The Big Story on the Back Streets

Benson Kamau, left, Fred Otieno and Esther Wanjiru walk the dirt paths of Mathare, a Nairobi slum, to gather their neighbors' views on the future of Kenya.
Benson Kamau, left, Fred Otieno and Esther Wanjiru walk the dirt paths of Mathare, a Nairobi slum, to gather their neighbors' views on the future of Kenya. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

NAIROBI -- 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 1 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.

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