Montana State University

MSU student film looks at women's role in Kenya

October 31, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service


Montana State University graduate film student Jaime Jelenchick spent five weeks in Kenya filming the efforts of MSU students to bring clean drinking water to schoolchildren in the western part of that country. (Photo by Chris Allen) To view a trailer of the film, click on the link at the bottom of the page.   High-Res Available

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When Montana State University film student Jaime Jelenchick got off a plane in Nairobi, Kenya last December she had five weeks to gather footage about how a project to bring clean drinking water to a rural village would change the life of one Kenyan woman.

She had a story plan. She had a camera. She had a big fuzzy mic on a boom. She even had solar panels to recharge her equipment. What she didn't have was a main character for her documentary.

"Finding a Kenyan woman weighed on me heavily," said Jelenchick, who is pursuing a master's degree through MSU's Science and Natural History Filmmaking program and is from Madison, Wisc. "I had to find someone that an audience could relate to, who had good working English, was interested in participating in the film, and who had some free time to spend with us."

Jelenchick was one of eight members of MSU's student chapter of Engineers Without Borders who went to Kenya last December. The group has worked since 2003 to bring drinking-water wells to 57 schools in the Khwisero Division in the western part of the country. They have installed two wells to date and are hoping to drill four more in 2008.

"I didn't want to make a film just about a bunch of white people going to Africa," Jelenchick said. "I wanted to hear from someone in the village about how they perceived this project."

The student water project has the potential to dramatically improve education for young women. The 57 primary schools in the Khwishero Division all rely on water hauled from springs that are sometimes miles from the classrooms. This task falls almost exclusively to girls and young women who miss hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of instruction over the course of their education on this labor.

"I wanted the audience to learn what it is like to be one of the water carriers in these villages," Jelenchick said.

Additionally, she wanted to contrast the life of a Kenyan woman with that of 24-year-old Callie Blackwood, an MSU chemical engineering graduate, and the only member of the EWB at MSU team who had previously visited the Khwisero Division.

EWB at MSU operates in Kenya with the assistance of several local contacts. One of those contacts, Francis Ashira, had a sister who had trained at a film school in Nairobi. Esther Ashira was to be Jelenchick's paid assistant, but she also knew a woman who might just fit all of Jelenchick's requirements.

That woman was 23-year-old Nina Omwereme Oyamo, one of three sisters living with their mother in a small, earthen hut with a tin roof, no electricity and no running water -- a standard home.

"None of us really knew what we were embarking on or how things would unfold," Jelenchick said. "But we invited Nina to some community meetings about the new well and started spending time with her and her family. Initially, the relationship between Callie and Nina was a working relationship."

But as the weeks passed, the two women spent more and more time together and a friendship formed, each learning about the other's life.

"The fact there was a camera filming them didn't make any difference," Jelenchick said.

The resulting footage gave Jelenchick material for The Water Carriers, a 27-minute documentary on EWB at MSU's work in Kenya that is also about the relationship between Nina and Callie. The film's premiere is Nov. 7 at the Emerson Cultural Center during a fundraiser, Africana, for EWB's continuing work in Kenya.

"I think people will find the film heartwarming," Jelenchick said. "Nina really had a big heart. She showed so much patience and good humor, opening her life and her home to us for a documentary project she didn't fully understand."

While villagers were familiar with still photographs, video was a foreign technology.

"The idea that people in the United States would be able to see her moving and hear her speaking was new to her," Jelenchick said.

She hopes to return to Kenya in 2008 with the MSU group. She'd like to take a laptop with her and a copy of the film.

"Being allowed into Nina's life was one of the most meaningful parts of this project for me," she said. "I would love for her to see this film."

A trailer of the film can be found at this link: http://www.montana.edu/cpa/media/news/5273/

The film in its entirety can be viewed at http://www.lifeonterra.com/episode.php?id=124

For more information about Engineers Without Borders at MSU visit: www.chbe.montana.edu/ewb/

Contact: Jaime Jelenchick, 406-599-3642 or jjelenchick@yahoo.com