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Television can be a tremendous force for good. It can educate great numbers of people about the world around them. It can show us how much we have in common with our neighbours, near and far. And, it can shed light on the dark corners, where ignorance and hatred fester.
The television industry is also in a unique position to promote mutual understanding and tolerance -– with content that tells the stories not just about the powerful, but about the powerless, and not just about life in the world’s richest pockets, but also in the developing countries that are home to the majority of the world’s population’.
Slum TV: by Paula Geraghty
It's Friday and Slum TV is bustling with activity. Ian Mwangi, head bent typing away noting amounts of cash being paid out is arguing with another Slum Tv Member. "You know the new rules, you've to tell the Head of Filming what work you've done- I only pay out what's been written down!". Yup, he's the financial administrator for Slum-TV. Even though he's being hassled by a queue, he grins. "If you want to be popular don't do finance!" he says. While he's not to keen on editing he's found a role for himself in administration, something he agrees he has a flair for. Slum TV has opened up a world of opportunity and experience to these media activists in Mathare.
Slum-TV is a dynamic group composed of young men and women from 16 to 32, working from a tiny office in the heart of the Slum. They have one film camera and one computer. These lack of resources are called challenges, never problems. In spite of the rationing of electricity, members still produce up to 12 newsreels and soaps broadcast in the open air every two months. Members of Slum-TV get expenses and a stipend towards living costs based on what they have contributed to Slum TV. They own it, they run it. The members get to decide what they make. They have had a policy- up to now- that the funder doesn't decide their content and have been successful in sourcing that money.
Every week, twenty people meet up, as a grassroots collective to decide content, make programs about their community and broadcast in Mathare on a temporary outdoor screen, in the slum they call home. Chairing the group meetings is no easy task. Last minute changes, illness and broken equipment raise the temperature even further at Slum -TV. The screening that was to be shown on that particular Friday night was postponed to Saturday night. Some of the newsreels hadn't been finished on time, due to the electricity rationing, shortage of equipment and people unable to show up. It's a lot to deal with as expectations are high. Ephantus is having his turn to chair and negotiates his way through the debates. Beatrice, another member trawling the internet for funding sources and competitions of interest, informed the gang of a US million dollar prize for innovation in media and all eyes jumped up- could a community film really win that much money? Criticisms emerge, Julius fed up without a tripod just can manage the camera and wants his work to be better. The tripod is broken, the issue of who broke it is delicately dealt with as Ephantus reiterates that all equipment is to be signed for and checked upon return to avoid these type of discussions. Everything seems to get if not resolved at least acknowledged .
Slum-TV started as an art project about four years ago by Sam Hopkins a Kenyan and two other Austrian artists. It's primary focus is to make media about and for the local community and to be broadcast in the community. The twenty members decide the content and theme the bimonthly newsreels through workshops. They discovered that it was naive to think that content just happened, they had to develop a process to decide what to make and then as a collective work together to make sure that decisions were implemented. That may sound easy. But when the daily struggles of poverty, family commitments and the everyday unexpected problems arise the barriers to the group become apparent. Police corruption is rife, people can be arrested on spurious grounds and forced to bribe their way of of prison. Making media in a community which mistrusts 'the media', who when they choose to report on Mathare, focus on the negative stereotypes about poverty, gangs and crime. Slum-TV is a media hack response to all the negativity generated by a combination of corruption , poor governance and media sensationalism about the slum. Mathare is their home and each member of Slum-TV have an incredible loyalty to where they come from. While they admit life is tough their media activism has developed a critical engagement with who they are and why their community is the way it is. They don't blame each other (most of the time).
After the meeting the queue into Ian grows, as the smaller groups emerge debates develop on how to move on with their editorial. Victor and Collins have the topic Naroibi River and have arranged to interview a local man about the impact of the drought on the river that runs through the heart of Mathare. I'm a bit of an attraction and a hindrance as some men out of their heads on chang'aa, the local illegal brew that Mathare is famous for producing and distributes widely through Nairobi, hustle them and slow the guys down. Every bit of filming is carefully negotiated and planned. No one is filmed without consent in the slum.
Esther , on another day is directing a soap she has written. They are finishing the last scenes of a story about a man who fools his wife that he is a repectable banker. He comes home everyday with cash, but he gets this by pretending to be a blind man begging in the streets of Nairobi. This scene of discovery causes draws in the crowds. Begging is not usual, someone dressed up in a role pretending to be on is a huge novelty. There aren't too many bankers in the slums either. Esther has dreams of being a journalist. Slum-TV creates opportunities that she would not have otherwise as a young woman in Mathare. No other media model would give her these opportunities to flourish and develop her potential.
Travelling in an overcrowded Matatu (minibus) with local Christian Hip-hop blaring sits Pauline wistfully staring out the widow. A single mum of 25 years she's seen a lot. she is taking me to her new home where she lives with her mum, two children, sister and nephew. She and her family became a displaced n the violent clashes which took place after the rigged election results of 2007. 'Slum-TV is like a family' she says, 'we are all one and look out for each other no matter what our tribe and religion is'. She is soft spoken and thoughtful, you can tell she's lived a hundred lives already. The international media reported the post election violence as ethic and in a racist fashion. The violence happened as a response to the rigged election results and the population felt robbed of their democracy. Over 250,000 people became refugees or Internally Displaced People (IDPs). Slum TV were in the heart of some of the worst violence but found themselves in a dilemma how do they deal with the reality. The national media focussed on the violence and ethnic divisions. The experience inside the slums was far more complex than the simplistic scraps as presented in the national and especisally the global media. Pauline's experience was an example. So the collective decided to make shorts about how inspite of ethnic divisions were being stoked up Kikiyus and Luos were supporting each other to rebuild their lives. The story of Pastor George was told and can still be seen on the www.slum-tv.org website where he actively helps
Sam Hopkins, a co-founder of Slum TV admits he can't believe its success. He's stepping down as the 'manager' and they're currently recruiting a project manager to manage all the day to day activities. "I've been doing this for four years and it's time I really took a back seat", he adds. It all started out after he had completed his MA in Collaborative and Community Arts. Slum TV started out as an anarchist collective but as the process got underway, the relaxed laissez faire approach to getting things done has given way to policies and developing a members handbook. "What we discovered was people wanted to know who was responsible for what and to have procedures for accountibility so people could be pulled up if they weren't doing what they were supposed to" . He smiles wryly, but this isn't an acknowledgement of defeat but about understanding power and who owns the decision making process. He's learnt a lot as an artist in this project. When asked about the nature of the collaboration he pauses briefly, he agrees that the term 'collaboration' is a complex one "as sometimes we (the artists) are teachers and we have a specific role, perhaps it's more accurate to say that we all strive towards a common goal". What's striking about Sam is his honesty and his commitment to the democratisation of the Art process. He hints at the frustration of finding himself, an artist, as a manager, a role he has deliberately moved away from and passed on consciously to the collective. There is a responsibility to the collective arts process by the artist. "Afterall" he points out, "What's the point in giving people a voice when you tell them what that voice should be?".
Although Sam is reducing his hands on role with Slum TV he will still be in the background for support and advice. this move is forcing the group to develop strategies to ensure the sustainability of the collective. While funding is secure for the next three years they still struggling on a shoe string. On Mondays the department heads meet up to formulate plans, identifying training needs attempting to partner with other groups, discussing if they should work with other groups and if they are meeting their budgets among the multitude of topics.
Empowerment through Art is not a new concept but in a country where civil society is weak and dominated by the many NGO's and Churches this process is a very special one. Now the Slum-TV crew can truly claim to own the process which they have collaborated to create. Ambitions are running high and all members share this enthusiasm. Ephantus wants to see Slum-TV get a television license to broadcast, Pauline wants to expand her repertoire of documentaries. Everyone involved with Slum-TV
Slum-Tv has given the members permission to dream, to create and make media all on their own terms and for their own community.
You can watch an interview with Sam Hopkins, a co-founder of Slum-TV, when he visited Dublin for an NCAD conference, Art with Africa early 2009, on Dublin Community Television, (www.dctv.ie) here http://vimeo.com/6797296.
The writer would like to acknowledge the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund in funding this project.
Ephantus turn to chair the weekly Friday planning meeting
The indignation from Cosmos
Cosmos and Victor preparing the camera gear for a n afternoon's shoot
Nairobi River which is now a stream is the focus of ths newsreel
Victor and Collins interview a local worker for the newsreel to be broadcast the following week
Leyla, Victor, Esther and James from Slum TV
Esther Waweru directing a soap
Esther (in heels) and Leyla chasing an errant husband in a soon to be released production
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