By Kaila Drayton Ferrufino
I attended Bridgewater College, a small school located in a rural Virginia town. As a liberal arts college, they required students to take a handful of elective courses. These classes were often outside of one’s field of study and were meant to help students become well-rounded individuals. I was suffering from a very strong case of senior-itis and didn’t care what elective I took as long as it fulfilled my requirement and got me to graduation. So I closed my eyes and picked one. African Politics. Sounds great. Sign me up.
As it turns out, I did well in the class and enjoyed my professor’s lectures and my fellow classmates. I knew the professor was planning on taking a handful of student to Niger in Western Africa after graduation, but I had no money and no plans to join them. On one of the last days of class, the professor set the itinerary on my desk and said “You’re going. Figure something out.” So I figured something out and I went.
While in Niger, we went to visit a Bridgewater College alum who had joined the Peace Corps and was volunteering in a rural community outside of Maradi. We went to her community, traveling over one single stretch of dusty road for what felt like hours, dodging potholes and goats along the way. The entire community greeted us when we arrived. We stopped at the school and dropped off basic school supplies and then we walked around with the children. We handed out disposable cameras so the children could take their own pictures. I remember being stunned when we developed the film and got to see the community through their eyes and their perspective. Later, we escaped from the brutal mid-day sun by sitting with a group of girls in a thatch-roofed hut. They were painting henna on my hands. One of the girls wore a bubblegum pink headwrap with matching plastic earrings and a traditional dress. I pointed at myself and said “Kaila”. She pointed at herself and said “Lasara”. She drew what looked like a fern, starting at the heel of my palm and climbing up my thumb. We didn’t speak each other’s language but we were still able to gesture in some rudimentary form of communication. I remember thinking she was very intelligent and that she was good at leading the other children and helping me communicate what I wanted them to do. When we were getting ready to leave, Lasara tapped my arm. She pointed at my camera and then pointed at herself. I took her portrait in the hut where she gave me my henna tattoo.
On the ride home, I learned that 12 year-old Lasara was to be married the following week. She would become the fourth wife to man in his 60’s. That was my ah-ha moment. The moment when I knew I wanted to use my photography to be a voice for those who don’t have one. I followed that moment into the Peace Corps, into being a board member for Engage Globally, and into using my photography as a way to share other peoples’ stories.
To learn more about our current project focused on empowering youth to tell their stories visit: https://envirophoto.weebly.com