The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back

The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back
A Documentary by Philippa Ndisi Hermann
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Project Information

About the project
LOCKLINEOn a remote Island on the coast of Kenya Africa’s largest port is being constructed. In order to evolve, what do we keep and what do we leave behind?



The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back

Bibi, an elderly Taarab singer sits on the beach, a chorus behind her. She begins to sing a heart-wrenching song in Swahili of a young woman that is about to get married.  What do you take and what do you leave, she asks. She sings about holding your breath and leaving everything you know behind, a song about birth, death and marriage, a song about the coming and going of love like the monsoon rain.

High tide, low tide, Full moon, new moon. Lamu is an island frozen in time. Now Africa’s largest port is being constructed. Once a rich town trading in slaves with the East, the monsoon winds connected Lamu to the world. The East African coast gave rise to a new culture and a new people – the Swahili. Lamu town survived and has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

The port foundation stone was laid last year. At a cost of 3.5 billion USD, the port will be capable of handling ships almost half the size of the island of up to 100,000 tonnes.



Lamu Island has one car and more than 3000 donkeys. Electricity is provided by generators and there is no modern water sewage system. Marginalised economically by mainland Kenya. Lamu relies on tourism where backpackers rub shoulders with the Princess of Monaco.

The advent of the port is giving rise to land speculations, to environmental concerns, to the influx of people, change is coming, change is needed. Is this what the port will bring?

The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back documents and observes life before the marriage of people and land.  What this new life will bring we do not know.

The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back is a quirky and impressionist film about an island which appears not to change yet a looming cloud is approaching and breaking the steadiness and surety of the island’s constant way of life.

Bracketed by the two monsoon rains, the film follows Fatuma as she prepares to begin a new life and get married and concludes as she leaves her parents’ house to be wed. The documentary returns again and again to public spaces that feel the coming port; the main, sleepy square, the port site and the beach that no one visits.

 The film has a universal theme and international relevance. It will be shown at international film festivals and will be released in independent cinemas.

About the Director, Philippa and Her Motivation

I am Philippa Ndisi Herrmann. My mother is Kenyan, my father is German and I was born in Bonn, the capital of the former West germany. I am an artist - I draw and paint, but my craft lies in capturing life and sentiments through film, photography and words. Coming from so many distinct and disparate worlds, I am drawn to telling stories about the shifting boundaries of individual & collective identity; I am fascinated by the influence of culture, community, living space and ancestral memory on our understanding of ourselves. I have exhibited my photography work in collaboration with The Sundance Institute, at MoCADA in New York City (2011) and with the Goethe Institute, at the National Museum, Nairobi (2013).

My short film, “The Revolution of My Heart” commissioned by Guinness and MOFILM was screened this year at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. 

A substantial amount of my work evolves around the Indian Ocean of Lamu, Kenya, namely Two Princes (a feature-length fiction project) and The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back (a feature-length documentary project funded by the Goteborg Film Festival Fund and the IDFA Bertha Fund). The Donkey that Carried the Cloud on its Back asks, in order to evolve, what part of ourselves do we keep and what part do we leave behind?

I have studied in France, Ethiopia, the Netherlands and South Africa. I now live in Nairobi, Kenya where I do what I love; I write, shoot, cook, make jokes, sing in the car, read Rumi and fall in love. 

I am making this film because the change happening in Lamu is a microcosm of change happening in many other parts of the world – how much do we loose in order to gain. It is just more real and visually stark in Lamu, because of its ancient history and small size, and because it is viewed as a paradise island by so many, because it is beautiful at the same time there is ugliness.

A new culture, a new language, a new people was created in Lamu – the Swahili. I want to make this film, as for myself and Atieno, the producer, this topic is close to us, with our multiple heritages we can relate to Lamu's amalgamated culture; the central question of the film is pertinent to our understanding and evolution of ourselves, this question is also relevant to the entire developing world; in order to evolve, what part of our culture do we keep, what do we leave behind?

The film will use some magical realism to embody and personify the looming cloud evoking the foreboding change, and we will be shooting underwater. I envisages the documentary film to be a humble, colorful, perfect balance between an ensemble of observational footage, still photography, some interviews and magical realist mysticism.

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We have received development funding (Göteborg International Film Festival Fund) and some production funds for this film (IDFA Bertha Fund). Furthermore our project was selected for different training programs on script development (IDFA WorldView Summer School 2013, Doc Circle Pitch of the Durban Film Mart 2013).

The funds raised through and with your support will enable us to take our project to the next level, fully realize the vision of Philippa and be able to convey the true essence of Lamu.

Dear Supporters – check the right hand side of the site for rewards!

Asante Sana! Shukran! Thank You!




Quote that inspired the maker

" If you're still in this world, madam, you will hear about the benefits and problems that will come..."
Zwena, Lamu
This project was successfully funded on 22-12-2013

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