Vignettes of an American Photographer Working in Africa: Peter DiCampo’s Notes from the Field
It is May 2014, and I am in Chirifoyili, Ghana. Joseph Neindow Amadou, an elder of the village, Chairman of the community’s Water & Sanitation Committee, and a tireless advocate for their seemingly abandoned water system, is telling me about Okonkwo. He quotes from Achebe’s classic novel, “Things Fall Apart,” retelling the story of Okonkwo’s downfall and drawing a parallel to Chirifoyili’s situation. In the novel, Okonkwo hangs himself, and his people will not touch the body, asking instead for help from white strangers; in Chirifoyili, they do not believe the water project will ever be completed, although Joseph holds meetings and makes phone calls and writes letters to the donors and the contractors.
“Unhang Okonkwo for us,” he asks of me. “Maybe now that a white man is paying attention to us again, the project will finish.”
It is August 2011, and I am uncomfortable. I have just arrived in a small village in northern Central African Republic, and my colleagues and I are received with a fanfare worthy of royalty: drumming and dancing and singing and enormous crowds in all directions. In his welcoming speech, a village leader confuses us, a photo and video crew, with the NGOs that have visited them in the past, and he thanks both us and God in the same sentence for the village’s continued health and prosperity. The specifics hardly seem to matter; our foreignness alone makes us worthy of praise.
It is June 2015, and in Chinkhota 1, Malawi, I am telling Chief Binson Malenga that Madonna will not be coming back. She promised to build a girl’s school there, an enormous school, a prestigious school, providing education and employment… but the story goes that employees of her organization, Raising Malawi, disappeared with the funding, and she was advised to support smaller projects instead of starting one big one, and moved on.
They did, however, begin excavation. Not only do the people of Chinkhota 1 not have a school, they also don’t have farmland anymore. It has been destroyed.
When I tell Mr. Malenga I have read that Madonna does not plan to return, he looks momentarily stricken. But he quickly regains his composure. “Well, we just hope that she decides to come back,” he says.
It is fall 2006 and I am in training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer in central Ghana. I draw in my notebook a venn diagram with one circle that says “community,” one that says “Gov., NGO, etc,” and one that says “Peace Corps Volunteer.” The overlapping center says “sustainable solution”. Armed with this knowledge, I head to the village where I will live for nearly two years.
It is June 2015, and I am in Lilongwe, Malawi. At a party, an employee of the U.S. Embassy tells me about the Presidential Villas, a gated community of homes that looks like American suburbia. They were built for an African Union summit meeting, but the meeting was moved from Malawi to Ethiopia and the luxurious homes have never been used. I write to the managers asking if I can see and photograph the Villas, and they readily oblige and send me on a tour. The woman acting as my guide and minder tires of my long setups for each photograph and falls asleep on a big leather sofa, leaving me free to roam. Only at the end does she wake up and ask of my photography, “What is this for again?”
It is October 2015 and I am at home, calling Joseph in Chirifoyili to see if there is an update on their water system. Suddenly, it seems, everything has happened: the system is finished, and Joseph is working with the contractors to organize a handoff to the community. Soon, the people of Chirifoyili will not have to walk miles for drinking water. “I’m sure it’s because of what you did,” Joseph says, not believing that he is the hero, not quite believing me when I say that I have not actually published anything about Chirifoyili yet, have told almost no one of their story.
It is June 2015, and now I am in Mfera, Malawi. I’ve been photographing PlayPumps, the inefficient, often faulty water systems that have become the symbol of a Western solution that seemed miraculous but is in practice disastrous. For reasons I cannot imagine, most of the PlayPumps I find replaced other, perfectly working water pumps, only to break down within, on average, a few months.
I wasn’t sure how easy they would be to find, but once I found one, I found nearly ten in one day — at each primary school I visited, they said there was another one at the next school up the road, and then the next school up the road…
In Mfera, they tell me, there is a man who has been teaching here since before the PlayPump arrived, I should come back and see him. By the time I finally meet Charles Makasu, he has written the whole story of their PlayPump in a notebook, and recites it for me, along with this thoughts on these foreign objects. “There is no choice as to where it is coming,” he says. “No choice as to what is the most needed development in that particular area.”
“It came as a dream. You may wake up one morning, and you may find the development at your doorsteps…”
– Peter DiCampo, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee
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