When Monica Marura relocated to an island she had never heard of, she thought she was supporting her husband's career move. A few weeks in, however, her own career took off. Now fully integrated into the gig economy, Marura has become a recognisable figure on the island – and an entrepreneur in her own right.
Velma Pamela and Irene Mumbi, bird story agency
Monica Marura looks at her watch and realises she only has an hour before her next gig. She is due to film a Muslim bridal celebration and as per many traditional Islamic weddings, no men are permitted to attend this particular celebration. As the only woman professional videographer and photographer on the island, she can't be late.
When Marura has an urgent obligation like this one that prevents her from returning home, she heads to her studio - where she keeps some of her work clothes.
The studio is located in the centre of Lamu Town, a Swahili trading town that dates back to at least the 14th Century. It is one of Africa's oldest and finest preserved Swahili towns, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It offers a stunning 12km stretch of unspoiled coastline and a laid-back atmosphere.
"There are basically no cars and you have to use a donkey or walk," Marura said, explaining that arriving on Lamu seemed to her like stepping back in time.
Donkeys (which are plentiful), boats, and motorbikes serve as the primary modes of transportation. The island "features golden sunsets, palm-fringed beaches, calls to prayer, white-painted Swahili houses (multi-story Arabic-style houses with flat roofs and walled courtyards at the centre), and bougainvillaea-covered terraces" according to (accurate, according to the writer) tourist brochures.
Marura chooses a long black piece of cloth known as a buibui to put over her ordinary clothing. She then wears a hijab and a niqab, traditional garments which cover everything but her hands and eyes.
Marura equips herself with the latest camera from a stash of photographic gear displayed against the shiny pink wall. Her photographic journey, from her oldest to her most recent camera, is all there. She is finally ready to go.
When she arrives at the location, it is difficult to tell everyone apart. Everyone is dressed in bright colours, but one thing they all have in common is that they are all covered up. All you can see are their eyes.
As Marura walks in, she is greeted casually by women who are familiar with her and her profession. She gets right to work after the formalities are over. She carefully removes her camera and sets it up for action.
However, her journey did not begin around her current community.
Marura spent the majority of her twenties managing her family’s cyber café in Mombasa, along the coast of Kenya. All this while she knew she wanted more out of life.
“I was born into a family that loved to venture into business. My siblings and I started working at a very young age when my father opened a cyber. Since the cyber was our primary source of revenue, we as the kids were put to oversee it,” Marura said.
In 2020, Marura met her husband, Robert Mwangi, a professional photographer. This meeting helped Marura discover a talent and passion for telling stories through the camera – she admired how her partner would often spend extended periods getting to know his subjects and attempting to understand them, through pictures.
“I had no background in photography. I just had a passion for it. I would accompany my husband to various shoots and slowly but surely, I picked up a lot,” Marura shared.
Her life changed when the couple was given the chance to move to Lamu Island. Although her first thought was, “Wait, what part of Kenya is Lamu?” the move held potential, she said.
“We saw a chance to fill a void. My husband had to go first to see how it looked because we had no idea such a place existed. All we needed was a little push. As soon as my partner gave me an okay, I packed my belongings and relocated to Lamu Island.”
Not long after arriving, the opportunity became a reality for Marura.
“My partner was informed about a wedding that was seeking a female photographer to capture the all-female ceremony. I got the job because there aren't many women photographers in Lamu,” she shared.
Following that first job, the community on Lamu Island began to take notice of her work. She began to get recommendations from everywhere.
She founded a separate business from her husband, Infernal Photography. The county quickly extended an offer to her for a physical office.
“I was given this office space by the county. I was able to spread my wings and venture into photography completely. From there, I developed myself, and my clientele kept expanding,” she said.
Apart from wedding shoots, she works with an array of organisations, acting as their communications officer and social media manager.
There were challenges along the way, however.
“It was not easy to make my way to the top in a community governed by religion. I had to blend in and try and fit in. I had to adjust my lifestyle to fit into their culture and religion.”
She learned of Islamic festivals like Mauli, where prayers are offered for newlyweds. In such events, she had to fully cover her body including her hair in order to show respect for their religion.
“At first, I faced a lot of difficulties. I was used to wearing simple clothes when I first arrived. So one day, a Muslim lady came up to me. She mentioned that I was doing a great job, but that in order to get more gigs, I needed to dress more “decently”. I had to change my entire wardrobe and would sometimes wear hijabs to shoots just to show my respect,” Marura explained.
Marura’s husband has seen her grow from barely knowing anything about photography to being the most famous female photographer in Lamu.
“Marura has created a name for herself here. She is not only the main female photographer who covers Islamic weddings in Lamu, but she has also been appointed the communications officer for the Lamu county government,” Mwangi disclosed.
Marura has exceeded her own expectations and shown that there is a place for women in photography. She believes there is a gap and women have the opportunity to tell their stories through the lens.
Mohammed Scanda, the speaker of the youth parliament in Lamu county and coordinator of Muslim human rights in Lamu county, now works closely with the photographer.
“I work on the rights of the youth in Lamu, this includes political and human rights... With a female photographer, we are able to reach the women in Lamu and give them an opportunity to speak out and air their grievances. Through photography, women have been given a voice," he explained.
Lamu residents have nominated Marura for the Pwani Women's Award - an event that celebrates the outstanding achievements of women in the coastal region of Kenya, which she won. She was chosen as the Woman of the Year by her community as well.
"In Lamu, women have not yet taken to photography. It might be as a result of their lack of access to a learning environment... My goal is to start a training facility to impart photography skills to young people, especially in Lamu,” she concluded.
bird story agency