LYRICAL PORTRAITS OF PROUD SEMI-NOMADS
Book Review of ‘Vanishing Songs of the Warriors’
By Bobby Pall
Footprint Press, 2017
Reviewed by Margaretta wa Gacheru
Bobby Pall may be best known for the photography that he’s done for development and aid agencies like the Red Cross, UNHCR and the Global Fund. He’s also the favored photographer of Footprints Press, producing sharply focused portrait images of all sorts of Kenyans, including everyone from elders to outstanding ‘women over 50’ and most recently, over 50 of the country’s most acclaimed visual artists selected by FP’s founder-publisher Susan Wahkungu-Githuku to include in the new book ‘Visual Voices’.
But at long last, Bobby has come out with a book of his own. Still published by Footprints Press as a high-quality coffee table-sized work, his ‘Vanishing Songs of the Warriors’ is first and foremost, a visual ode to the people living in one large section of East Africa whose cultures and ‘songs’ are rapidly disappearing, eroded by poverty and other forces of underdevelopment.
But the book is also autobiographical in that it reflects all the years that Bobby has worked in that region. Having gone to South Sudan, Somalia and northern Kenya many times for those international agencies, Bobby made many friends in those ‘remote’ and oft forgotten places. So after those assignments were done, he decided to return and record more personal features of the people’s lives.
“I often went back and stayed with families that I’d gotten close to during my previous tours,” says Bobby whose book is filled with portrait photos as well as with people struggling to eke out an existence on terrain that’s semi-arid and barren.
Interspersed with his images are African proverbs and adages coined by the photographer himself. He also includes poetry that reflects on the same theme of vanishing cultures. One is by his publisher, Susan Wakhungu-Githuku. Another is by his wife, Xonchitl Ramirez. And towards the end of the book he includes a short catalogue of cultural and ethnic categories of people, many of whom are included in the book.
As another endnote, he shares a brief biography and philosophical explanation for why he calls the characters in his book ‘warriors.’ One critic has challenged his use of the term, noting his subjects don’t carry spears, guns or even bows and arrows.
Bobby answers his critics when he explains that for him, a ‘warrior’ is a term that transcends gender. It can refer to anyone, man or woman, who stands strong in the face of adversity and lives with courage, integrity, dignity and commitment to protecting the lives of others. That could include mothers, shepherds, fishermen and everyone else contributing to keeping their community and family alive.
Bobby may be using language loosely, but his point is clear. What’s more, the value of ‘Vanishing Songs of the Warriors’ is recognized and explained well in the book’s foreword by the Hon. Ambassador Amina Mohamed.
In appreciation of his book, she writes: “In my 30 years as a Kenyan and international diplomat, I regretted the scarcity of books on Africa by Africans,” For her, his book serves to counter “the barrage of negative media stories” that do such a disservice to the continent.
So while Bobby’s black and white images do not paint exotic portraits of Africans ‘adorned’ with the regalia that often gets worn especially to impress tourists, his photos reflect an authenticity that reveals people’s everyday lives and their struggles to survive in a parched and barren land. But his book is by no means depressing; instead, his images reflect people’s resilience, dignity and reliance on family to carry on singing the ‘songs’ they still retain deep inside the core of their cultures and traditiions.