that’s rarely relaxing- and I figured there would probably be no better team travel adventure for these two to join.
Despite heartbreaking moments in the medical camps, spitting dust spates, sore feet and foreign food fare, they woke every morning with a renewed dedication to whatever else needed to be done that day. They also helped us maintain a positive frequency when the days were long, and we all benefitted from that.
I am so proud of these two and feel confident they will navigate their next chapters with agility and might.
The Projects Team
These three women- the Projects Coordinator, the Hydrogeologist, the Engineer- are a force of nature. Not at all copious in stature, this trio is quite ample in efficacy. It’s no piece of cake to remain focused on a trip like this one, but that they did. They completed a new drill and a water well rehabilitation on this trip, as well as conducted many other evaluations. Did I mention that two of three of them are volunteers?
Wendy, our hydro, never takes her eyes off the drill to make sure the sediment and depths are meticulously recorded. Kathryn surmises measurements and calculations before I can complete the sentence asking for them.
Keala oversees it all and manages the relationship between the projects team and everyone else at the same time. She’s my go-to with any and all projects requests, including, “hey, when do we get to bring the entire group to crash your drill supervision,” and she makes it happen. Every time.
I’ve saved the best for last. As many of you know, I met Mike on my first project in Kenya. He was our matatu driver back then, and I soon knew he would be much more that that. He now proudly and perfectly wears the title of Field Manager for Well Aware, working full-time (and then some) on planning, implementing, reviewing and caring for our water systems.
What many of you may not know is that Mike is a former U.N. Peace Keeper, having worked in Bosnia in formidable times there. If you know Mike, you know him as genial, considerate and quiet. But there's a silent brawn and potency about Mike that has made him invaluable to our organization.
This guy is a key piece in our success, and I just hope he knows how important he is to so many.
If you’ve read through the entire report here, thank you! I love an opportunity to boast about our people, and they honorably deserve as much recognition as all of us can muster.
Now, it’s time to do more work. What I haven’t written about in this post (that will come next) is how much more we still have to do in Kenya and beyond. And, here’s the thing… we’re really good at this. Our communities are developing in ways we did not even imagine, and it’s remarkable to watch. We want to do more; we need to do more. Please help us do more. Here are some ways that you can:
· Make a donation in any amount. $10 = clean water for someone for decades.
· Join the Village of Well Aware. Our sustaining donors enable us to be more efficient and effective.
· Spread the word. Share our crusade on social media (or anywhere), and help us rally more support.
· Start your own campaign. Do anything you want to help us raise funds and awareness- have a party, run a race, shave your head, challenge your friends- and we’ll host it on our website! Just email James, and she’ll get you set up right away.
We deeply appreciate your attention to this cause, your faith in our team, and your efforts to help us do more.
A very special and tremendous THANK YOU to Barbara and Lindsey of True Places, philanthropy travel company, without whom we would have been lost. You are both incredible women forging a tricky terrain with grace and fortitude. Thank you for this very special trip.