Review — PORTRAITS OF INNOCENCE & SKETCHES OF JOY from Bie Bostrom (Kenya)
Portraits of Innocence: The Children of Ahero
Photographs by Bie E. Bostrom (Kenya 2004–06)
Sketches of Joy: Drawings by the Children of Ahero, Kenya
Collected by Bie E. Bostrom (Kenya 2004–06)
Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
Born in 1941, Bie Bostrom was raised in a family of nine children in Antwerp, Belgium. She trained as a nurse, but she fell in love with photography after her father gave her a camera as a graduation gift. She took a five-year course in photography at an art school in The Netherlands, then went to London for her practical year, where she lived and worked for eight years.
In 1977, Bie arrived in San Francisco where she met her husband while looking for a work studio. In 1980 the couple moved to New York and opened Studio Bostrom. In November of 2001, she closed the studio to travel with her husband who was diagnosed with cancer two months later. While caring for her husband, she decided (with her husband’s approval) to join the Peace Corps when he was gone. (Rossmoor Newsletter, Walnut Creek Ca, “Selected to the Fitness Center Wall of Fame” April 2012.)
Bie became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ahero, a town in Kenya in the Nyando Province near Tanzania and served from 2004 to 2006. People there are engaged in agriculture — growing rice, sugar cane and maize. While attempting to improve their lives through Small Enterprise Development, she quickly noticed that many children were being raised by grandmothers. Their parents had succumbed to HIV/AIDS. She directed her attention to keeping the grandmothers and grandchildren healthy, promoting economic independence and providing educational opportunities for the children.
When she returned home to California, she created a non-profit organisation, “Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren.” It focused on providing these families livestock, clean water, mosquito nets, and staples such as flour, cooking oil and soap, as well as clothes and shoes, including school uniforms for the children. In a letter to Peace Corps Worldwide, Bie wrote, “At the end of 2016 after 12 years of giving all my attention to it, I decided to close the foundation. It was not an easy decision.”
Douglas Hergert, an RPCV and friend, helped Bie to publish these books and wrote an eloquent introduction.
Portraits of Innocence: The Children of Ahero is a gallery of Bie Bostrom’s photos of children going about their daily activities, things that any Africa PCV would immediately recognize. Bie’s portraits are masterful, capturing color, light, contrasts and images that a talented photographer sees and snaps before they escape. Two little girls walk a dusty path, the older one with a pail on her head, her dress torn in the back, holding the hand of her small sister, who wears an incongruous silky lavender dress. Small boys and girls carry big babies on their backs or in their arms. A boy watches over cattle with a pole across his shoulders and his arms looped around it. A boy and a girl carry stacks of twigs as tall as they are on their heads, for a cooking fire. The cover photo is of a girl, maybe eight-years old, wearing an old pink dress torn down the front, holding her index fingers and thumbs around her eyes like glasses, or camera lenses, and smiling. The caption is “Photo me Picture.”
All the children wear rags and torn sandals, but most of them are smiling. Their eyes challenge the viewer to see beyond their poverty. One boy’s dark eyes stare back, daring you to look. There are intelligent eyes that seem to understand and accept; mysterious, dreaming eyes; laughing eyes accompanied by broad white-tooth smiles; mischievous eyes of two boys up to something; curious, questioning and sad eyes; luminous eyes with amber glints or ebony luster; a girl with her hands folded in front of her, smiling graciously as if in welcome to her world; a gaggle of giggling kids, self-conscious in front of the camera.
Sketches of Joy: Drawings by the Children of Ahero, Kenya surprised me with their rather sophisticated renderings of life as they see it. In Senegal, where I was a PCV, the children in my village did not seem to grasp the concept of transferring what you see to paper. Not the children of Ahero. They sign their names and ages from 8 to 16 years-old. Many of the drawings are of wells, quite intricate in their workings and parts, and girls carrying water in buckets on their heads. Some of the drawings are inscribed: “Thank you Delong for water well.” One ten-year-old drew a very good picture of a hare, a church with a a cross on top, a nearby well and a drinking-water pot. There’s a wonderful picture of a detailed bus viewed from the side, but with two drivers in a window facing out to the viewer. There’s a house that is in perfect perspective, surrounded by a fence that looks like the artist used a ruler to make very straight lines. It’s signed “Art by: Dennis Omondi.”
I spent hours looking at these entrancing photos and sketches. I’ve seen a lot of coffee table photo books, but these two are precious, filled with exquisite photos and intimate glances into the lives of innocent children who seem to say “I never knew we were poor!”
Profits from the sale of Bostrom’s books go to the Northern California Peace Corps Association that funds domestic and international community projects around the planet.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs. (email@example.com).
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