Who stole the smile ?

Just as you think that you’ve seen the ultimate poverty,

there is a surprise waiting, just behind the corner.

Sad, incomprehensible to the point of shock.

So you go mute for a few days. Sad and furious, you try to understand, but you just can’t.



Although I had a terrible cold, I heeded the call of  Mrs. Rottland who has long since replaced her comfortable european life with a more simple african style. She asked me to give her a few hours of my day to visit the school, to photograph it. A place that needed help. No matter how bad and weak I felt, the thought of some new kids, the screaming and laughter of joy overwhelm me. They are happy every time a „Mzungu“ (white man) comes.

Even though it was early, the heat already ruled the day. After an hour of driving we left the Diani Beach highway far behind. The next hours while traveling to Chai passed in silence. It was impossible to talk with all the noisy bouncing of the car which was battling all the dust, potholes and dirty water. I was used to it. It’s a normal portrait of the rural parts of Africa which you will not see on a postcard or in Tv documentaries.

The head teacher approached us, thankful for the donation-a few bags of porridge which we brought. It is a common meal served in african schools and orphanages for a few reasons: 1.they have nothing else 2.that’s the only thing they can afford 3.the meal is of a relatively good nutritionistic value which can serve as an alternative for a healthy meal that every child needs.

While the head teacher sincerely thanked us and reported on the status there, I started to turn around looking for the laughter, the crowd, black smiling faces and happy eyes. Nothing. Just silence. In the distance the students, big and small walked from point A to point B. Not a single head turned in our direction. Alrighty, I thought, maybe they don’t want to intrude or they’re still sleepy. I’ll go wish them a good morning and politely get closer to them. I’m holding an object of eternal interest in my hand, a camera always cause a commotion. This time nothing. It must be early, I thought to myself. They can’t all be tired, can they? I’m trying to make a first step, I’ll click some sentences and try to remeber everything I know. I want to see what makes me happy, what makes me forget about the cold. I walk around, watch, investigate the makeshift rooms, the school playground and the yard. Smoke started to fill the air, which meant breakfast time. The cooks and the staff slowly washed the plastic bowls and didn’t hesitate to flirt with the camera objective. Most people like to have their photos taken, and they were no exceptions. Laughter was inevitable when they saw their photos on the display. A smell of porridge pinched the nose as the cooks proudly mixed it. „Thank you, I’ve already had breakfast.“– I thanked politely and continued documenting something I had never had on my menu, regardless of the amount of effort I put in trying to put it there. I simply couldn’t eat it.

The line in front of the kitchen steadily became longer, enveloped in silence and strangely tortured childish faces. No smiles. Our eyes rarely met, they were nothing like those smiling, inquisitive brown eyes, full of warmth and joy. Instead, a row of bare feet. It was nothing new, we all walk barefoot here, yet those tiny feet, covered in scars, cuts and bruises – had to walk hundreds and thousands steps to the school every day. The window on the camera became foggy. It was not due to technical difficulties nor was it due to faulty settings. I tried so hard not to show anyone how hard my throat was clenching, my chest convulsing. All I saw made me ache. I was so lost in the sea of silence. I didn’t believe that something can be this painful and awkward. I didn’t know what to do or what to say, as they clutched their little plastic cups as if somebody was about to steal it from them. As if somebody was about to take away that single daily meal that they get. Yes.The only daily meal they receive.


Walking tip-toe, I tried to be inconspicious. I wanted to vanish from the spot. Out of fear, or whatever. I backed away, sat on the ground, on the dirt of the school yard and closed my eyes. „God, this isn’t real, is it? Everything is going to look better when I open my eyes, isn’t it?“ The only thing that changed was that the cup line was shorter. Children still slowly, silently moved as if they were from another world. Each of them washed their cups in a special bowl reserved for the occasion. „There is no fresh, clean water. Not even a well? I could at least wash my hands but… Oh God.“ I chased the thoughts of the sanitary system out of my head. I couldn’t wish for it here. The students silently went to their classrooms.Focused on studying,they sat on the damp floor or on whatever was left of old, decaying desks. None of them turned their head to see what a „mzungu“ was doing and why she was watching them. Nothing. Still the same. Totally focused on the new schoolwork.Knowledge.Studying. That’s all they have left. The only investment they can have for their future. The only hope for some perhaps-a-smile in the future.


After 4 hours, which I can’t find the words for, we said goodbye to the Chai school and left it far behind. Without a goodbye commitee, without „Kwaheri“, without smiling faces and little hands waving as we depart. Nothing. First time in the 12 years of my African experience.

I couldn’t make myself open the photos for days so I could edit them and preparing for a trip to Europe . I even told my mother that I was busy so I wouldn’t have to talk to her. I didn’t speak, I just tracked my own thoughts back to Chai and those sad, hopeless faces. I tried to find a reason. I have never seen this before. Over 200 photographs, 200 witnesses that morning, but not a smiling face to be found. I looked, I hoped. I found nothing. Just a look, fearful, insecure, worried. Too much everything for them. Too much for a child’s life. Matrix. Pure matrix.



Chai school has experienced changes.Did we succeed to bring back the smile? 

We can’t change the world.

But we can do at least something to make it more beautiful, safer and happier.