Tuesday, February 8, 2011

the black show, page 4

girls on glue
aids orphans in nairobi, kenya 
may 1993

the circumstances for this shot were crazy.  i got this image while doing the trans continental trek of africa by bicycle with dan buettner.  after 6 months on the road, our team of 4 cyclists arrived in nairobi.  we crashed here for about 2 weeks as i remember.  we went to masaai mara and enjoyed being tourist in east africa.

dan's dad and his brother, nick were visiting at this point in the trip.  the buettners were in downtown nairobi souvenir shopping when dan encountered the girls pictured above sniffing glue.  he asked if he could photograph them.  they consented.  apparently he paid them but the older girl didn't feel they'd been paid enough.  while dan and his family were shopping for t shirts, the girls remained outside sniffing glue.  i happened upon them at this point and was intrigued.  the older girl still had her shirt on when i first encountered them.

dan and his family emerged from the t shirt shop and were confronted by the older girl.  he told her he'd paid her all he was going to and demanded she leave him alone.  bad move.  she created a scene by ripping her shirt off, tossing it to the sidewalk and speaking loudly in swahili.  naturally, this drew a crowd.  at one point, dan pushed her away and proceded to walk away.  the two girls followed as did an ever enlarging crowd of onlookers.

dan and his brother steve walked about a block away, turned the corner and came to a bank that had 2 guards with riot helmets and large sticks positioned on either side of the door to protect the bank.  dan's thinking was he'd use them to protect he and his brother from the crowd should it turn hostile.  just a couple days before he'd witnessed mob justice while dining at an outdoor italian restaurant in downtown nairobi.  as dan recounted the story, there he was with his dad and 2 brothers enjoying a casual lunch when they saw a guy running down the street followed by a crowd of people yelling "thief! thief!"  he witnessed the guy getting caught and set upon by the group as dan said "getting beat to within inches of his life."

now here he was.  confronted by what he feared was a similar mob waiting to turn on him.  this was at a time in kenya's history when hordes of aids orphans roamed the streets homeless.  there used to be stories of the authorities rounding them up and taking them to camps outside the city limits.  because the kids lived in the ruins of old, sometimes burnt out buildings, they'd appear as monochromatic, ghostly gray figures moving in groups through the city.  

because the spectacle of white tourists being accused of god knows what by 2 girls on glue, one of whom was topless, was great theater, the crowd on the sidewalk grew larger around dan and his brother.  i was in the crowd witnessing this.  at this point i decided to go into the circle to join dan and his brother.  the energy in that space was palpably electric.  there were the 2 girls immediately in front of dan animately demanding more money and sniffing glue with the bank security guards (who never flinched), on either side of dan.  i photographed the moment.  dan suggested i go find a taxi to prepare for his escape. i left the circle; however, dan's dad who was also in the crowd watching this unnerving spectacle, found a taxi first.  dan and family piled in to the waiting taxi with the topless girl holding onto the taxi as it sped away. 

fortunately, the situation for aids orphans has improved in east africa over the past 20 years.  more efforts are being made to reunite them with relatives living in villages.


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