The town that doesn’t see itself



Sheilagh Matheson works in an African community that is so poor it can’t afford mirrors


Few people would say a mirror is a vital part of life although we automatically check our reflection countless times every day without thinking about it. It is as much a part of our lives as eating and  sleeping. But what is an essential in my life is an incredible luxury for millions of the poorest people on the planet.

I discovered this myself recently when I was in one of the poorest parts of Kenya called Simbiri, where I help to run a charity called Luo Care. We pay insurance premiums which gives the most impoverished widows and their children access to medical treatment whenever they need it.

When I tell people back home that the widows have nothing, it’s impossible to convey what that means. They have one  or two rooms, no windows, mud walls, earth floors,  corrugated iron roofs. There is no electricity nor running water nor latrines. They cook on open fires outside.

I go to Simbiri for a fortnight every year and one of my jobs there is to photograph all the new widows we register. When I arrive at a health centre on a designated day, widows will already be sheltering from the sun under a tree. Many have taken more than two hours to walk several kilometres along rough tracks.

Alice, our helper, translates as one by one, I ask each woman about herself. Without exception, they have harrowing tales to tell. I need the information. But most of the time I feel like a poverty voyeur.

The solemn, businesslike atmosphere only lifts when I take out my smart phone or iPad to take their picture. They pose, looking serious, then suddenly excitement bubbles up and they start giggling. When I show them their photo they burst out laughing and want another look and joke amongst themselves. It’s always a highlight because when I show them their photographs, it might be the first time they have seen themselves for a very long time, if ever.

Another job is visiting widows in their homes. They might have a plastic chair and a table and cooking pots but there’s very little else. I’ve been coming to Simbiri for six years, but it’s only just dawned on me that none of the houses have mirrors. You can’t see your reflection in glass panes, because the homes and tiny shops have no windows. So most of the widows I met never see themselves.

“How do you know what you look like?” I asked Alice. She looked puzzled, wondering why I was asking the question. 

“We tell each other. ‘You look nice today’, or ‘You don’t look good’.” When pressed, she said the women have such hard lives that they have more important things to worry about. Appearance isn’t a big deal.

“But I have a mirror,” she said. She showed me it when I went to her home. It was the tiny corner of a broken mirror, no more than two inches square. 

Nancy is a social worker in a nearby school and orphanage and I asked her the same question.

“Women wake up at 5am and their first worry is fetching water from the stream several kilometres away,” she said. “Then they have to make food and send the children to school if they have the money. They work on their shambas, growing maize, cassava and millet to eat. (Millet in the UK is what we feed budgies). They do odd jobs for other people. Child minding, weeding, collecting wood. We never stop working until it’s dark, then we just want to sleep.” 

“What we look like is not a priority. It doesn’t matter. So why do we need mirrors?”

Appearance begins to matter when the women have any spare cash. They like to buy wigs and smarter clothes, but the lack of mirrors shows when the wigs are sometimes slightly askew.

It makes me wonder how I would be affected if I couldn’t see myself and wasn’t bothered by smudged mascara and bad hair days, in a world obsessed by selfies and Instagram. So I decided to try to last a month back home without looking in a mirror.

But it’s impossible. As I walked through the airport there was a wall of glass with my reflection. A mirror was above the wash hand basin in the toilet. I could see myself in the driver’s mirror as we drove home. My face was reflected in my mobile phone. Everywhere we go, we see ourselves. 

I had taken a small double sided travelling mirror to Simbiri and I gave it to Alice when I left. She was so pleased she could hardly speak. But you should have seen her face when I turned it over and she looked into the magnifying mirror. She nearly leapt out of skin and dropped it, but luckily it didn’t break. Or maybe unluckily.


You can find out more about the charity here