Creating Kanju (Part 9: Obama in VR, Nairobi)

New Nairobi
We land in Nairobi alongside hundreds of caucasians, asians, indians, and a few other blacks. Lots of European children being treated to safaris vacations with their parents. The airport is massive, clean, and teaming with people speaking English.

Here the official languages are Swahili and English, even though, like in Nigeria, each tribe speaks its own native tongue. We stick with Swahili to learn our two important phrases:
Hello – Habari
Thank you – Asante or Asante Sana (Thank you very much)

But the streets of Nairobi are empty. Obama has arrived in his father’s homeland for the first visit from an American President. KARIBU OBAMA is written on massive billboards on each side of the highway. Karibu is apparently a catch all phrase meaning both “Welcome” and “You’re welcome”. I keep thinking of the large animal with antlers.

Dan’s sister has graciously agreed to host us while we are in Nairobi, and by the time we get to her apartment it’s 11:30pm. In order to get security clearance to film Obama’s speech in the morning, we need to drop our gear off at the stadium where Obama will be speaking by 6am. Which means we need to be up at  4:30am. And we’re not even close to going to sleep.

Showers turn red as Rwanda is washed off. Food is prepared and discussions on how to handle tomorrow go for hours. Meanwhile, I need to clear space off on my hard drive & back-up & prep the gear for the morning. Also, we need to figure out why the camera is crashing. We think it’s the rig. We’ve shoved a screw to mount the Ladybug into a light stand, but that’s also where a cooling outlet is on the camera. We should probably find another way to mount the camera.

By 1:30am, I had the mounting situation over to Aaron and head to sleep and set my alarm for 4:30am wake up.

Sunrise in Nairobi
At 5:00am and our reliable driver has proven not so reliable and Aaron has fallen asleep surrounded by gear parts. I pack up the lightstand mount we’ve been using up until now and we UBER a taxi. Yep, Uber – in a land of kidnappings and rapes with little accountability, we call an Uber. The driver goes to the wrong address to pick us up because, well, there are no addresses in Nairobi. Directions here are told more by landmarks than street numbers. Turn left at the lion. Go past where the blue house used to be and over three hills.

We get to the security check in 10 minutes late and Secret Service won’t allow us in. This must be the only part of the government that operates on a timeline. But they tell us that we can come back at 8:30am to have our gear checked. We walk outside the stadium gates. Truck after truck after truck is bringing in the Kenyan military. Guards line both sides of the roads, positioned every 20 feet in every direction. The main roads are empty of cars, save the occasional truck bringing in more military. And we are hungry.

Taking a walkway across the highway, we land right in front of a safari resort. I am able to convince the guards to let us in to get some breakfast. So this is what a Kenyan safari resort looks like. As plastic as Las Vegas. Filled with oversized Americans and young Japanese boys wearing “Brooklyn” hats and shirts. It’s better than standing outside in the cold and so we fill up our coffee and tea repeatedly and count down the time until we have to go back outside.

Jacked up on caffeine, we arrive back at the gate at 8:15am. The press linger around, most seem to know one another like random drinking buddies – exchanging hugs and pleasantries and stories of their latest drunken mishaps. Dan points out that very clearly all the white reporters are on the side closest to the gate and all the black reporters are on the other side of the road. A self-imposed racial apartheid. Come 9:00am, the gates slide open to let the press in one at at time. Now things are operating like what I’d expect from the government: slow and inefficient. But we’re in!

Obama in 360Obama Press
In the press bleachers of the Nairobi stadium, it occurs to me that every Presidential broadcast I’ve ever seen has been solely focused on the words of the speaker. With this shot, I’m capturing the shoving of the press to get the best shot, the faces of the Kenyas responding to Obama’s message. In 360 we are able to see not only the story being told by the storyteller, but the audience and the middle-men who chose what we get to see. Although Obama is in the distance, with the direct feed from the sound board, he will be omnipresent in the final VR sequence. And yet the audience will be able to chose what part of the entire scene is most important to them.

I have more set-up time in a controlled environment than I’ve had this entire trip. I have a staging area, power, and over an hour to place the camera, test settings, and prepare the sound. Dan is taking the HD pictures and video since only 2 of us were allowed in. To our left is the BBC. To our right is the Kenyan Broadcast Company. But the Ladybug steals the show. Despite the time I have to set up, I’m repeatedly approached by other technicians and broadcasters wondering what the camera is and how it works.

The stage where Obama will be speaking is 50 feet away. That is a long way away without a zoom lens. This shot is going to be about the press angling to get the best shot, of the masses of Kenyan people listening to Obama’s message. We don’t have an extra XLR to direct feed into the sound board, but another Kenyan outlet kindly lets us borrow a cable, if I’ll write them later telling them about the camera. After listening to one of Kenya’s most famous singers belt out the national anthem of both countries, we stand by and wait for the Man to appear.

Obama’s sister’s comes out with an introduction that is mostly an excuse as to why Obama hasn’t been to visit Kenya. Finally she introduces the POTUS. Barack Obama. The crowd roars, music surges, cameras roll – the energy is electric and powerful.Obama Ladybug

As Obama speaks, I keep vigil on the data being recording. At the 45 minute mark, I check the space left on the laptop hard drive. I have only 3 gigs left on the 200G hard drive. Damn. While we’re rolling, I start deleting my test captures. I delete the captures of the pre-show performances. I hope that they actually were the pre-show performances and not a middle part of Obama’s speech. But I’m not making enough space to keep rolling. I have to cut short the end of Obama’s speech so I can get  one last capture of him exiting the stage to the cheers of the Kenyan people. I listen for what might be the end of the speech and make a wild guess at what might be Obama’s closing remarks. If I’m wrong I’ll miss the dramatic ending.

Somehow I trigger the camera to capture on Obama’s very last sentence. His hand waves. The stadium explodes. The reporters jump in front of their cameras, excited recapping his speech and dramatically describing the scene inside the stadium. The chaos has been captured.

IMG_4006Outside, Dan wants to speak to some of the children in “man on the street” interviews. We are hauling the backpacks with the VR gear. I set up the H4n to the wireless lavs to get sound. Not that I can monitor the sound because I’m also shooting on the DSLR. But I’ve only had 6 hours of sleep in the last three days and my arms are shaky and tired. I try to remember to roll sound, cut sound. Oh yeah, white balance, get the camera at  eye level. By the end, I’m beat. It’s 2pm and I’m starving.

Aaron and Jenn are well rested when we get back to the apartment, ragged and weary. A beautiful meal is dominated by the topic of what to do next. Safari? Interviews? We really want to take a ride on a matatu.

Matatus are privately-owned buses that operate like taxis. Taxis on acid. To differentiate themselves, matatu drivers paint their buses with famous people (take a ride on the Michael Jackson matatu or hop on the Hillary Clinton line!), hook up ridiculous sound systems, or set up televisions inside to attract riders. Because they drive like wild banshees. When the Kenyan economy tanked int he late 90‘s and the government discontinued public transportation, these yahoos saw an opportunity and set up service, randomly stopping at unmarked locations to pick up or drop off customers. Now, GPS devices have been put onboard and the shortcuts and uncharted routes that they know to take are reforming Kenya’s roads. This is something we have been referring to as “kanju” during our journey.

Kanju was described to us in Nigeria as “to hustle” or to “do little with less.” Dayo Olopade in her book “The Bright Continent” defined kanju as “a specific creativity born from African difficulty” – the idea that you take a shortcoming and work like hell to turn it into an opportunity. It was one of the original inspirations for this journey. Should we call the documentary “Kanju”?

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