This post is from the first trip for my ENEMIES Project.  Read more about it on my website 

On Thursday I went to Mathare again to photograph a man who was the head of one of the youth gangs that were directly involved with the post-election violence in 2007-2008.

A little historical background… Since gaining independence in 1963, politics in Kenya has been marked by corruption and high levels of politics related to tribal background. The riots that happened after the 2007 elections were an outpouring of anger at the perception that the election had been stolen by the sitting president. The anger was intensified by immense levels of poverty and the feeling that the politicians were enriching themselves at the expense of everybody else in the country. The election came after several years of scandals in which government officials were found to be involved in corrupt business dealings that funneled government money into shady business deals. Because the government was dominated by one tribal group, tribal tensions flared and politicians from both sides started using these tensions to their advantage. The anger that started as economic desperation was quickly fanned into an ethnic fire that exploded into riots and looting.  For over three months Kenya was shut down. Thousands of people were killed, and over 300,000 were driven from their land in response to what were perceived as unjust land-takings in the past. The main two ethnic groups in this conflict were the Luo and the Kikuyo.  A great book that explains much of this history is “It’s Our Turn to Eat”, by Michela Wong about the Kenyan man who blew the whistle on the corruption scandals by the Kibaki government.

Fred, Joseph and Jemimah from the Mathare slums
Fred, Joseph and Jemimah from the Mathare slums

This is a photograph of Fred Owino, Joseph Maina and Jemimah Kafura. All three of these men were directly involved in the riots that exploded across the slums in 2007. People who had been friends turned against one another based on ethnic background. Fred, in the center, is a Luo. Joseph and Jemimah are Kikuyu. Fred was a leader in a gang that had been politically involved and turned violent when the results of the election came out under to great suspicion. At one point during the riots Fred came across a Kikuyu friend of his who was being attacked by a group of Luo armed with machetes. His friend called out for help. He was already injured and bleeding. Fred knew that he couldn’t appear to sympathize without becoming a target himself, so he told the others he would take things into his own hands and pulled his friend away roughly as though he was going to continue the violence. Once alone, he told his friend to never return to that area and let him go. Unfortunately, that act was misinterpreted by the other side and Fred became a target, and he soon went into hiding.

Two months after the riots ended Fred went to a workshop sponsored by the Kenya Alternatives to Violence Project. Fred feels as though that workshop changed his life, and he started training to give workshops himself.  Now Fred gives workshops regularly. Joseph and Jemimah are two men from the other side of the conflict who have attended his workshops. Since 2008 Fred has been leading the charge to make Mathare into a safer place. It is clear that the part of Mathare that I visited is safe. I walked the streets there without any feeling of tension.

Next week I am going back to photograph a group of men from the youth gangs from both sides. Fred is getting them together for me. Today I am meeting with a graffiti artist to talk about converting these photographs into a mural for peace.

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Enemies Project - Ben, Janet and their children
Enemies Project – Ben, Janet and their children

On another note, I met Ben and Janet again, and this time had the opportunity to photograph him with all of their kids – their one natural daughter and the eight orphans they care for.  Their nine kids are between them – a few other kids had crowded in – it’s almost impossible to keep kids out from in front of a camera here.

During the riots Ben and Janet took in four children whose parents had disappeared (maybe killed, nobody knows). A year later, Ben was approached by a man from the US who was in Kenya to help orphans through a small non-profit he was starting. He encouraged Ben to adopt another four children so that he could more easily get a Kenyan work permit, and then use the work permit to help support Ben and others like him. The man’s project was called “Haven of Hope” – promoting itself as a Christian ngo supporting poor orphans. Ben assisted the man in getting a work permit, and Haven of Hope profiled Ben and his orphans in a newsletter their first project in Kenya to receive support. According to Ben after the man received his work permit, he never contacted them again. Ben and Janet now had twice as many kids to take care of and no additional help.

This is a picture of the newsletter in which Haven of Hope asserted that they were helping Ben and Janet’s orphans. I don’t know what really happened with Haven of Hope. It is clear from the rest of the newsletter that they received donations from churchgoers in the US. Looking through the web, they have a facebook page and a non-functioning website. Ben says the man is still in Kenya working.  Unfortunately, I have heard plenty of stories of small non-profits like this coming in with great promises and then leaving unexpectedly.

The riots left many orphans.  Ben and Janet aren’t the only couple I have met who have adopted orphans after the violence. Many people have.  It is a testament to the nature of the people living in these dense and difficult conditions that they adopt these children.

Children in the Mathare slum of Kenya | Photo by Nelson Guda © 2019
Children in the Mathare slum of Kenya

The kids in Mathare are great. As you walk or drive through they gather around to call out “How are you?, How are you?”.  It is adorable and hilarious. There was an art project done by a Kenyan artist where he made a ringtone out of kids saying “How are you?” in Kibera.  It’s great – you can get the ringtone or just listen to it here: Conversations in Silence. I’m totally putting this on my phone when I get back.  🙂  Too bad my Kenya cell phone is too cheap to use cool ringtones.

Snippet of the day: Kenya bread – soft as tissue; Kenyan peanut butter – hard as dried mud. A combination guaranteed to create morning frustration for silly muzungus like me  🙂

Oh yeah, one more thing…

Check out the song on this youtube video. Totally the most popular song in Kenya now, maybe in all Africa. It’s from a Nigerian band called Flavour.  Awesome tune – it’s everywhere – stores, clubs, taxis, homes, matatus… (the video itself is just another stereotypical music vid – ignore it if you don’t like it, it’s the song that is great).

And… I just found the origin of that song.  Apparently its an old highlife song from Nigeria called Sawa Sawa Le.  You can hear it here.