Personal Anthropology; We are Suba! [with Ekialo Kiona FM Youth Radio]
two month long engagement | Kitawi Beach, Mfangano Island, Kenya (2013)
I was invited to teach a workshop with some young people on an island in Kenya where a small ethnic minority is struggling to preserve its endangered language. My job was to contribute my skills in storytelling and audio production, and my background in anthropology and language to a community which had recently started a youth radio station. Their purpose was to revitalize the endangered Suba language, and my plan was to help them brainstorm what it means to be Suba and teach them how to create radio programs about the answers. I first trained them how to interview, and, after one lesson, I asked them to practice on me.
“What did you expect us to be like?” one young woman asked me almost immediately. Caught off guard, I looked out to fifteen pairs of steady eyes. Who are these people? Frank. Impressive. “And how are we different from that?” another added with genuine curiosity. My mind spun, searching for an easy answer, something stock. The truth was embarrassing. I wanted an out. But I knew that being fake was not a fruitful strategy. I had to trust them with the complicated emotions and influences of ignorance, if I was ever going to be trusted with something as important as their cultural heritage. I took a breath and told them about the “Feed the Children” ads I and so many other Americans had grown up with, images of naked, starving bodies that we believed were the single story of Africa. Even after a progressive education, extensive travel abroad, and personal relationships with African scholars, those images still lingered about a continent I had never touched.
The exercise turned into a conversation about how easily we overlook the truths outside the camera’s frame. I told my students how important their own stories were: of smartly dressed young professionals, of living on a tiny island understood to be the last place in west Kenya where magic still exists. Theirs were some of the myriad stories of Africa, a chorus to surround the visuals of hungry kids.
Then they taught me how to be clean in a place with no running water, how to eat gracefully with my hands, how to tell the difference between those who saw me as white, rich and ignorant and those who saw me as Lindsey. They taught me how my arsenal of American radio programs meant little in a culture with its own storytelling values and its own needs from radio broadcasting. I learned that my opinions about gender or religion were of little consequence, and that my creative role was in designing the process to help uncover and organize their own knowledge. The youth worked together to develop and research topics that examined what parts of life showed remnants of Suba tradition. They recorded their elders and peers, the sounds of the island, and together we produced Ekialo Kiona FM’s first batch of radio programs to begin crystallizing a sense of cultural identity in a rapidly changing region.
The project’s biggest challenge — and its beauty — was that the programs were produced in a language I could not understand, one uniquely suited to serve the project’s purpose: to start conversations about culture and history within the community.