Kibera Kid touches — no, make that scuffs — a nerve in Nairobi’s emerging middle class.
The short film, shot in the city’s largest slum where between 600,000 and one million people live in poverty supporting families as maids, guards or manual labourers, left some in a packed theatre angry when it screened at a festival recently.
“Why did you shoot the film in English rather than Swahili or Sheng (languages spoken in the slums)”, yelled one man during a question-and-answer period afterwards.
Nathan Collett, the American director who emptied his savings account to make Kibera Kid in 2006, and who continues to encourage kids in the slum to write, act and pursue their musical talents, stood wordless at the clearly baited question.
Luckily, 14-year-old Ignatius Juma stood on stage beside him.
Bright, handsome and a firecracker behind a microphone, Juma was playing in a field in Kibera in 2005 when Collett asked him to audition for the movie.
Juma’s mother is dying of AIDS. His father skipped out on the family after trying to commit suicide and his mom is too poor to buy him his $25 school uniform. That’s life in Kibera.
But after starring in Kibera Kid — a story of a young gang member who’s saved from the mob justice that rules the slum by a caring man and then finds a better life — Juma is a man looking beyond his surroundings.
In addition to helping write a feature-length script of the movie, he aspires to be a lawyer or president of Kenya.
So when the dangling challenge was launched at Collett, Juma snapped to his defence.
“Although I live in Kibera, I go to school, too,” he said. “And I speak English.”
Like a match striking sandpaper, the theatre flared.
People jumped from their seats. Juma’s schoolmates from the slum screamed in support. The questioner walked out.
A few days later, as Kibera Kid played on a television, Rose, a reporter in Nairobi, saw it and immediately went after Collett.
“I heard he didn’t pay that kid anything to be in that movie.”
What nerve has Kibera Kid uncovered in people here? Collett, who should be revered for doing good things in Kibera, instead seems to annoy. Why?
“It’s the barbarians at the gate thing,” he said, standing in the slum. “Their position in the middle class is not guaranteed. These guys here want to get it, too, and that’s a real threat. There’s an intrinsic fear of Kibera. The middle class people don’t want to end up back here.”
In Nairobi, the relatively small yearly income of $15,000 can see you live with many of the trappings of the political elite. You can have a maid who does you laundry, maybe a gardener, definitely a security guard.
It’s a reality built on the pillars of poverty, however. Without the slums, where some earn $365 a year or less, Nairobi’s ersatz nouveau riche in their Italian suits (bought for $10 at used clothing markets) would have to press their own pants.
A film reminding them about the slums isn’t what these people want to see.
Collett’s short movie continues to create change in Kibera.
Hot Sun Foundation, which produced it, has subsequently created three shorts and a mini documentary by Kibera youth.
A group of writers have also created a feature-length script of the movie but are struggling to find funding to film it.
One life clearly invigorated by Collett’s work is 17-year-old Antony Shikong-Lo, who co-starred in Kibera Kid and has lived in the slum his whole life.
If ever Kiberans rise to demand more from their government, as many hope they will, Shikong-Lo will likely be their Che Guevara.
“People here sleep hungry or collect garbage — they survive like dogs,” he said, bitterly. “There isn’t water, and women are being raped by the river.
“These kids will cry tonight,” he said, pointing at a few playing in the dirt. “They will go to bed hungry. If my talent can lift me up, I want to be somewhere else, to encourage them to follow me.”
Collett remains convinced Kibera is filled with talent just waiting to be discovered and guided out of the slum.
“There’s often a perception that nothing good can come of Kibera,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes an outsider to stir it up.”
Former Yukon News reporter Tim Querengesser now lives in Kenya.