Tessa Marie Images
Main Line Today‘s Tessa Smucker documented a group of Kenyan girls given the chance of a lifetime thanks to the Neema Project.
25 YEARS OF MAIN LINE TODAY
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece initially ran in the August 2017 issue of Main Line Today. Since 2014, the Neema Project has impacted more than 145 Kenyan women and their families. But COVID has thrown the organization into flux. As schools were forced to close, the nonprofit shifted from development to relief mode, providing food for about 200 adults and 100 children. Neema’s young women also used their tailoring skills to make 4,000 masks, which were distributed throughout the community.
I chose photography as a profession for reasons beyond simply loving the medium. But after seven years of working in the field, I had yet to make good on them.
I traveled to Zambia with my family in high school, volunteering with an organization called Family Legacy. When I toured the Camp Life village, where dozens of children had been rescued from the streets, I remember thinking, “This is what it’s all about. If only I could tell these stories to people who haven’t had access to this world, stirring emotion that leads to compassion and ultimately changes lives.”
That opportunity came on a trip to Kitale, Kenya, in February 2017. The faith-based Neema Project picks up where childhood sponsorship leaves off, empowering the most vulnerable girls to discover their purpose and value. This isn’t just another school—girls’ lives are literally redirected through what they learn. They’re given a valuable tool in the developing world: a way to support themselves through sewing.
For three years, the girls work hard in their village. In a culture run by men, where the mistreatment of women is commonplace, they’re cared for and nourished, and their children are supported. The program isn’t easy, by any means. But if they stick with it, it changes the trajectory of their lives.
One of my most memorable experiences was an overnight stay at the Neema compound. Our group spent the morning and afternoon with the girls, documenting their time in classrooms and their breaks throughout the day. We ate dinner with them and walked with the second-year students to their compound, watching the sun dip behind the horizon. We drank chai tea to close the evening and had a slumber party with the house mom.
We also visited graduates—now employees making a life for themselves. One night, we were welcomed into the home of the program’s director. We milked the cow that gave us milk for chai, watched her prep a live chicken for the evening meal, and chatted as the cabbage was cut and the bread was rolled out and fried.
Later, we squeezed inside the small living room, filling our bellies. Several times, I found myself consciously trying to focus on every detail, every scent. I never want to forget that evening.