Interviews – The Women of Kenya

Carrying heavy loads is something that is primarily done by women in Kenya; it is an occurrence less likely to be seen among men. Men in Kenya generally use a vehicle, bicycle or wheelbarrow to carry loads. It would be very rare to see women behind the wheels of trucks and other vehicles, or riding bicycles to transport their loads – that is the domain of men.

My interviews highlighted the role of women as messengers. As Kenyan women carry their loads, they act as messengers with something to deliver. They carry communication as they transport their goods from one place to another, delivering messages along their chosen routes and paths and stitching the world together, creating a network. Though these stories may seem mundane and everyday, they are the fabric of our world, and the real network of our society.

Carrying On The Body Reduces The Strain

I interviewed a 29 year-old woman, walking to collect water with her friend. Her walk to the river lasted around an hour, and she carried her baby on her back using an African print fabric wrapped around her body. She did not have a pram or a pushchair, though the terrain would have been unsuitable anyway. She told me that she chooses to carry her baby on her body because she does not feel the strain of the weight that way, and so tires less easily.

Selling Lightens The Load

While walking through Eldoret on market day, I saw a woman in a bright red skirt walking around a housing estate. She carried a sack on her back, using her hands to support the strap around her forehead. She starts each market day with a 10 kilometre walk, carrying more than 30 kilograms of produce on her back. Her skirt popped brightly against the background of brick houses, green grass and rain. I captured her wilful steps and inner strength on film. After the interview, I bought some of her produce to lessen the load she carried.

Dressed in a bright three-quarter length sleeved jumper, with a red wine jacket tied around her waist, this woman was carrying clothes to sell in Mitumba – the second-hand market. She left home around 7am and will continue working until 6pm. She carries her goods on her back because she gets chest pains if she carries them on her head. She is 55 years old and carries a load of 15 kilograms. She has been working in this industry for more than 10 years, and will walk to the airport, and neighbouring rural areas and villages, selling her clothes door-to-door. The only way to lighten her load is to sell her goods successfully.

Sticks Clear The Path

Well muscled and toned, this woman thrashed sticks and stones from her path using a sugar cane. She was carrying 5 kilograms of fruit to deliver to a customer she described as Tajiri – a rich person. She first learned to carry loads on her head at the age of 10, and she did not go to school. She started her business more than 10 years ago. I gave her a lift to the junction turn off to her destination to help her along her way.

They Carry On Their Heads Because There Is No Other Way

I saw two women carrying extremely large loads with a child in tow. Unfortunately they declined an interview, but a passer-by overheard the conversation and convinced the women to speak to me.

Each of the women was carrying a load of vegetables weighing 50 kilograms on their head. They have been carrying the load for 5 hours, and have another 5 kilometres to walk until they reach the village where they will sell the vegetables.

They began selling and carrying loads for their business when they got married, but they had been taught how to carry loads when they were children. They carry the loads on their heads because they have no other means of transport.

Their Strength Is Often Ignored

I saw two young sisters carrying baskets of fruit on their heads. Most of my interviews had been with older, married women, so the sight of the young girls struck me.

I wondered if these girls were attending school, or already working as fruit sellers and gaining life experience. As we were talking a car drove by, forcing the girls to step into a ditch to let it pass. The proximity of the two human vehicles, with the youngest sister aged just ten years old and already carrying 5 kilograms, and the machine vehicle struck me. The strength of women as human vehicles too often goes ignored.

I noticed the girls’ footwear, which did not help them in their physical efforts; the younger sister wore red flip-flops that were a few sizes too big. Her older sister wore sandals. This reminded me of the hierarchy of importance placed upon some Kenyan children, where the youngest child is less important than the eldest.

The flip-flops also meant that the youngest sister had to make even more effort to walk along the muddy road, using energy to keep the flip-flops on her feet. To support them, I bought a kilo of bananas to lighten the load.

Carrying Heavy Loads Is A Cultural Practice

I interviewed a lady buying African print fabric from a stall at Dalston Market, London. Having lived in London for 20 years, she recently visited her family in Ghana – where she was taught to carry loads at the age of 5. Her mother was coming home from the market with a big basket of food including yams, tomatoes and potatoes for the family. She went to meet her mother to help her with the load, which weighed around 20 kilograms, but she was unable to carry it and her mother ended up carrying it herself.

She works in telesales in London and she and her colleagues recently played a game describing a certain word without speaking. Her word was ‘carry’. To describe the word, she put an object on her head. Her colleagues could not understand what she meant because in the UK objects are carried in the hands, not on the head. This reminded her of her different cultural background.

Carrying The Load, And Passing It On

An interview with a shop owner in Brixton market revealed the idea of carrying as cultural heritage. She explained to me that carrying a load by hand can cause a stroke, as the brain tells the body that too much is being lifted. She explained the gradual build up of weight as children learn to carry – first with small loads of around 3 kilograms, which grow as the child gets stronger. She told me that she learned this way as a child, carrying water in a drum. She is determined that her children will learn to do the same when they visit their family in Africa, so that they experience what it is like to grow up there despite living thousands of miles away.


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