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Guillaume Bonn

Guillaume Bonn

I have covered events in Africa for close to twenty years and long ago realized that, almost without exception, my assignments have served to fuel the continent’s clichés. My objective these days are to reveal the true face of Africa. This was why I decided to do a series on the domestic servants who work for the rich blacks, whites and Indians living in Kenya. They are almost invisible, occupying an in-between, ill-defined world where the dynamics of power are assumed to be one-sided but which, in fact, are far more complex than they appear.

"Silent Lives" was inspired by Juliette, a Madagascan matriarch who worked for my grandfather for 50 years. When he died, she decided to leave us with neither farewell nor retirement package. The family were stricken by her abrupt departure but were never able to trace her whereabouts. Juliette’s actions said she needed neither us nor our money. My grandfather had assumed that he was in charge but perhaps the true power lay with Juliette after all. So in fact the power relationship between employer and employed is shifting and subtle.

What Juliette had demonstrated still tends to hold true today. Employers know very little about their servants’ lives, their families, their dreams and hopes. Their servants have no authority but carry a large burden of responsibility. These people who are banished to small rooms at the bottom of the garden when night has fallen are, during the day, stewards of power. The nannies nurture their employers’ children and help to shape their perception of the world. All these people see much and say little. And they never betray the trust that has been bestowed on them. When their charges grow up and become employers themselves, will they remember who looked after them?

Silent Lives is my way of honoring these men and women by shining a light on how they live as they uphold their side of the contract. I cannot say it is an attempt to restore their dignity, because it is very clear that they never lost it.