It’s your wedding day. In the village a bull has been slaughtered. Relatives prepare soups and steaks and drinks from the fullness of its body, while beyond the kitchen friends dance and sing for you in a muscular circle, pulling in, pushing out, a sound like breathing. There is a song about the ostrich, another about the leopard. Today is an oasis in the long, hot wash of winter. Today celebration is like water.
Then two white guys show up.
Out of the desert, out of nowhere. One’s got a notebook and a lot of questions. The other carries a camera and takes a lot of pictures. Neither is dressed for the occasion, neither has showered for a while. Uninvited, underfoot, didn’t bring a gift. Photographer Randy Olson and I might as well be Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers.
This has happened to us many times and did again two weeks ago in Kenya’s northern desert. I never quite get used to it, always feel slightly on edge, like an intruder. Always a few big questions scroll at edge of my thought. It’s sometimes a distracting dialogue, Socratic spam. But often it’s important: How can we do documentary work without ruining someone’s party? How do we explain our work in a place without much exposure to Western journalism, but lots of experience—often negative—with Western tourists? How do we ensure we’re not just making puddle-shallow docu-porn, the kind we see on cable TV, writing melodrama toward a commercial break about Viagra? Look at the tribes, y’all!
I’m sure most journalists hear this chorus. For us I think it’s a little louder because we’re working for National Geographic, which offers some of the best cultural documentary, but has, in the past, also trafficked in some of the worst. Reading the magazine during childhood helped push me out the door in adulthood, curious, enthralled. On the other hand, I can still see my college anthropology professors holding up copies of the magazine and laughing. “Don’t do this,” they said.
Ethical questions should guide us, not stop us. We must find a way through. Randy and I haven’t discovered the perfect path. An event like a wedding isn’t normal life, after all—it’s exotic, special exactly because it isn’t quotidian. At this one, several people grew angry with us despite our best efforts. They demanded we leave, they demanded we pay, their stares reflecting something deeper and older than our visit alone could summon.
With some patience and the help of good fixers we were able, mostly, to make our visit a calm one. To explain, partly, what we were trying to do. Not everyone understood or cared. To some we were just mzungu—which means “white person,” but apparently has its roots in a different word, which describes “a person who wanders aimlessly.” We must have looked aimless, arriving as we did, gathering inscrutable things before wandering off. A few people understood, though, and in the end they thanked us. Documentary work is trial and error, shuffle and repeat. We’ll keep refining. Every next time is a new opportunity.