Members of the OneTouch team on their tour from Kenya to Burundi. Photograph: Joe Were/OneTouch Media
“The first day it was flash, strobe, ai! It was like heaven,” Mutua Matheka says, recalling the founding of OneTouch in 2010. Today, the team of fifteen Kenyan photographers, writers, and cinematographers is showcasing Africa’s natural beauty like never before.
It started with about 25 photographers nurturing their skills through weekly challenges in a private studio. “Everyone was learning from everyone,” says Amunga Eshuchi, the most experienced of the founders. The aim was to get the perfect shot in “one touch.”
But the indoor challenges were limiting. “What else can we do to take what we have and be serious and benefit from this association?” Mwangi Kirubi, another founding member, wondered.
“We started the OneTouch Live series with one-day local trips,” Eshuchi says. Hoping to “encourage people to visit” Kenya, they picked spots around the country and shot models on location. But they wanted to achieve more than attracting tourists. As Matheka puts it, the group wanted to “get back [Africans’] esteem through pictures.” OneTouch’s mission is to change Africans’ perceptions of themselves by telling a visual story that is not about disease, war, and hopelessness.
The initial plan was to shoot Africa from Nairobi to Cairo, “But the Arab Spring sprung on us,” Eshuchi quips. So in September, the group took a different trip: seventeen days and 4,500 kilometers from Nairobi to Bujumbura, Burundi via Uganda and Rwanda.
“There were things we thought about those countries that were shattered,” Matheka says. Eshuchi was in awe of Rwanda’s post-genocide progressiveness. “Their mindset is far beyond the African mindset; it’s about unity, it’s about being one,” he says. Matheka, an architect, was taken with Kampala, Uganda. “It seems to have a style,” he observes. “I can actually go to Kampala and photograph buildings.”
Bujumbura was an unknown. “The guys we spoke to in Rwanda have a low opinion of Burundi,” Matheka explains. “We were told that we would find the cops on duty in Bujumbura, shirtless. You expect to see a rundown place.” Hundreds of kilometers of potholes and dirt roads later, the team arrived in Bujumbura in an irritable mood.
But soon they realized that Bujumbura, too, had much to offer. “When we got to Bora Bora beach everyone just lit up. I haven’t seen a beach that fancy even in Kenya,” Matheka observes.
Eshuchi now sees possibilities beyond Kenya: “I can venture out of my country and try new things in other countries, expand myself, and become an expatriate.” This is a new sensation. “We only think that is for white people,” Eshuchi says.
Indeed, it is rare to see Africans traveling the continent. The group visited several travel destinations, but “In all the places we stayed, we were the only meeros,” Kirubi wrote on Twitter, using a slang term for black people. “It’s time more Africans toured Africa.”
Cost is one barrier, but Kirubi argues that it shouldn’t be an excuse. “Travel is affordable,” he says. With “the amount of money that someone would spend on a weekend or a bar, you can travel to a neighboring country and have at least one fun activity.” The OneTouch group, for example, had a urprisingly affordable sunset treat on the Bujagali falls in Jinja, Uganda. “We sailed for about 45 minutes, and it cost 200 shillings [about $2.35] per person,” Kirubi says. “It is not prohibitive in any way.”
Next, OneTouch will run a twelve-day exhibition of their Bujumbura trip in Nairobi with hopes to showcase their work across Africa and the globe. “We hope to have an exhibition at the World Cup, next year, for the whole world to see what Africa is about,” Kirubi tells me.
If OneTouch’s exhibit can touch the rest of the world, though, that won’t be enough. Even if outsiders do adjust their perception, Matheka says, if “we still think of ourselves the same way, nothing changes.” He wants Africans to see the photos and change their own mindsets: “African pride can permeate into our lives.”