Robin Pierro shares one of her experiences from filming a documentary in Kibera, Kenya. Her documentary, “The Voice of Kibera,” deals with the impact Kenya’s proposed constitution had on the country’s largest slum. Kibera is seen as an important
political force in the country, as it is one of the easiest communities for politicians to manipulate. The documentary intends to highlight the issues impacting the political climate in the slum from the perspective of its residents. The residents in the area also have a great deal of mistrust for journalists. The people feel the mainstream news fails to depict their side of the story.
While filming a protest in the ghetto, Robin experienced first-hand the impact of sensationalized reporting. Here she tells the story of that protest and how the media has the ability to prevent the next one.
Clouds of black smoke billowed out over top of the tin rooftops; the smell of burning plastic polluted the air. Flames grew to the size of a two-story house, towering over the nearby shanties. More protestors arrived and began fueling the raging fire with tires and planks of wood. They ripped down the fence outside of Chief Ouma’s office and fed it into the flames. Hundreds
of angry residents gathered in a small lot outside the office. They were furious with what had been happening in their
community – Kibera, the biggest slum in Kenya.
We pushed our way through the crowd and I saw the shining blades of machetes glimmering under the hot African sun. The screams and shouting of hundreds of protesters was unnerving, yet my adrenaline was building and I knew there was no getting out of this. Sande Wycliffe, a local journalist who had been helping me, grabbed my wrist, “We need to leave here, Robin.”
“I need to get a shot of this Sande,” I said as I navigated my way through the anxious mob, gripping my camera bag tightly and using my tripod to clear a path. I saw a group of Kiberans watching the mounting danger from behind thick metal bars covering their doorway. A man opened the gate and ushered us in. We climbed a crumbling cement staircase onto the roofless second floor. The building had nearly been burnt down during postelection violence in 2007. The blackened walls, littered with bullet holes, and the filthy ash-covered floor were a grave reminder of what could happen if this protest got out of control.
I decided to pull out my camera before things got even worse. I still needed to get some footage. It wasn’t long before a journalist from Kenya’s premiere news station arrived on the scene. I watched from above as he struggled through the crowd with a massive TV camera on his shoulder. A group of young men directed their screams and protests into his lens. I felt angry
I didn’t get that shot. I directed my camera at the fire. When I turned back to film the journalist below, I noticed he had been
pushed to the ground, his camera swiped out his hands. It was already out of sight. I decided to pack up my gear. A group of men were trying to get through the metal gate protecting us below. They knew I was up here. My heart pounded in my chest as Sande and I escaped onto the roof of an adjoining building and into a narrow back alley leading away from the protest. I could feel stares burning into my back as we ran from the scene.
During my time living and working in Kibera, I had learned that the community deeply distrusts and detests the media – especially media from “western” countries. The people took the journalist’s camera because they believed the whole truth would not be shown on the nightly news. Kiberans I spoke to later that day felt the news would skew the events to depict “another violent protest,” inevitably distracting people from the real issue – the fact that their rights were being violated.
Media misrepresentation and sensationalized stories have poisoned public opinion of journalists in Kibera. “People come and take their pictures, go home and never think about them again. Or they watch the news and see all the garbage and violence, they forget that real people live here and that they are driven to this kind of protest,” Sande told me later that day. “It’s
the only way to be heard. They are seeking other means to be heard.” The community of Kibera suffers from an abundance
of human rights issues. There is little access to basic necessities such as water or healthcare services. The government
has never implemented a plan to build a piping system, which has resulted in open sewage systems overflowing with
human feces. Garbage lines every street within the slum.
Kibera consists of approximately one million people living in an area the size of Central Park. Nobody owns title deeds for the land, so no one bothers building permanent structures. Most build their homes out of scrap metal, many on top of garbage piles. Young women are frequently raped when walking through the small alleys late at night and 14 per cent of the population
suffers from HIV/AIDS. Children don’t go to school because their families can’t afford the fees and most girls actually
enrolled in school drop out by grade eight. The Kenyan government has ignored the growing need and impoverished
state of Kibera.
“There is such a big lack of resources in Kibera because people here have a very strong political voice and have usually supported the opposition government in the past. The politics in Kenya is so ethnic and so personalized. When you don’t vote for someone, you and your entire community will be punished for that,” says Kepha Ngito, a local community leader working with youth in the area. Kibera has a history of opposing political decisions in Kenya. It was a hotspot for Kenya’s post-election violence, which killed almost 1,000 people around the country in early 2008. After Mwai Kibaki was named president, violence erupted. Kiberans supported candidate Raila Odinga, who for months led in the polls. When Kibaki’s victory was announced, the people in Kibera were furious. They protested and demanded a recount of the ballots. It wasn’t long before people throughout Kenya followed suit. The only way to end the bloodshed spreading throughout the country was to form a coalition government and make Raila Odinga prime minister.
Within the slum a pattern has formed. When the people unite and protest they get what they want. When they don’t protest, and instead seek legitimate means to have their rights heard, nothing happens. The demonstration outside the chief’s offices, for example, was a result of police corruption – officers had repeatedly extorted families for money by falsely imprisoning men from the community. Months of negotiations with the chief and other government officials had accomplished nothing – faced with no other recourse, there was no choice but to protest.
This information about Kibera can be startling and paint a rather negative picture. However, it is extremely important people
realize these problems do not define Kibera. The people are not hopeless: they are aware of what’s happening and ready for change. They do not want pity – it does not change the community, nor does it build a sustainable system for change. People may send generous Christmastime donations to one of the 10,000 NGOs in Kibera, but it’s the reporting in, and on, Kibera that truly has the ability to change this place. By creating a more direct form of communication with the government, journalists have the ability to develop communication between those suffering from human rights abuses and those with the power to change it. Progress can only occur when Kiberans begin to trust the media, and when the media stops sensationalizing Kiberans.