When a new found female voice creates change for a whole community

Photography for Social Change
6 min readApr 21, 2020


Lydia Wanjiku

Napunya, Naresian and Sabina having their first look at a camera. This was the very first time they interacted with their cameras and our very first workshop

It all started with an encounter.

In early 2018, Lieutenant Col Faye Cuevas, former senior vice president at International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) had an unfading encounter with ‘Mama Esther’, who is one of the leaders at Esiteti village, just south of Amboseli National park in Kenya.

Faye and Mama Esther, whose real name is Kiraiyan Katamboi, couldn’t communicate due to speaking different languages, but they connected over pictures of their children and their homes.

Faye Cuevas with Mama Esther (Kiraiyan Katamboi)

It occurred to Faye, who was pioneering a concept called female engagement teams to improve wildlife security, that voices like Mama Esther’s were rarely heard, due to cultural and language barriers, and certainly due to the patriarchal nature of her community.

Faye also knew that women like Mama Esther could be extremely beneficial in the race to save endangered wildlife in the region.

Women’s close relationship with wildlife in Maasai communities

In indigenous Maa communities like mama Esther’s, women are tasked with the responsibility of grazing cattle, collecting firewood, and building manyattas (Maasai houses). This means that they are more likely to encounter wildlife as they go by these day-day activities.

Sadly though, this unique position hasn’t translated into women playing a role in wildlife security. Until now, women have reported wildlife encounters to their husbands first, despite being first witnesses. This has oftentimes led to delays in responding to such incidents, or to no response at all.

Faye Cuevas saw the role Maasai women could play in alerting rangers. And so, in mid-2018, through a partnership with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, we began training the women at Esiteti village with photography.

Esther Tinayo, community liaison officer, and I, demonstrate how to take a selfie

You may ask why photography.

Photography, both as a therapeutic tool, and as an art form, has the power to shift or slowly change human behaviour. The idea of using photography for social change is intrinsic to the work we do at Lensational, training hundreds of women across the globe.

For the women at Esiteti village, who have low literacy and limited access to technology, photography offered the opportunity to reflect on their lives, on their role in the community, and develop a voice.

More practically, for the purposes of wildlife security, photography could help document wildlife movement as the women encountered it, and thus, play an important role in alerting authorities when conflicts arose.

Leina Lalaito teaching Ruth Sikeita, one of the future members of team Lioness, how to use a camera

We also knew that the women in the village were keen for change. A few months prior, their leader Mama Esther had formed a community group called Enduata - Kitirua (Enduata meaning Vision) to raise funds to support girls through secondary school and higher learning institutions. The group had been very successful, managing to get three girls into secondary school by the time we started working with them.

Women’s impact on the reduction of wildlife conflict

Throughout this journey we have worked with 26 women at Esiteti village, and 26 women at another village, Ilkimpa, in Loila Forest.

As part of the training they received, the women learnt to liaise with community rangers to report sightings of wildlife near their community land, and incidents of wildlife-human conflict.

Their engagement — a first in the history of wildlife prevention — achieved great success. Thanks to their efforts, the women have already saved two prides of lions and one elephant, and we estimate that they have saved many more, by convincing their sons and hubsands not to retaliate against wildlife.

Elephants seen venturing near community land., captured by Katita Seremon

The women’s photographs were essential in providing accurate details of wildlife whereabouts. Their visuals also provided a better understanding of how wildlife and Maasai communities interact, and thus, a better idea of why wildlife-human conflict arises.

The key to success: women regaining agency

Our work in Amboseli didn’t start or end with wildlife prevention. It started with behaviour change,Our primary aim was to work on behaviour change, so that the women could

We’ve seen a big change in the way the women see themselves and their role in the community, documented in the captivating images they take.

The story of one of them, Katita Seremon, stands out to me.

At 20 years old, Katita is already a mother to four wonderful girls.

When I first met Katita, she was shy and didn’t understand any Swahili. As I introduced the lessons to the participants, I noticed that Katita held a very firm gaze as though certain of what I spoke of, although she could only understand me through a translator.

This inquisitive curiosity that shimmered through her eyes really stood out to us, as it had become apparent very early on, that most of the women lacked a sense of agency.

Prior to this, like many of her peers, and most women from this village, Katita had never set foot in a classroom.

But here I was, just two months after our first workshop had taken place, greeted on my way back by an excited stuttering Katita, who couldn’t wait to show me her pictures, and struggled to gather a few Swahili words to communicate with me.

I was exhilarated. Here was a girl who two months earlier could hardly speak without edging her head or covering her mouth, and now she was, excited about her progress, sharing her newly captured dreams through the skill she had just learnt.

Another elephant captured by Katita Seremon

Two years down the line, Katita is now able to hear and effectively communicate with me in Swahili. Her pictures are mostly of landscape and wildlife, and she hopes to one-day travel around the world to take pictures of different cultures, places, and things that intrigue her.

Katita represents a majority of the women we have trained in Amboseli and Loita. From previously shy young girls and elderly isolated women, these women have evolved to bold confident women who have a renewed sense of self, and reignited dreams and aspirations.

Many odds still stand against these women. To begin with, many of them have never been to school or dropped out early in their years due to early marriages and pregnancies. This means there is only so much we can teach them through a translator,and it limits the level of technology we can deploy.

The women and I dancing on the day I got to meet them for the first time.

Secondly, they all have care responsibilities, which take up most of their time, and limit opportunities for growth outside the home, and without their husband’s permission.

And finally, Esiteti is very remote with limited and costly network accessibility, which casts a great challenge in setting up follow up mentorship opportunities.

With that being said, all hope is not lost. Our goal is to empower and support Katita and as many of the other women in such a way that they will soon take up the mantle to pass down the training to their children, and more girls and women in Esiteti and neighbouring villages.

We hope that you will join us in this journey, and would like to call upon you to support and partner with us to reach as many women as we possibly can.



Photography for Social Change

A non-profit.org training a new generation of female photographers from the margins. Driving diverse, female-centric, ethical photography.