Field work among migrants in Kenya
During spring 2013 BA student Mekdes Shebeta spent a three months' research period in Kenya, where she worked as a volunteer for the humanitarian Emmanuel Faith Based Organization. Shebeta’s project was to depict and promote deeper understanding for the life of African migrants in the Kayole slum of Nairobi.
"Migrants in Africa and the Diaspora* have a story to tell, and one way of communicating it is through art. The art serves as a medium through which to understand their identity, their daily lives and the transformation of their lifestyles. Their story can be told through different materials and media; through installation, sculpture, video, sound and painting. In many ways the story of the migrant is the story of space; of the limited space available to most migrants, and of how they manage to use that space to satisfy their basic needs.
In the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, tens of thousands of migrants live in what are known as "kijiji" houses, temporary houses put together by urban migrants from all sorts of scraps and pieces such as leftovers from construction sites and demolished houses: such as wooden planks, metal sheets, bits of plastic, cartons, paper and fabric.
This article is the story of the inhabitants of Nairobi's kijiji houses, their struggle for survival, for finding a place to sleep, finding a livelihood, and the development of new art forms in the hope of earning their daily bread. Also, in many areas of Nairobi these kijiji houses have been demolished and their inhabitants expelled to other areas of the city. The inhabitants are usually migrants from rural areas and with different backgrounds: industrial workers earning minimum wages of around 35 NOK per day, and others as little as 9 NOK per day: house maids, guards, hawkers or small kiosk owners.
* Diaspora: a community of people removed from their place of origin.
Nairobi and its migrants
Nairobi has a population of about 3 million out of a national population of about 37million. The official languages are English and Swahili, and there are also three main tribal languages and several smaller ones. In Nairobi, some 66 areas are considered to be slums and contain more than half of the city's population. The numbers of people without formal employment is estimated at around 60-70%, but the slums continue to grow as more people migrate to the city seeking employment.
Kayole estate is located in the northern part of Nairobi, and has an estimated population of about 800,000. It is one of the largest of the eight slums that make up the Embakasi District and has grown significantly over the past two decades. In 2008 a group of migrants in Kayole formed the Emmanuel Faith Based Organization. They moved to Kayole in 2013 after the demolition of their earlier residences in the Mitumba slum.
The organization was established to improve the status of the community through three main objectives: 1) to improve the environmental status of the community, 2) to train and acquire skills to achieve better living standards in the community, and 3) while it is a non-profit organization: to develop ideas for its members to make products and do income generating activities. The organization also makes a positive impact on the environment by taking care of the children of the community.
With a vision to participate in an exchange program, I had a couple of meetings with the Department of Architecture and Building Science at the University of Nairobi (UoN), and they encouraged me to submit a proposal and an exchange program application letter. Supported by KHiB, I decided to travel and continue to work with the Emmanuel Faith Based Organization while waiting for the University of Nairobi to respond.
The members of the Emmanuel Faith Based Organization do crocheting of baskets using recycled paper bags, bones and beadwork. They make items for daily use such as children's toys, utensils, furniture, etc. Their artwork puts me in a position to learn more about using architecture and design in my story of migrants. My story involves a collage of documentary video, digital drawing and sound, together with kijiji installation.
My plan was to work with students and others in Kenya and share with them my ideas of drawing and three-dimensional work. I would also share my understanding of contemporary art, of working with communities, and of the need for integration of art into life. I would also share their ideas and concepts in the above respects.
I was hoping my project would improve my understanding of the use of space; what can be done with limited space and its importance for telling the story of interaction between people and their actual space. This could as well be helpful when building the design for the installation for my animation (story-telling) film. However, in the end it turned out that it was difficult to establish contact between KHiB and UoN, and a bilateral agreement for a student exchange program was not realized.
My involvement with the Kayole group and its
My request to join the Kayole group was accepted, and we agreed and planned how I should work with them during the next three months.
The first meeting involved a large group of 32 women with the agenda of:
- identification of the materials to be used for the project
- the number of volunteers needed
- agreement on rules, working days and space
- agreement on filming the documentation
- marketing the product
- past problems and solutions
- location of the exhibition of the final products
My role was to describe my new ideas and interests, the input and outcome of the kijiji project. I also gave an introduction to the use of colours, study of forms, presentation of the design process and final product. Part of this was documented as a film.
This required the participants to go window shopping in the middle and upper class shops and markets to help the marketing representative, the trainers and myself to better understand the market and demands, in order to have confidence to discuss our products, analyze what to produce and where and to whom to present it.
This workshop was on the process of recycling paper bags. I had an introduction course on colour study, three-dimensional forms measurement, collage and texture of fabrics. For inspiration, we had a guest lecturer on the presentation of products and markets.
This group involved 14 women and one man, each person with his or her own group to work with their projects. The initial meeting invited everyone to share developing ideas. The group was meeting frequently to discuss the challenges, progress and solutions. Apart from my own design plan with the youth and women we continued to produce new designs of recycled plastic, metal and fabric, making furniture of bright coloured plastic bags, door mats, toys, etc.
My project also introduced new ideas for working with documentation in film and sound. We also planned for group socializing time. This helped me to better understand the lifestyle of the community and to develop the individual or social biographical stories.
The future plan for the Kayole Emmanuel Faith Based
During the first month we met frequently for the workshops as planned, but due to tensions related to Kenya's presidential election in March 2013, the plans for work on design with architecture students were postponed.
The Kayole Group aims to finish the kijiji project performance in video stop motion, collage and space design for installation of recycled building materials and fabrics. The exhibition was postponed due to the limited time of my stay in Nairobi. However, the Kayole Group were improving their new products by making new designs with their recycled materials such as garden furniture, childrens toys and patched illustration art work.
Before I left Nairobi, the Kayole Group had started a plan for their future, raising funds to build a workshop on authorized land to stabilize the community base. This location will house a recycling workshop, a day care center for the community's children and a youth club. Their prospects appeared to improve after they were presented on an art scene on NTV (National TV in Kenya). Different organizations and trainers have now shown interest in working with them.
Emmanuel Faith Based Organization is now involved in a project aimed at empowering the youth and young girls of the community. Other activities include health education, art and design. The organization has also organized workshops in the Kayole and Ongata Rongai suburbs.
During the last two weeks of my stay the youth of Kayole became interested in the art project. Since working with youth is part of my plan, I immediately involved them in the project, the 'Kayole Phase One Youth,' under the Emmanuel Faith Based Organization. A volunteer gave a location for a workshop with three weaving machines, one sewing machine, and a few buckets to work on African textiles on weaving, batik waxing and tie and dye work. For those interested in film, dance and acting, we had the first art project where I gave introduction to fine art, drawing, colour and stop motion. Introductions to filming, acting, performing and documenting were provided by two guest lecturers working as graphic designer and freelance cameraman for KBC-TV and program editor for KBC. With this motivation the Kayole youth group acted in a 10 minute sketch video clip "Just Change."
My experience from Kayole has helped me to see the possibilities of development in the community, of promoting people's talent positively and of contributing to the development of other communities. My experience also made it easier to find economic solutions, to help the youth to focus on better perspectives, education and livelihoods, and to recognize and develop their own abilities and talents.
I will continue to research and work with the community while working on my project of story-telling through art. This project will be an important part of my future BA thesis. I believe strongly that the project has made a significant contribution to my own development, and that other students could also benefit greatly from similar travel and independent work."