'Slum TV' chronicles stories from the back streets of Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya &

The three-person crew of Slum TV set out under the hot noon sun, slinging a video camera and microphone through the crooked labyrinth of iron-sided shacks, graffitied beer joints, rickety-stick markets and open sewers that is their home, Mathare.

Walking along dirt paths in dainty white ballet flats, reporter Esther Wanjiru, 19, found her first interview: a man sitting in the shade of Glory Med clinic.

"What do you think of the grand coalition government?" she asked in serious tones, as cameraman Benson Kamau, 27, and soundman Fred Otieno, 25, took their positions.

The man replied &

he wasn't expecting his life to change much now that Kenya's politicians have struck a power-sharing deal &

and the crew moved on, gathering views from sewer cleaners and tomato sellers, butchers, jobless young men and people dancing in dark music halls at — p.m.

"It's like a revolution, slowly, slowly," Kamau said as he walked, offering his highest hopes for Slum TV, 15 or so young Mathare filmmakers devoted to chronicling life in their neighborhood. "They say we are idlers, but we have good minds and a point of view. And we want to compete in the broader world."

Slum TV was founded three years ago with help from an Austrian artist who provided money for a camera and a laptop computer, which remain the outfit's only equipment.

In better, quieter times, the team has documented commonplace scenes around Mathare &

shakedowns at public toilets, the life of a woman who fries potatoes for a living.

On a few cool evenings, they've cleared off an open swath of dirt, tapped an electrical wire for power and projected the videos on a white sheet for an audience of hundreds.

In recent weeks, however, the crew members found themselves in one of the world's biggest stories as Kenya sank into violence following the disputed Dec. 27 presidential election. Mathare itself &

where about 500,000 people live without running water or electricity &

became a flaming ethnic war zone.

During the crisis, Kamau, Otieno and Wanjiru often followed with their camera behind crews from CNN and British Channel 4, who had money to hire bodyguards.

But as the international media trained lenses on burning cars and young men with machetes, the Slum TV crew found other stories they deemed equally important &

people from different ethnic groups giving one another food and shelter, young people who refused to take up the machete, and local leaders who brokered peace between neighbors.

They recorded the landscape of destruction left behind &

burned-out markets, demolished houses and tented camps of the displaced thousands that still ring the muddy edges of Mathare.

They are gathering the last footage now and will show their coverage in Mathare next month. "We want to give people this information so these things never happen again," Kamau said. "We want to make sure young people focus on the positive &

some people do not even realize their own capabilities."

The members of Slum TV are part of a savvy generation of young, cosmopolitan Kenyans who know of podcasts and YouTube, and are often well-traveled, well-read and well-aware of the artistic possibilities of a hand-held video camera.

They move in a growing milieu of bloggers and writers who are uncomfortable with the ideas and politics of Kenya's old-guard leaders, whom they blame for dragging the country into the recent spell of violence.

Although their parents have valued ethnic loyalties and voted in ethnic blocs, people such as Kamau, Wanjiru and Otieno &

who are from different ethnic groups &

are rejecting those sorts of political calculations, especially in view of the destruction of recent months.

"We have seen how these old people lead, and we're seeing that it's wrong," Kamau said. "If we leave this nation to them, we're going to the grave."

The team members spend whatever free time they have at the offices of Slum TV, a concrete-floored room with one desk on the edge of Mathare, in between the odd jobs they do for money.

Kamau scrapes by on freelance photography; Otieno hauls wood, and sometimes distills and sells the local brew. Wanjiru washes clothes and fixes computers for money.

She is studying computer engineering in college, but she dreams of a different profession. "My father used to say I'd make a good journalist," she said, recalling how she used to deliver newscasts for him. "One day I will be."

Otieno, who is tall, skinny and dreamy, and has in recent years lost his mother, father, sister and brother to the travails of life in Mathare, is determined to become a filmmaker.

On days he can't find work, he often heads out alone with the camera and no particular plan. Last week, he came upon a group of young boys and followed them around for the day.

"They were playing, dancing, drinking, eating," he said, adding that he recorded one boy even as he slept drunk for an hour. "You know it's the life of the slum &

they are not bad boys."

Kamau envisions himself as a filmmaker, too, and as something of a radical. He says that Slum TV is "creating the professionals who will change this nation."

For now, he said, his goal is to show a version of life in Mathare different from the one that politicians and outside journalists often depict &

not necessarily positive, he said, but "balanced."

"We will show the results of the violence," he said. "We will try to reflect on the damage done."

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