Around the world in 80 days – Part 2: Kenya

21 March 2013

 Gloves
[object Object]

A photograph by Miriam and James, exploring the juxtaposition of science and nature.

Over the course of four months, Barry J Gibb visited our major overseas programmes in Africa and Asia to make a film about the Art in Global Health project. In the second of his journal entries Barry arrives in Kenya.

Within minutes of arriving at Nairobi airport, en route to Mombasa, I was fleeced by two apparently well-meaning gentlemen. On arrival at the diminutive airport, I found myself needing to change planes quickly and, in the absence of clear signage, clearly looked like a confused and wandering target. This was my first important lesson when travelling alone – never look confused, never look lost. As I wandered aimlessly around, I was approached with the offer of help to carry my bags. Thinking this gentleman was staff (bright yellow jacket), I gratefully received his assistance. Thirty feet later, we had ‘arrived’, as had his friend who began badgering me for cash. Initially reluctant, their persistence veered towards light threats. From that moment on, no one carried my bags again.

Mombasa airport was an entirely different experience. Collecting my bags at this tiny airport, a charming woman asked if I worked for the Wellcome Trust. This was how I met Vicky Marsh, wife of Kevin Marsh, the Director of the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme. Together, we shared a jeep ride for the hour’s journey to Kilifi, home of KEMRI, and my home for the next few days. Animals walked alongside the road, just as much as the people. And there were so many people, just walking. The drive passed quickly as Vicky explained how she and Kevin came to Kilifi, as young scientists, how the place had transformed from a quiet seaside village to a burgeoning town and holiday resort, the tremendous impact the building of a simple bridge had had for locals and the way its culture had embraced them. And, of course, the impact of building a state of the art research centre – the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) – with around 700 employees right in the middle of it all.

I checked-in at the Mnarani Club, a beautiful resort nestling by the ocean, and headed off to KEMRI to meet my long-time email colleague Juliette Mutheau, then KEMRI’s Science Communication Officer. She introduced me to KEMRI’s designated artists-in-residence for the Art in Global Health project, Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki. A fantastic team using all manner of media and performance to communicate their ideas, I immediately knew we would get on. We went to their cottage by the ocean; my mind fizzing with filming opportunities. Travelling to the cottage, I used my DSLR camera to shoot them in their tiny jeep during a rather turbulent drive on rocky roads. Once there, I brought out the heavy artillery, my EX1 camera, filming as much as I could. This tends to be my filming style – I know pretty much what I’m after but, in any given situation in which reality is unfolding before the lens, I’ll capture as much as I can. One never knows what might be useful and, when it comes to capturing moments, there are no second chances.

At their cottage, they took me out to see something that was ‘currently inspiring them’. Fifty metres from their front door, behind a wall of vegetation, was the ocean crashing against a series of cliffs, in all its deep blue, tempestuous glory. ‘Look’ they said, ‘listen…’.

Back in the cottage I filmed them discussing their process, their work. Listening to Miriam and James talk was remarkable; the depth of their thinking, reasoning, the scope of their questions, insights and ideas. This was a side to art I’d never heard: ‘good’ art is the product of intense intellectual interrogation, a process resulting in a thing, a piece of art, potentially provoking a viewer down a thought path of their own. Part of their thinking was to explore the boundaries between culture and science in Kilifi through a series of photographs. We went to a local food market with a handful of latex laboratory gloves. Less than 24 hours earlier I’d been in leafy North London; now I was standing in the middle of a busy, dusty street in Kilifi as Miriam explained to a bewildered but tolerant vendor why they needed private access to the market for half an hour to throw gloves. This sounds a little unusual, but their artistic aim was very clear: by photographing lab equipment in environments you never usually see it in, they create images in which worlds and beliefs collide, provoking a viewer to think and question their views of science.

Inside the market, James set up his camera while Miriam looked for good locations to launch some latex. This was art in action, just as much as the photographs that followed. The market was surrounded by curious onlookers, watching these two, possibly wildly eccentric, artists work. Over and over again, Miriam threw the gloves across the market as James tried to capture the perfect spread of airborne labware across tomatoes, carrots, potatoes… Frozen in time, the gloves adopt a life of their own, in a space that should be alien to them.

Back at the Mnarani, I finally met and chatted with Kevin Marsh, agreeing that we should cover some of the more scientific aspects of the trip. That the man at the head of the KEMRI-Wellcome Programme wanted to be so involved was fantastic, an invaluable endorsement of the value of film to the organisation. This did wonders for my confidence in the trip. Over the next couple of days, I filmed the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust’s scientists at work, interviewed its people and gawped at the hugely curious monkeys that seemed to appear on every external stairway in sight.

Patterns began to emerge about how science works in Kilifi. Teams of people from Kilifi regularly leave the centre, heading out into the various patchworks of communities to liaise with their members, literally building bridges between the population and the science all around them, to help explain how, for example, giving a single sample of blood can advance science and health.

Feeding into this battle of understanding is a government, I was informed by locals, that presently undervalues science. With little support within the education climate and beyond, there’s only minor encouragement to become a scientist and little hope of a supported career, should you become one. Growing up in such a climate, it’s hardly surprising the general level of scientific enthusiasm is impoverished.

To see the real value of science, one need only visit the hospital next door to KEMRI. In one area, the Wellcome Trust’s logo sits proud yet crudely painted onto the faded blue wall of one of the hospital’s ageing buildings. And while science is broadly about stretching our understanding of life and our place within the Universe, arguably it’s greatest, most immediate impacts can be seen in contexts like this, where advances result in tangible benefits to health. Blue-sky research will always be of great importance but the science in Kilifi has an urgency about it, a very real life-saving focus. In one of the most affecting experiences of the entire trip, I toured the busy hospital, including a children’s ward, meeting toddlers suffering from malaria. There, the importance of KEMRI and what it’s trying to achieve powerfully hit home.

Another experience I was completely unprepared for was an impromptu conversation with one of the cleaning staff at the Mnarani. Hovering by the door, it was clear he wanted to say something. “Do you believe in witchcraft where you come from?,” he asked. This was not what I’d been expecting but our chat revealed a whole other cultural dimension to Kenya that had blindsided me. In addition to Christianity and the Muslim religion, Kenya and many other parts of Africa have a powerful belief in magic. This gentleman was very curious about how we, in the UK, achieve success without fear of some form of magical retaliation (apparently, my room had strong magic, which I chose to believe was a good thing). This belief is not restricted to cleaners: senior researchers at KEMRI spoke of professors who have deeply superstitious beliefs. This innocent conversation was a powerful reminder that the culture underpinning a country has as much, if not more, impact on its scientific progress as its education system.

Hear more of Barry’s audio diaries from Kenya:

Barry Gibb

Barry Gibb is a Multimedia Producer at the Wellcome Trust.