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The Road to Kenya

africa giving kenya kitale pokot travel Dec 13, 2021

Author: Charla Maarschalk

What moves you into action? As an artist I'm inspired to paint faces -- but not just any face. I either start with an idea I want to represent so I look for a face that works, or I am inspired by a specific face and a story follows. 

Most of the time when I teach painting or paint myself, I search for royalty-free images online to use as references. However, as an artist, my absolute and most meaningful work has (most of the time) come from using my own photographs. 

As a teacher, I get a lot of questions about commission work, and one of the most asked is about references. More often than not a portrait commission request comes with poorly lit photographs to use as references. My best practice in commission work is to take my own photographs of the person I am painting. This way I can guarantee a composition that will translate to canvas, great lighting to work from, and an inspiring expression to tell the story.

But the main reason I do this is so that I can get to know the subject. Photographing in person allows me to get to know the spirit of a person and who they are. I am a much better artist when I know that person, even if just for a moment. 

"I look fat and weird" - said every person ever photographed!
Have you ever taken a photo of someone you love and thought about how much it didn't look like them? It's easy to take a photo that makes a person look terrible and vice versa. Photographs OFTEN lie. And photographs often misrepresent who a person really is. A professional photographer is really good at figuring out how to not just make a person look good but also to bring out the character of who they truly are on film. 

As a portrait painter. my favorite process includes photographing my subject and then painting them. So, the dream for my life became about traveling to all parts of the world, photographing people of every culture, genre, and age so that I can paint them and tell the story about how our differences are the things that actually make us the same

In 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya with a good friend of mine who is a doctor. She knew a Canadian couple, Larry and Francine, who had been living and working in Kenya for a decade. Their initial work was about rescuing children from the streets. After realizing how the children they met had many medical needs, they started carrying around bandages and medicine everywhere they went. Word spread about how they were helping people, and that work naturally morphed into opening a medical clinic. 

My friend wanted to travel there to work in the clinic and find out what their needs were as well as educate as best she could during her time there. 

When she told me she was going, I blurted out that I wanted to go with her. She simply replied, "Then come!" It wasn't quite that simple, but that is what I did. Not long after that day, I found myself on a plane flying over the ocean with camera in hand. 

This incredible couple are multifaceted and they deserve a book to be written about all the things they do. But the aspect of their work that has had a lasting effect on my heart was how they rescue kids and put them in real loving homes.

Larry and Francine first went to Kenya to work in an orphanage but realized quickly that the orphanages didn't meet many, if any, needs of the children, and kids often ran back to the street to be with their 'family'. Larry and Francine soon closed the orphanage and instead found family homes for the children needing rescue. In essence, they set up foster care and often permanent homes for these incredible kids. 

The kids on the streets were heartbreaking. I met a boy who was 8 years old and lived on the street. At that time I had an 8-year-old son at home and knew how much he was missing having his mom at home. The boys on the street had no adults in their lives. They only knew the love of their 'brothers' that lived on the street with them. To walk away and leave those boys to a future on the street was one of the hardest things I could ever do. 

A couple of weeks into our time there we went on a medical outreach. The remote villages of Kenya are isolated and far removed from the cities. They rarely receive much-needed medical care. We set out with trucks full of medical supplies to set up a two-day remote clinic in the desert where people came from all over -- some even walked for days -- to attend.  

Our plan was to work until dark, sleep under the the African desert...and work again the next morning. 

When we arrived, people were already lining up and had been waiting for several hours. This group mostly consisted of women and children. The village chiefs arrived only when we were ready to start. I was there to photograph and film so I got to work behind the camera while the stories unfolded. 

The chiefs demanded to be served first, and arguments ensued as to whether they would be served first or not. Children cried in the heat and others were nursed. The saddest stories of illness and abuse were heard while other little kids got their runny noses dealt with and left with big lollypops in their mouths. 

Pictured above: Dr. Alana advocating for the woman and children waiting to be seen.

People watched me with my contraption of a camera in front of my face. They called me 'doctor' even though I didn't put on the scrubs that were offered to me. I started to realize that I was their main focus of entertainment as they stood in the lineup waiting to be seen. I didn't mind this as I was constantly struggling with my purpose there, anyhow. The rest of our team were tirelessly working on diagnosing illnesses and giving medicine.

What good was I doing? What purpose could I possibly be serving?

So, as their entertainer, I started showing them photos I was taking of them, and they wanted more! I got out my iPad and took videos of the kids smiling and making faces and wanting to be seen. I realized the possibility of these kids having never looked in a mirror let alone seen themselves on a screen! 

Pictured above: The ladies on our team at the end of the day and me without scrubs. 

Even though I couldn't speak their language, I understood mothers scolding their children to not bother me too much. I took photos of one special girl who was born to be a model.  Without being asked she continually posed, with different looks and stances, for the camera. I made friends with some young moms who were eager to know more about my life. The strain of not knowing the language became painful as hours went by, and I wished to know more of what these young minds could tell me.

Late in the day I was sitting on the ground surrounded by kids and teenage girls. I opened up Procreate, a drawing app, on my iPad and started to draw. They all wanted a turn to make colors on the screen. There was one young girl who had been hanging out beside me for quite some time. When the iPad got to her she cleared the screen and wrote, 'Welcome.' Wow, that was profound to me. I felt like I served no purpose there, yet she welcomed me into her village. I wondered where she might have learned to write that and if she could understand some of the things I was saying.

I looked at all the faces that all had stories to tell. But I couldn't ask, and they couldn't answer. We could only see, only observe, only remember each other's face. It was beautiful. It held a certain kind of peace as no words could be passed between us. 

It was in that moment that I snapped a photograph of a little girl sitting quietly and watching me. She looked right into my camera and seemed to ask a million questions. I let the camera down from my face and looked at her and shared a smile that tried to communicate all my thoughts to her.  Have you ever tried to speak to a stranger without words? 

I didn't know the impact of that moment. I didn't know that she would be my inspiration when I decided months later to teach my bold color painting process online. I didn't know that many months after that her face would be painted thousands of times, or that an incredible community would be built around her face and lives forever changed while staring into her eyes like I did that day. And maybe to this day she doesn't know. 

Pictured above: The beautiful face that would become our Kenya Girl

That day in Pokot people walked from all directions to attend the clinic. We don't know exactly where she came from or where she went. One day I pray that she will know the impact she's had on many lives! And if I am able to communicate that, I will also see how I, we, can help her in other ways. But for now, the only way we can say thanks to her is actually to say thanks to the entire community of Pokot. We can send more medical and teaching clinics to the area through Larry and Francine who are still working and living in Kenya. 

There is so much more to my story, to their story, and to the story of Pokot. For now, I want to leave you with the opportunity to be a part of the work still being done there. This will directly affect the medical work in Kitale and in Pokot. Follow the link below to see and hear more of how you can share in this story. 

Follow this link to read how the fundraiser works


VIDEO GALLERY: The following videos were made for an in-person fundraiser that was held for Larry and Francine in Kelowna, Sept 2019. They were filmed and edited by me, Charla. Enjoy!

1. Meet Larry and Francine:

2. About their work

3. Their story:


PHOTO GALLERY: More Photos from my Trip: 

Pictured above: Our outreach clinic set up in a partially built structure in Pokot
Pictured below left: Our delux sleeping quarters in the desert of Kenya. Right: Francine treating a gentlemen during the morning clinic

Picture above: Photos of families waiting to be seen by Dr. Alana.
Picture below: Though not mentioned in this article, these are photos of a mural I painted in the Kitale Woman's Prison.



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