By Amy Heydenrych
At the edge of a sand street in Dar es Salaam, a toddler plays with a spark plug in the shade of a tyre-less truck. He whirls it through the orange sand, a colourful game unfolding in his mind. I watch him laugh to himself through the tinted window of my taxi. My heart leaps back to afternoons spent sliding down grassy hills in flattened cardboard boxes in a country and time far away.
“Mzungu!” He points as I step out of the car. His mother – spotting my camera – picks him up and carries him inside one of the dusty doorways. She need not worry. I am not here to capture little children with my lens. This sunburnt street lined with its bored jobless men and desperate shopfronts serves one purpose only: to give me the images needed to assure foreign investors of their contribution to economic development.
They have a checklist that demands scenes of abundance, women being employed and hands holding fountains of grain.
These pictures will be emailed to countries their subjects will never see. They will be placed on billboards and websites by men who believe their USD 100 000 grant is enough to transform entire communities.
“Karibu!” The owner of the factory I am visiting clasps my arm with chapped hands. The dank, malt scent of the animal feed they are processing coils into my lungs. I hold in the urge to wheeze.
“Here is the raw product, here is the grain, here is the machine sponsored by your investors.” The dance is always the same, the owner awkwardly leading me through the details of a manufacturing process I will never understand.
“Take a picture of the new equipment,” he says. The light is too dark here. The reflection of the steel drum against my flash is too jarring. I take a few pictures I will never use, hoping the people I am here to capture are in the next room. The sawdust and grain speckled floor clears as we step into a white air-conditioned warehouse.
“This is where we make the packaging for the animal feeds,” he offers. Lines of women in white puffed hair nets hunch over in concentration like uniform rows of cotton crops.
I weave through each row, focusing on hands that flutter delicately over strips of plastic and knit them together, criss-crossing over and over again. Most of the women look down, willing me to disappear.
“Mambo vipi!” I offer shreds of basic Swahili with false gaiety, hoping to illicit a laugh or a smile. I am shark-like. All teeth.
My gaze is finally met by the strange contrast of cobalt eyes set in teak-coloured skin. Her exhausted beauty is strengthened in its fight against the elasticised hair net digging into her forehead and her stained overalls. Within the humming fluorescent glow of the factory floor, she shines a natural light.
This is the symbol I was hoping for. A young, female employee wearing the branded uniform of an investor-sponsored company. A picture guaranteed to be a banner on a website, or the compelling cover of a fund-raising proposal. A picture of hope. I twist my lens into focus. Her blue eyes gape open. She turns and whispers to the woman next to her. “She doesn’t want you to take her picture. Not looking like this. She is studying to be a teacher one day and is embarrassed for people to see her with her uniform on.”
My cheeks are red with heat. I am stained with shame. I know the burden of being a woman, of being an object, an arrangement of features assessed on its resemblance to another’s desire. I know the helpless rage of being forced, pushed and stepped on by those with more power.
Today I am the predator. I am the one with the power.
She is so perfect, hands tangled in a nest of shredded plastic, factory machines groaning in the background. Nobody has to know who she is. It doesn’t need to matter who she is.
I crouch on the cold ground, raising my camera between us like a weapon. “I’m sorry,” I whisper, and take the shot.