Before we left Turkana, we met someone.
The image you have of a Turkana woman is wrong. She is skinny, yes, but she is gorgeous. You dont need a camera to tell she is gorgeous. She has dark, flawless skin, and eyes with gorgeous, thick set eyes. She doesnt always wear her tribal garb, the beads and the flamboyant necklaces, or the elegant shangas. Nyeusi pretends she doesnt know how gorgeous she is. She tries to stand in the crowd. She stands out. Kokan sees her and smiles. She smiles back.
Photographers are Lotharios armed with cameras. I think its a risk of the job, the deep desire to see beauty and capture it. To be a photographer, and to photograph beauty in any of its forms, whether it is human or landscape or even situations, you need to fall in love really fast. Theres no time to research. Theres no time to know your subjects story. You trust your eyes more than you heart, and your lens above everything else. That sense of impermanence that @Ndinda_ talks about in this piece [Link] is not just about places, it is also about people. You hardly hang out with people long enough, and you meet far too many people in a day to actually care or be intrigued by them all. On the last Capture Kenya, that person was a small girl we met on the narrow streets of Lamu. She was kicking and doing some world-class manoverse with a ball, seemingly oblivious that she lives and plays in a World Heritage Site. She lives in splendor, but for her life and happiness start and end with what she can do with a football.
With Nyeusi, you get a sense she knows. She knows this isnt it. If it has to be, she will make it work. She is a wanderer at heart, someone so enchanted with the tentacles of a wanderlust she doesnt understand that she feels misplaced. She doesnt want to get married, and we learn later, that she and her father did not see eye to eye for while because she wouldnt bend to his will. It sounds like the stereotypical story until you hear how her father apologized to her later, and took three sheep to her brother-in-laws she had sought refuge. That rebellion shows in how she struggles to fit in, how she declares, without flinching, that we should call her Vero.
Turkana people, after centuries of making it in the splendor of a rocky paradise, have evolved a certain mien and softness that makes their smiles feel instinctive. They are not fake, but when everyone in a place where doors and windows have to face one side keep smiling, then you wonder what they know that you dont. You get a sense that even if you moved here, you would not evolve that sense of belonging you need to see the beauty of the place every morning. With Nyeusi, who has been brought up here, you get the feeling of a kindred spirit after three days of meeting people who couldnt be more at home.
In the middle of a crowd that gathered while we took photos of a man and two women making small talk, a woman with world class beauty stood trying to fit in. It is the kind of flawless beauty that you see without really seeing. Its not the beauty of Java waitresses, for example, who will make you subconsciously turn your head. Her skin is dark and flawless, and her voice a bit husky, but sexy without being trashy. She is wearing a bland green blouse and flowery skirt. She sees Kokans stare, and smiles back.
She doesnt need to be asked twice to be our muse. What bugs her, surprisingly, is that we want her to switch her green top for some tribal garb. We want to capture her essence as an 18-year-old Turkana woman, and for that we might need a few props. For the shoot, Nyeusi stands on a vantage point overlooking the jaded sea. She stands with the sea behind her, so the jade background call allow the photo to breath life into the landscape. Behind her, right before the sharp cliff, is a lone white cross surrounded by a neatly pile of rocks. In her field of view is her entire village, littered with hundreds of manyattas in a flowing pattern. The flow is interrupted by the occasional stone building, with its shiny mabati roof, and the cellphone network mast in the distance. But the camera blurs all that background and focuses on this beauty.
The strong wind hits her face every few seconds as it fights to get to the open sea. She doesnt flinch, she looks directly into the camera. Given that a shoot like this can take even an hour, at the top of a hill where the wind threatens to tip even the Cruiser over, one would expect fragility. But theres none. Theres pure focus. The wind lifts her braids and flies them into a few of the shots. Then a shuka, meant to create some kind of shade, flows into her field of view and she quickly darts her eyes to see it. That diversion creates something else.
Heres the thing. There was an age for dark-skinned African female models. From Iman Bowie and Alek Wek, that dashing woman who brought South Sudan to the world, to Ajuma Nasenyana, who first walked on to the world stage in 2003, that journey has never really ended. Ajuma, like Nyeusi, is Turkana. What is common about this women is how they brought sexy to a whole new level. It is the full lips, for example, that you first see when you see an image of Ajuma. The thickset lips, the dark skin and the short hair, brought together by high cheekbones, have taken them to the most elite levels of global modelling. Their dark flawless skin stole most of the attention but it is the eyes though, that create the greatest contrast though.
Theres a chilling feeling when Nyeusi stares back. This dark-skinned beauty, on the edge of what was once the Jade Sea, seems to see all. She has small eyes, as does almost every Turkana native. Her eye balls, white as a cloud, work with her dark skin to create what feels like a permeating force. In what Lupita Nyongo said of Alek Wek, that she was dark as night, Nyeusi eyes look like two small crescent moons in the dark night sky. She looks dreamy, and smiles as if all is well with the world.?
In its own way, looking at Nyeusi like that has its own problems. Dark-skinned models have never fully appealed to mainstream fashion, even in Kenya. Their success has been the product of high fashion who, tired of Van Goghs and yatchts, looked for beauty in what they consider exotic beauty. So dark became haute couture, and did very little to change the world. But beauty is both subjective and universal, meaning that while the experiences of the viewer matter, instinct plays a bigger role. Beauty, most of the time, is confidence, and Nyeusi has that in bucketloads.
Nyeusi quickly got rid of her beaded garb the moment her two charmers declared they had to stop. She constantly smiled, and said too little to know who she is as a person. What she didnt have to say is that though she doesnt have life figured out, she will live and thrive.
The day after we met Nyeusi, we left Turkana. We pitched camp in Nanyuki after taking a detour into Lewa Conservancy to chase the setting sun. Its thrilling landscapes, and variety of wildlife, made for an interesting sundowner as jackets and sweaters were, for the first time during this entire trip, used. The road will now lead to Nyeri but on the route going around Mount Kenya. It feels like a different, swarmed world after the marvel that was Turkana but as with all art, and nature is art, beauty shall be found.
One story is good,
till Another is told.