Kenyan children find a passion for photography thanks to growing charity

There is little expensive technology flaunted on the streets of Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, often called the largest informal settlement in Africa. 

So it is a disorientating sight to see children gathering in the corner of a ramshackle bus terminal on the slum’s outskirts, clutching a disparate collection of flashy cameras, ranging from DSLRs to GoPros, as well as the occasional e-tablet. 

The children of this juxtaposed scene are students of the Inua Mimi Rescue Centre, a local space dedicated to caring for some of the most disadvantaged children in Kibera. The cameras they hold have been donated by individuals and manufacturers, and are distributed among the kids by Photostart, a growing charity that aims to teach children life skills through photography.

Children living in Kibera – and other sub-Saharan African slums – grow up in an environment tough beyond the comprehension of most westerners. While there is some local praise for the area’s diverse community and lively atmosphere, poverty runs deep and many people live on less than a pound a day. There are few services, infrastructure is dire and planning is almost non-existent, particularly in the poorest area known as “Chocolate City”, after its muddy paths.

Kenyan youth in general face significant challenges. Only 32 per cent have finished secondary school or have some vocational training, and there is little prospect of stable work – only 5 per cent of Kenyan youth were in formal employment last year, according to research by Well Told Story, a development communications group. Circumstances are even tougher for those from Kibera, who say they are often tarnished by their association with the area, which has a reputation for crime and political violence. 

But when its youth are given the chance and resources to prove themselves, they flourish. Photostart students have achieved far beyond what their society expected of them, and their pictures have won awards, featured in exhibitions in Nairobi’s most important cultural centres, and even been placed in The New York Times.

The children’s starting point at the bus terminal is testament to the scale of their achievements. The Inua Mimi Rescue Centre, run by Shosho Pascalia Nduku for 19 years, is the closest many of its 128 children have had to a formal education. But it has been constantly beset by financial problems, meaning Shosho struggles to pay teachers and maintain the building.

She gives The Independent a tour of the dilapidated classrooms, where some of the children with no other home also sleep. “My wish is God will help me find a bigger place,” she sighs. Seven classes are crammed into just three small rooms. The paint is faded and the furniture falling apart, and in one the only light is provided by a plastic drinks bottle protruding through a hole in the corrugated metal ceiling.

Shosho Pascalia Nduku has run the Inua Mimi Rescue Centre for 19 years (Will Worley)

“The kids are so good,” she says. “But to pay the teachers is a tricky thing, so they are always changing and they cannot be stable.” 

The centre has no regular sponsorship and running it is a constant struggle for Shosho, but she says it is “a dream God gave me”. When she first began her work, she says, she would sometimes find children’s bodies in piles of rubbish in the street. 

She houses orphans, their parents taken by HIV, who sleep on rags on the floor in the centre. Some of the children lack birth documentation and don’t even officially exist, demonstrating how far removed they are from mainstream society. 

“I have so many kids who don’t have ID, I don’t know what to do,” says Shosho, “I talked to the government about it, but they say they are waiting for reports.”

Sometimes, children with families fare little better, and Shosho says she occasionally sees children who have been sexually abused by brothers or fathers. It doesn’t take long for her to spot them, she says: “They come in the next day with a changed face.” 

Sexual and gender-based violence is a key challenge facing the youth of Kibera, according to Thomas Bwire, a local journalist who runs a community news website and focuses on health. He says: “Rape can happen within the family or in the close community. Students are also vulnerable when they go to school.”

Shosho has mostly run the centre alone for the two decades it has existed, though a volunteer, Ann, is preparing spinach and potatoes for the children’s lunch during The Independent’s visit. “The way a child is behaving, you can tell if they have eaten or not,” says Shosho. “When a child is hungry, they can be sick.” Malnutrition is also known to have an impact on a child’s development and particularly educational attainment.

Even children from homes able to feed them are still unable to safely play as children, as appropriate spaces shrink under population pressures, according to Bwire. He says this has a poor impact on their physical development and mental health. “Kids still want to play, but often they do it in ditches where there is sewage,” Bwire adds.

In such bitter circumstances, the children’s development is limited and their aspirations and confidence are stymied. But it hasn’t limited Shosho’s belief in them. “We are nurturing the talent of the kids [with Photostart], they are doing so good.”

Photostart, founded by an American, David Lehman, aims to further the children’s abilities and belief in themselves. In addition to teaching the children to use digital cameras and tablets, it also schools them in organisational skills like data entry and digital asset management – thus grounding them with an education in technology that is not available to them in their normal schooling. “There’s not much theory, lots of it is practical,” he says. 

Lehman, 35, also highlights “soft skills” Photostart encourages in the kids, like planning, preparedness, expression and building their self-confidence. It’s also key that the children are taken off the street, something Lehman reckons Photostart has done for roughly 20,000 hours across their projects in Kenya and South Africa. “If they are on the streets they are with the gangs,” he says. 

Outside the rescue centre, the children, aged around eight into the early teens, are ready to venture into the slum. The group must wait for two young men who provide an informal security presence – their equipment is, after all, a valuable commodity.

Cameras were donated to the centre by Photostart, a charity aiming to teach children life skills through photography (Will Worley)

On their arrival, the children rapidly take to the streets with their cameras. Shosho, who has no classes today, joins the group as they make their way through the dust-red maze of paths that make up Kibera. As they leave their everyday lives behind them, the children’s spirits rise and excitedly, then more methodically, their view of their everyday environment alters as they document it through a lens.

“I look at this place in a new way [with a camera],” says 12-year-old Victor, who lives at the centre.

Dr Gil Pasternak, reader in social and political photographic cultures at De Montfort University, says photography encourages its practitioners to acquire a fresh perspective as it compels to them to go out into a new environment. “They need to make decisions: what to photograph, what angle to use, how to frame it, what to include, what to exclude,” he says. 

There are other benefits too. “The process of going out with camera can potentially make them aware of diversity and complexity,” Pasternak adds. “It can lead them to understand that information can be delivered in different ways and can also be manipulated.”

He says this may help some children develop their critical thinking and lead them to question what is given to them as objective information and to explore further, possibly “developing their curiosity more broadly”.

Lehman guides the children on the walkabout, pointing out when someone’s elbow is in the frame, or why the shutter won’t close (the timer’s on). “You can see progress in their work, especially older kids,” he says. 

As the children move deeper into Kibera, stray dogs, slumbering in the afternoon sun, suddenly find themselves models for an impromptu photo shoot. An open rubbish pit, smouldering and noxious, becomes the backdrop for portraits of friends posing together. Next to it lies the railway track which cuts through the slum as it links the coastal city of Mombasa to Uganda, and a view of Kibera’s expanse opens up. 

This railway was where Kibera began, when the British colonial government granted ethnic Nubian soldiers who served the empire land next to the tracks in the early 20th century. It used to be a wooded area – the name comes from the Nubian “Kibra”, meaning “forest”. The slum grew as more people, of all ethnic groups, migrated to the city, and the railway sustained economic activity.

The Inua Mimi Rescue Centre in Nairobi (Will Worley)

But despite being a gateway to Nairobi for many Kenyans, Kibera has gained a reputation for political violence, which emerged along ethnic lines after elections in 2007. Election-related violence also swept through the slum in the aftermath of a disputed poll in 2017, and left its mark on the children living there.

“The election was a challenge, people liked to fight,” says 14-year-old orphan Abrut Wakesa, of the bloodshed, which led to the deaths of dozens people.

Children often witnessed violence during this period and sometimes even subjected to it, according to Bwire, leaving them vulnerable to mental health problems. “But there are no trauma centres or counselling,” he says. “People can’t share what they saw. They are left to heal on their own.”

As the children continue on their walkabout through the winding alleys and open sewage of Chocolate City, they become more animated. Objects of visual excitement, like a lone white rabbit which cautiously emerges from behind a fence, prompts a flurry of shutters.

Shosho, who an hour before seemed to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, laughs in between playing with a DSLR.

“My heart is shining, I am the happiest woman,” she beams. “My kids really need this. They are the poorest of the poor.”

Lehman says that an important part of the walkabouts he organises – with different groups across Nairobi – is to get the children “out of their heads and classrooms” for a little while, and to forget about their troubles.

“Kids who were very shy, we now see brightness in them when we do this,” he says.

Pasternak says the simple practice of being out with a camera may be conducive to improving confidence and other attributes in young photographers. 

“Being in a new environment, they will meet people out there, which means the photographer can learn about different perspectives, different values and different types of behaviours,” he says. “They might have not encountered these elsewhere.” 

Pasternak continues: “Encountering a range of individuals and personalities can compel some children to learn how to talk with different types of people. 

“It can help them develop their expression skills and it can consequently help them develop new vocabulary, both verbal and emotional.”

Pasternak adds that meeting new people and learning how best to deal with them can also “encourage them to empathise better and help them understand that not everybody is the same”. 

“All of these are transferable skills they can take to other areas in life,” he says. 

The “harder” skills, such as inputting data into a spreadsheet, are turned into lessons that are “most assuredly shared with friend, neighbour or stranger”, says Lehman. Each walkabout is followed by a debrief, and older children often take responsibility for training younger students. 

While the student’s pictures have been widely recognised within Kenya, perhaps their most valuable achievement is taking it upon themselves to share the benefits of their experiences.

“Knowledge spreads fast,” Lehman says. “These students are anything but selfish about learning, they make sure their peers are keeping up, and relish showing off how much they have learned.”

Locals have received the project well, and hope that it will both benefit more of their children and give the area a voice.

“It’s a good platform for kids to do something different and a change in activity from the classroom,” says Jaymosh, a Kibera resident who works with another charity operating in the area. “There are a lot of untold stories in the slum.”

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