As a photographer, one of my dreams was always to connect with local people.
By Kristina Kashtanova

My first experience in positively impacting someone from a different culture was when I was a journalism student in London and I sponsored a child in Guinea-Bissau through a charity. I wrote letters, sent photographs and small parcels, in return receiving drawings, photographs and updates about her school progress.

My photography career then took me to different countries and I always tried to connect with local people, even without speaking the local language.

I had heard about travelling with purpose from friends who went to Peru to build a daycare centre for kids. I saw their photographs and video updates on social media and saw how much fun it was. Evening sacred ceremonies with Peruvian shamans were followed by mornings seeing Machu Picchu at sunrise. While looking at their photographs in awe I decided that would be my goal – to travel with purpose.

I went to Kenya on an assignment to photograph Kanga Yoga Events in a remote area called Laikipia. I knew there was a Samburu tribe village about three hours away but was told it was unlikely we could visit. That’s how I learned my first lesson in travelling with purpose: always assume you’ll have a chance to connect with local people, come prepared. I wished I had brought gifts for the women and toys and school supplies for the children. I came empty handed but they gave me gifts they had made themselves. I treasure them.

Kenya was the first African country I visited. I was staying several hours from Nairobi, in the bush, where animals roam freely and the retreat site we were staying at had no walls or doors. I was assured I could sleep peacefully but the sound of the bush at night felt like an orchestra. I was nervous on my first night sleeping without doors and walls but I chose to trust and after that I felt comfortable sleeping there.

The owner of the land where we stayed, Anna, was a woman in her 50s. She was born there and had dedicated her life to protecting animals and supporting local tribes. She explained to me that giving the tribe money isn’t a good idea because the men could take the money and spend it on alcohol. In Samburu culture men don’t drink until they get married but then they can drink and they like it. Secondly, the tribe would become lazy and dependent. Instead, Anna told me she found a way to develop the village economy.

Jewellery made of beads was all the village produced. There were never enough customers, besides other tribes made similar necklaces. When she introduced dung paper to the women they didn’t like the idea, but this paper has many uses. Children could write on it and it could be sold as an interesting souvenir. The process cleans the dung until the paper looks white and smells good. Anna confessed she bought a lot of paper to encourage the women to produce more.

One of my dreams was to take portraits of the tribespeople. When we visited, I noticed an old woman in a dark hut sitting on something that I guessed was her bed. Everything was made of mud and dung. Old and serene, she was illuminated by the rays of the sun peeking through a small hole in the hut wall. The whole scene was simply beautiful. Even though we couldn’t speak each other’s language she understood what I wanted and when the sun next came out, she and I got the shot.