Photographing Rahel Msagala

Rahel Hezeroni Msagala, at the AFNET offices, with markings on her face that she applied to demonstrate a cutting ceremony, AFNET offices, Dodoma, August, 2017

Rahel Hezeroni Msagala, writing notes with Sarah Mwaga. She is a former ngariba who is now an anti-FGM/C activist and bringing communities in her area to abandon or supplant the practice. Dodoma, August, 2017

Raheli’s soft voice, and even more delicate fingers, mapped out the marks on her face, this one for bravery, it made me brave and made the girls brave for what had to be done; these for protection from malevolent witchcraft, protection on the left arm to make things lighter, on the neck to make me stronger. That green bottle has Mgongolo tree bark, this one has Saswa leaves, the opaque plaster is msangalale bark, then there’s the pembe or horn, kibuyu (gourde), kipego (drinking bowl), the shanga (ceremonial waist belt) wrapped around me.

I listened, entranced. And just as quietly, I said, Raheli, this is my camera, it’s big, and I have to work very slowly. My head goes under this cloth, and you should try and sit in front here, very still. I am afraid it is going to take a while, and you will feel very tired. But it won’t hurt – she smiles. I start focusing. She breathes and sways. Raheli, can you try to take small, slow breaths so your body does not move, and lean back against the wall just a bit? Then please try not to move. She settles in, and I start making tiny movements on the front of the camera, shifting the lens slightly up and left, to line up the curve of the archway in the background with the intersection of her cap and forehead. She does not move. I’m sweating. It is almost noon. The blaze of light, swarming in from the sky and wide street, bouncing off the polished limestone floor of the patio and in through the double doors, is shadowless because of the white walls. But I am anxious because Rahel is in a very tiring posture and I may not have more than a minute left before she has to shift, and if she does, we have to start all over again. She does not move. Exposure check. Final focus. Close and cock the shutter, load the film holder, gently, gently. Set the aperture and shutter speed. Look at Raheli. Look with her, through her, feel that all is right. She does not move. Click.

Photographers, we are given these gifts every now and then. I am so, so grateful.

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One Comment

  1. Constance Leite Parker January 14, 2019 at 8:46 PM

    Grateful for this. Wonder how it felt to return to the land of your birth? We are not alone.

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