When tourists visit Africa, the attractions that top their lists are the big names most of us are familiar with: Kruger National Park in South Africa, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia and the Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. No doubt these are beautiful attractions, each worth our time to visit, but these also seem worlds apart from the Africa that people live in. In some ways, it doesn’t feel genuine.
Mutua Matheka is a photographer based in Kenya that has felt the same way. He believes the problem is the lack of self-appreciation. When most things that are deemed as ‘beautiful’ about Africa are beyond your daily experience, you cannot be blamed for thinking that nothing around you is beautiful. This is mistaken. There is beauty in your hometown, in your commute to work and even in your challenges. The truth is, beauty is often beyond what is shown in travel magazines – beauty is often very ordinary. Mutua Matheka’s goal is to show this beauty of ordinary African life through his pictures.
Mutua Matheka first began his photography career trying to change how foreigners viewed Africa. However, he soon realised that change needed to come from the inside – ‘it doesn’t matter what other people think if we still think of ourselves as backward or not worthy’.
With just his camera and a small car, Mutua Matheka and his friends organised a 109 day trip through Southern Africa, travelling through 10 countries and capturing thousands of stories. The name of the trip? ‘Unscrambling Africa’.
At first, people were confused. Not many were used to seeing Africans travelling through their own continent with such curiosity. But this confusion soon turned to appreciation. Listening to the stories that Mutua had to share and the pictures that he took, there was a happy surprise of what Africa had to offer.
Some parts were difficult. Mutua recalls sleeping in his car in the Western Cape of South Africa where temperatures dropped below freezing, and the time where he was stopped by a policeman in Tanzania, asking for a permit for his dreadlocks. Other parts were heart-warming. Strangers in Lesotho and Kaburon helped Mutua find shelter and showed him around their cities. A particularly fond memory was of a Sotho man who gave him a traditional blanket as a parting gift. Other stories were ordinary but nostalgic. With a big smile on his face, Mutua spoke of finding East African chapati, a famous dish in Kenya, thousands of miles away in Maputo. Uniting all of his stories is a sense of curiosity to the African experience that is often missing in media and TV.
The goal of Mutua’s pictures and trip was simple but powerful: he wanted to create a story of Africa by Africans and for Africans. None of the thousands of pictures that he captured were intended to be displayed on magazines or post cards; they were meant to create a genuine image of Africa – the story of African compassion, of home-cooked food, of its cultural diversity and of its daily life. In some ways, Mutua is not really changing how Africa sees itself, he is simply reminding Africans of how they should have always seen themselves.