6 December 2012

Kenya: Citizen Journalists Give a New Face to Nairobi's Slums

Through journalism, residents of Nairobi's slums are taking it upon themselves to highlight injustices and create a balanced image of slum life.

Newspaper editor Vincent Achuka was behind schedule. The November issue of his Ghetto Mirror newspaper had arrived a week late from the printer, and he had an hour to finalise story assignments for the next. Then, he and his reporters had to distribute hundreds of papers by hand across Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum.

It was a typical Saturday morning in the life of a slum journalist.

Achuka's Ghetto Mirror, one of Kibera's most widely-read newspapers, is part of a community media movement in Nairobi's slums. Armed with camera phones and flip video-cameras, young slum journalists churn out printed broadsheets and YouTube videos. They aim to give voice to marginalised communities and fight negative stereotypes of slums. Despite police harassment and little formal training, the reporters have become essential local news sources.

"We have only two weeks," Achuka tells his reporters as he gives out assignments. "Let's end the year on a good note."

Modest beginnings

Achuka took over the Mirror in August 2011. In October 2012, the two-year-old paper increased circulation from 1000 to 2500 copies, changing its name from the Kibera Mirror to the Ghetto Mirror after it expanded to cover more slums. Apart from Achuka, who has a degree in public relations and mass communication, the mirror's 22 reporters are from the slums and learned on the job. They do all the writing, photography and layout.

In Nairobi's slums, other news outlets include the quarterly Kibera Journal, the Grassroots newspaper, the Kibera News Network (KNN) YouTube channel, and Pamoja FM. KNN works closely with MapKibera, which uses the well-known Ushahidi platform to document news, and Voice of Kibera, which reports news sent by text.

Kibera is home to over 100,000 people, who like much of Nairobi's population live in informal settlements without services like water, sanitation, and electricity. Slum resident Josphat Pala, who sells vegetables and reads local and national newspapers, said people living in Nairobi's poor suburbs are underrepresented in the media. "[The mainstream media] covers politics, but not within the slums," he says.

This is why slum media stepped in. Hairdresser Collins Odhiambo, 24, edits the Kibera Journal. He complains that most Kenyan slum coverage avoids positives, focuses on gang violence, and ignores police brutality. Like other slum journalists, he is self-taught and works for little or no pay. "This is a call from community. I must do this," Odhiambo says. "We can change negative notions and give a different face of Kibera."

Fighting stereotypes is at the heart of slum media. "There was this gap on stories in Kibera," comments 28-year-old Steve Oduor, video editor for KNN. KNN began in 2010 with six donated Flip video cameras. Oduor, who had dropped out of school and also works as a hairdresser was there from the start. "We want to tell the positive and negative", he explains. This is why recent KNN stories have included voter registration drives, a visit to Kibera by a Jamaican musician, and the death of a minibus driver.

The Ghetto Mirror also covers a range of topics including youth sports, musician interviews, and business profiles to show that slums hold much more than poverty and violence. Sylvia Nekesa, 20, covers health. "I wrote about cervical cancer. Not so many knew screenings were being done. Now they're going [to the clinic]," she says.

A growing enterprise

Residents flocked around Achuka and his team as they handed out free copies of the Ghetto Mirror. The journalists tried to distribute it to cafes and hair salons where they would be re-read, but residents like Gordon Odiambo, who just finished high school, wanted their own copies. "The Ghetto Mirror gets into the lives of local people," Odiambo proclaims, "it gives what's inside of slums". While at boarding school, Odiambo had his father send five copies each month to share with friends craving news from home.

The Mirror also posts breaking news on its busy Facebook page, though most slum residents have no internet access. KNN meanwhile screens its reports for free every Saturday during the intermissions at six Kibera video halls.

While slum media is driven by enterprising and passionate journalists, foreign donors help with funding and provide crash courses in journalism. ActionAid funds the Journal, Map Kibera Trust funds KNN, and Shining Hope for Communities funds the Mirror [for full disclosure: the author volunteers once a week at Shining Hope's primary school]. The editors say the organisations do not influence content however.

Giving voice to the voiceless

But the papers are far more than NGO-led after-school clubs. In March, the Journal reported on a school that received 3 million Kenyan shillings ($35,000) for new toilets, but never built them. Two days later, the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission demanded answers from the school.

Similarly, The Mirror published early reports of newly-built homes in slum upgrading projects being sold to wealthy outsiders, a story subsequently picked up by major Kenyan media houses. And after the Red Cross watched a KNN story on Kibera's water access, a water company arrived to fix broken pipes.

The newspapers rely on locals to send news tips by text, but residents demand results. "If the community calls and we don't come, they'll be upset," Odhiambo says. "They're expecting us to do something." Still, reporters sometimes miss stories when they get lost in Kibera's maze of shanties, and many residents are camera-shy and expect payment for interviews. With little training, it is not rare for writers to miss deadlines and need extensive coaching.

The journalists also face police harassment. For instance, police arrested photographer Peter Ombedha, 20, two weeks after the Mirror published a story about illicit alcohol-brewing, an industry rumoured to be protected by local politicians. "When [the police] saw me they said, 'That guy's from the Mirror. You are writing about brews!'", recounts Ombedha. He says they handcuffed him, slapped his face, and demanded money, even though he was not actually involved with that particular article. Eventually a higher ranking officer released Ombedha. Oduor tells Think Africa Press that police arrested a KNN cameraman filming them beating a thief. He says the police forced KNN to delete the footage and held the cameraman for three hours before the NGO's director talked them down.

Given their success, some of Kenya's major media houses now want KNN and the Mirror to help them cover slums, and a Mirror article posted online about "poverty tourism" in slums received hundreds of international hits. But slum media's first obligation is to local readers, showing the positives in Nairobi's informal settlements while speaking truth to power.

"When you come from Kibera, you're mistaken to be uneducated, a criminal, a thug," says Odhiambo. "That's not the story."

Jason Patinkin is a freelance writer and photographer from Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from Columbia University in New York City, he taught middle school science for three years to some extremely brilliant young adults on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Jason is now based in Nairobi, Kenya where he believes he has found the world's best cup of coffee. Blog: jasonpatinkin.wordpress.com, follow him on twitter @JasonPatinkin.

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