May 20, 2009 12:00

A life-altering journey

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Africa is a study in stark contrasts and baffling paradoxes, said Jesse Price, a fourth-year directing student at UNC School of the Arts. Last fall, Price worked on a student film crew that chronicled the work of the Nyanya Project — an endeavor founded by Wake Forest University journalism professor Mary Martin Niepold.

“I still feel like I’m digesting it,” Price said after a sneak preview of the documentary at the school’s ACE Theater on May 15. “Kenya is the most beautiful, sad, wonderful, crushing place.

That’s what’s so perplexing; you have conflicting emotions.” It is the stark contrast between the poverty of African children and Wake Forest football standouts Alphonso Smith, Kevin Patterson and Chantz McClinic that shines through in the edited footage.

“I was struck by the idea, not only the extraordinary footage, of the comparison the film draws between smiling kids [who are] living in terrible poverty and players coming from Wake Forest, who hopefully will take something back with them and expand upon their experiences,” said UNCSA professor Ron Roose.

Last month, the Denver Broncos drafted Smith in the second round and Patterson signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent. Niepold said Smith, Patterson and McClinic have all said they were changed by their time in Kenya.

Price elaborated on the emotional impact of the experience. “I remember being mad they were so happy,” he said. “It’s like looking in a mirror and seeing every bad place in you. You start to ask yourself tough questions.”

The documentary film project was borne out of a chance meeting between Niepold and UNC School of the Arts professor Nola Schiff in 2007. Schiff, who grew up in Zimbabwe, had a vested interest in the Nyanya Project.

“I thought, ‘Wow! This is a great opportunity for [the school] to play a part,’” Schiff recalled. “I told Mary, ‘You should document this and we should get the film students from UNCSA,’ and she was thrilled.”

A collaboration between the universities turned out to be a perfect marriage, Niepold said. After the meeting, Schiff said she went straight home and composed a proposal for Jordan Kerner, dean of UNCSA’s School of Filmmaking.

“It’s like it had a life of its own and it just took off,” Schiff said. UNCSA student Mark Sutton said he never could have anticipated the outpouring of emotion from the African people, and how the experience would change him. “The untamed love they express to you takes a couple of days to set in — how they are so hopeful under such terrible circumstances,” he said. The mission of the Nyanya Project is to improve the circumstances of African grandmothers of AIDS orphans, a growing segment of the population in sub-Saharan Africa. The construction project undertaken by Smith, Patterson, and McClinic represents just one of many projects completed by Nyanya. In the fall of 2007, the endeavor enrolled four grandmothers in a craft-making enterprise and business education course in Kibera. After six months, the grandmothers told Niepold that for the first time in their lives they could buy school supplies, send their grandchildren to school, get them medical care and save money. Nyanya has also organized a water cooperative project in Kisesini, a sheep-herding enterprise in Ndathi and a mushroomgrowing business in Nairobi. Other Nyanya endeavors include a crafts project and a shelter project in Dar Es Salaam.

During the trip to Kenya, all the participants expressed how they were touched by the way the Kenyan people welcomed them with open arms. The footage revealed groups of curious children constantly gathering around the students and football players and attempting to communicate with them. “They are so happy, so full of joy,” Price said. “They pat you on the back, become your friend instantaneously and want you to live with them.” The way of the African people could serve as a model for how to live a life, Niepold said. “I’ve never seen such joy and gratitude. I couldn’t grasp it. It’s not blind faith. It’s a very active faith, the likes of which I’ve never seen.” Niepold said the Nyanya Project, which she founded in 2007, has been running on faith and love for the past two years. She hopes the documentary film — to be completed this fall — will help to raise awareness and funds for future Nyanya projects. Discussions with the government of Rwanda are ongoing to bring a project to the east African nation in the near future. Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe are also potential sites for future Nyanya projects, Niepold said. The documentary about the Nyanya Project should be completed this fall. “The whole idea is to replicate this all over Africa, so right now I’m trying to do a country a year,” Niepold.

And in giving African grandmothers of AIDS orphans independence, Niepold has received something precious in return.

“I’m inspired by them, I’m the lucky one,” she said.



ABOVE: Players joke with kids in Kawe village where they built a house for elderly grandmothers of AIDS orphaned grandchildren outside of Dar Es Salaam. Alphonso Smith (L), Chantz McClinic (c) and Kevin Patterson (R). RIGHT: Smith


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