Kenya {The NEEMA Project}

“I’m sorry, Tessa but we have a problem. I can get you to London, I just cannot give you a ticket to Kenya. Your passport is not valid.”

I was running on nearly no sleep, so I was quite certain I heard the airline agent incorrectly.

“Excuse me? What?”

“Unfortunately, in order to enter into Kenya your passport has to be valid beyond 6 months, yours is at 5 months and 28 days. I can get you a ticket to Heathrow at which point you could try to reach the embassy for a new passport, which could take a few days. Or you could stay in Philadelphia and attempt to get a passport first thing tomorrow.”

I have never fainted before, but I figured what I was feeling closely resembled the moments before such an episode.

And so began one of the craziest 48 hours I have yet to experience.

My travel companions, Brenna and Faith arrived, and after a brief discussion, we came to the conclusion that it was best for them to go on ahead while I remained in Philadelphia to attempt to get a new passport. Faith scribbled various traveling directions on printed out itineraries, handed me a mix of Kenyan shillings and American dollars and I exited the airport just a few hours after I had arrived.

The next morning, I arrived at the Passport Agency in Center City Philadelphia a full hour before they opened. There were several others in line and I discovered my problem was a fairly common one as several other individuals were attempting to get on a new flight as well. I overheard a lady ask another, “Did you print out your forms and bring a photo?” “Oh yes.” She responded.

If you know anything about me, you know I am type A…to an extreme. These little details don’t get past me. My only excuse in this case was no sleep, very little prep time, and emotionally shutting down the evening before to keep from panicking. But I had neither a photo or said forms.

After running through the streets of Philadelphia, pounding on the door of the UPS store 30 minutes before it opened to print the documents and running into CVS for a quick photo (in which every emotion is written on my face – none will ever be allowed to view this image), I was back in line for my passport just as the doors opened.

Now 30 people behind in line, I was fairly certain for whatever reason, Africa was not in my future. But 7 hours later I was the proud owner of a very crisp and new passport. I have never loved a book so much in my life.

Finally, as I sat down in my airplane seat, buckled my belt and breathed a sigh of relief, I had made it. I was on my way.


Across the world, Brenna and Faith had made it to Kenya. Shortly after their arrival to the NEEMA compound in the small village of Kitale they received a phone call from the airport they had just left. Brenna had left her passport on the tiny aircraft that had just brought them to the village. Thankfully, I was coming right behind them so I could pick up the left behind passport…a detail important for later.


I made it to London and from London to Nairobi. I was greeted with warmer air as I stepped from the plane onto the runway in Kenya. Going through customs and receiving that first pretty stamp in my new passport. I was thankful that Faith had been able to arrange a taxi directly from the airport to the hotel where I would be staying that first evening. I unloaded the items in my room, ordered a pizza (no shame in that being the first thing I ate in Africa – it was a stressful few days), told the front desk I needed an early ride to the Wilson airport and set my alarm for 4 am.

In the morning, I was anxious to get on my way. I walked down to the lobby to await my taxi and after a few minutes, as it didn’t seem to be there, the concierge called me a new one. I hopped in the taxi just as the dark sky was turning a lighter shade and arrived at the airport in plenty of time. A quick line brought me to yet another airport attendee.

“Miss Smucker, you are at the wrong airport.”

Guys, I swear this kind of stuff does not happen to me.

I sprinted out of the airport, just as a taxi was dropping off another traveler. Perfect timing, there was not another soul around. I knocked on the window and said in clear, concise and slightly panicked English, “I NEED TO GET TO WILSON FAST, TAKE THE EXPRESSWAY.”

My flight was set to leave in 1 hour. The flight attendee said the trip to the other airport takes about 25 minutes with no traffic. It was rush hour. And this rush hour is like Route 76 on steroids.

At one point, my taxi driver pulled off onto the side dirt road, like a champ, trying to get past as many cars as quickly as possible. When the traffic simply was not getting better, he suggested I get out of the taxi and rent two motor bikes to weave through traffic, one for me and one for my luggage. Thankfully, I was face-timing my father during that suggestion, and he convinced me to stay in the vehicle and with my luggage.


Throughout this ordeal, I was periodically calling a number at the airport, updating them on my status.

Over an hour later I pulled in to what seemed to be the general area of departure, 15 minutes past when my plane should have departed. My angel Eric greeted me and asked how I had gotten his phone-number. I quickly realized I had been calling a cell phone of someone who was able to hold a plane for me in Nairobi, Kenya! I bypassed security with little resistance and was taken out onto the runway, the plane running and waiting for me. THANK-YOU BRENNA FOR LEAVING YOUR PASSPORT. Without that, I wouldn’t have had a direct contact and the plane would have surely left without me.

My camera bag was overweight, and we had requested to pay the extra fee. The flight attendant remembered and asked for this payment just before I entered the small 15 passenger plane. I reached into my purse and prayed I had enough shillings. I pulled out what I had left, and in spite of the additional expenses, I had just the right amount.

It wasn’t until the plane took off that I looked at my watch and realized I should be apologizing individually to each of the other 13 passengers. We were 45 minutes behind schedule.


I kissed the ground when I arrived at NEEMA.

I was anxious to begin photographing and was just about to hit the ground running…and then I met the girls. Spilling from their classrooms, they embraced me, as if I was a long lost friend. Dozens of precious souls bombarding me with their hugs. It was a moment I will never forget, my eyes filled with tears. I was nothing but a stranger, yet they welcomed me with such love.

In that moment, I breathed. I allowed the peace of the moment to wash over me as I whispered a silent prayer of thanks.


This opportunity at NEEMA had awakened a long-lost passion of mine. When Faith had originally approached me with the opportunity, I felt something within me come alive.

I had chosen photography as my profession for two specific reasons, beyond the fact that I simply loved the medium.

Now, after 7 years of working in the field, I had yet to do either of them. I remember traveling to Zambia with my family in high-school, volunteering with an amazing organization called Family Legacy. This trip fell right over the time when I was deciding what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

I remember touring the Camp Life village in Zambia that was saving dozens of children from the streets, providing them a new life and new hope. I remember thinking; this, this is what it is all about. If only I could tell these types of stories to people who haven’t had access to this world, so contrasting our own. If only I could document it in a way that would reveal something different, stirring emotion that led to compassion and ultimately changed lives. I had been dabbling with the idea of photography and that thought alone was one of the reasons I chose to pursue it as a career. Yet, it wasn’t until this NEEMA opportunity came that I rediscovered that passion.


NEEMA is an amazing organization. I will quote my now dear friend Brenna as she explains the power of this ministry,

“What happens to the kids on your refrigerator (or the one who never made it there) once they grow up, start making their own decisions and their own mistakes, building a hope and a future? NEEMA picks up where childhood sponsorship left off, empowering the most vulnerable of girls to become all they can as women, discovering their purpose and value and building skills set to thrive.”

This isn’t just another school. These girls’ lives are literally redirected and changed through what they learn at NEEMA. They are given one of the most valuable tools in that part of the world, a way to support themselves through the art of sewing. In a culture run by men and the mistreatment of women, they are taught their worth and their value not only as individuals but as daughters of Christ. They are cared for and nourished, their children are supported. For three years they work hard. The program is not easy by any means, but if they stick with it, it changes the trajectory of their lives.

The organization is run by Faith Wise from the United States, but the day-to-day life on the compound is all structured under Kenyan teachers. Each and every one of these teachers are passionate about their job and the girls they care for. There is so much potential, so many big dreams for how this organization could change the community.


Back at NEEMA, at first it was hard for me to balance my “work mode” with investing in the lives of the girls. I was initially so worried that my missed time would be stressful to make up. But after a few days I allowed myself to balance the two and really get to know these amazing girls.

One of the most memorable experiences was being able to spend the night at the NEEMA compound. As planned, we spent the morning and afternoon with the girls, documenting their time in classrooms and breaks throughout the day. But then we had the unique opportunity of continuing the experience overnight. We ate dinner with them, walked with the second-year students to their compound and watched the sun dip behind the horizon on our walk back. We drank chai-tea to close the evening, sitting with the girls and had a slumber party with the house Mom, Irene.

We jumped out of bed at 4:30 am to voices of praise as the girls began their day in worship. Rubbing our eyes and stumbling out into the room of girls, we were a sight to see. The air was chilly as the girls went about their morning chores, long before the sun showed its rays. They scrubbed the floors and prepped for the day. They took such tender care of each thing they possessed.

It was so humbling to witness. The whole trip, everything about it, left me humbled.


Each day held its unique experiences and memories. The week involved school, work and the weekend we were able to meet with the third-year students out in the village, working in an internship at one of the NEEMA shops, saving up money to receive their own sewing machine upon graduation.

We visited graduates, now employees, making a life for themselves. Thriving, beautiful women. We were welcomed into the home of Anne (the program director) one evening. Here “farm-to-table” took on a whole new meaning. We milked the cow that gave us milk for chai, watched a chicken get it’s head cut off in preparation for the evening meal, and chatted with the girls as the cabbage was cut and the bread rolled out and fried.

We squeezed inside the living room, filling our bellies far beyond capacity. Several times I found myself consciously trying to focus on every detail, every scent. I never want to forget that evening.


I am so grateful to have had this experience. To have been trusted by NEEMA to document this project. To have gained lifelong friends in my amazing travel companions, Brenna and Faith. To have a whole new family, even though they are now a world away. Humbled and grateful.

Brenna is more eloquent than me when it comes to writing, she captured so much in her words about the experience. So I leave you with this…

“We have spent too long on “missions trips,” and missed relationships. Poverty is not a material lacking, poverty is a crushed spirit, it’s a missed purpose. We end poverty when we love and empower, when we show others that they are worth something, that they’re beautiful, that they CAN dream and achieve. “Fixing” surface need does not provide a human being with the hope and pride they need to grow and thrive, no matter how good it makes us feel or how cool our pics look on social media. People need people, we need to know we need each other, that we have a place in each other’s worlds. NEEMA aims to build this in the lives of otherwise hopeless, vulnerable young women from the most unfortunate circumstances in Kitale, Kenya. Here we are all the same, all children learning the love of the same Holy Father, we are all sisters, all family. It’s time to start owning that.”

Do yourself a favor and go ahead and follow them:

I’m a firm believe in a picture being worth a thousands words. I hope these images do so much more justice to the organization and this experience than my words ever could.

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