By Jack Makau
Art has always been central to the struggle of the Kenyan slum dweller for a place in the city. From the prayer associated with the ‘theatre of the oppressed’, to puppetry, traditional and contemporary music, graffiti, film making, and, more recently, social media action, the Kenyan slum dweller story has a rich tradition of art expression.
This year, building on this tradition, Muungano is investing—alongside its perennial search for slum upgrading solutions—in film making and new media, working with Know Your City TV.
Muungano sees that the slum upgrading narrative can benefit from taking pause and engendering an understanding... What does it actually mean to live in a slum? What is it about the slum that makes it such a stubborn development challenge?
It started with a prayer
Sometimes, in the 1990s, when the opportunity presented itself and slum dwellers had occasion to meet local chiefs or government officials—and knowing full well that piety is an assumed quality of the poor—an opening and closing prayer would feature prominently.
Ordinarily, beyond the prayers, Kenyan slum dwellers in the 1990s had their rights to association and expression severely curtailed. And so the opening prayer became a skit, a safe way to set the agenda for a meeting.
The prayer would go, “Our blessed Lord in heaven, we pray for the success of this malaria awareness workshop, we thank you blessed Lord that because of this workshop there will now be an alternative to demolishing the homes by the river. We worship you because those families, your prayerful children bowed here before you, are saved from malaria and demolition. We exalt you for touching the heart of our dear chief, your child that you chose to lead us, to bring this workshop instead. We pray that you continue to give her great wisdom …”
And the closing prayer then became another skit—a way to redirect the conclusions of the meeting. “Dear blessed Lord, maker of all things possible, we thank you for allowing our dear chief to sit and discuss with us. We pray that you give her the strength and show her your way to intervene with your higher leaders on behalf of your lowly children, blessed Saviour. We know precious Lord that you allow the writing of demolition notices and you can in your grace unwrite those notices, even without us having to visit those higher offices. Let your will be done through her hands …”
Twenty years on, and the civil space for slum dwellers is markedly more open. The slums are no longer condemned to demolition, and slum dwellers are instead enjoined with the state in a frustrated endeavour to upgrade housing, infrastructure, and livelihoods. It is no longer a question of whether the slums have a right to the city, but how that right can be achieved in settlements of seemingly intractable complexity.
The prayer is no longer necessary. Yet art is still indispensable as a way in which difficulty in the slum discussion is managed.
Using art to make planning possible
In June 2017, Muungano launched a local chapter of SDI’s Know Your City TV project, known as KYC TV Kenya. Supported by Cities Alliance and GIZ, the project equips youth with video documentation resources to tell stories of the lived experiences of the urban poor, and make media that contributes to the transformation of slums and cities.
The project began with recruiting, equipping, and training 20 youth from Mukuru slums in Nairobi. The Mukuru slums sit on 647 acres and are home to 100,000 households. Earlier this year, in March, the slum was designated as a 'special planning area' of the Nairobi county government. This designation is a first for slums in Kenya: it recognises that existing city planning laws and procedures cannot be used to address the slums' complicated land tenure arrangements, improve on very low levels of provision of services like water and sanitation, and upgrade the largely iron sheet housing stock.
The initial focus of KYC TV Kenya is to bring the reality of Mukuru to the fore—to be able to reach, and, using short drama and documentaries, give insights to the planning process. Using art to make planning possible.
The first set of films are supported by Swiss Caritas, SDI, and the Stockholm Environmental Institute, all organisations that are part of the County’s special planning effort in Mukuru.
Early in September, KYC TV Kenya announced that it would release its first five films at the Mukuru Film Festival, to be held on the 4th of October in Nairobi.
What is KYC.TV ?
Know Your City TV puts the power of storytelling into the hands of urban poor youth. By equipping youth with video documentation skills and resources they are able to share stories of the lived experiences of the urban poor with the world by making media that contributes to the transformation of slums and cities.
Young people are at the forefront when it comes to technology. The expansion of smart phones across the Global South has made it much easier for urban poor youth to capture their surroundings and start conversations about the issues that need to be addressed when transforming slums and cities. The KYC.TV project is bridging the north-south tech divide by creating space for urban poor youth to share the stories of their communities with the world.
The KYC.TV process starts with workshops that provide basic gear, filming, and editing training to groups of youth from the slums. These skills are put to use in making short informational or music videos that allow the youth filmmakers to practice and perfect their skills. Through the filming courses, youth gain a set of skills and equipment that they can use to act as advocates for their communities, and improve their livelihood opportunities.