Shootback’s ‘Fallen Heaven’

“I was taking photographs of the people who were killed during the post-election violence,” said Daniel Kamadi, “It was hard to take these pictures…. It was hard to decide if to take them or not…. I was a bit scared.”

Daniel is only sixteen. He is a member of the Shootback project that has been running for the last eleven years within the Mathare Youth Sports Association. The project was started in the mid-1990s by a young American photographer, Lana Wong. I remember Shootback’s first and very moving exhibition at the National Museum. There was a simplicity in the photographs and an honesty in the stories written alongside them. It was a depiction of life in Mathare, through the eyes of its children.

“I chose 31 children,’ said Lana Wong at the time. “I gave each of them a cheap camera and a roll of film. I wanted them to tell their own stories. None of them had handled a camera before.”

Fredrick Ochieng was one of those original 31 members. He is still with Shootback, but he is now teaching other youngsters from Mathare about taking photographs and making films. I talked with him last Sunday – at another exhibition of the project’s photographs. It was at the Muthaiga residence of the Czech Ambassador, Gita Fuchsova. And it was mounted by two young photographers, Lukas Houdek and Nicole Herzog, who have been working with Shootback for the last few months.

They called the exhibition ‘Fallen Heaven’. A strange name for something that came out of Mathare slum. Can any slum be anything like a heaven? At any time? In any circumstances? Certainly, though, whatever the name – what was being shown was of a kind of hell.

Many of the photographs and stories are of the brutality and despair that slums like Mathare suffered at the turn of the year – and that its victims endured in the long waiting in the IDP camps. The written accounts are perhaps more shocking than the pictures.

“Suddenly I heard some men shouting, ‘Kazi ina anza sasa’ (The work is starting now)” said one of the photographed women. “I rushed to my house only to find a pool of blood. My husband and my eight grandchildren had been slashed to death.”

A girl of eighteen had gone to get food from a kiosk. It was 8 pm. She heard people screaming and saw houses burning. A man grabbed her. “He pushed me back against a wall. He had a knife. I began to scream. He slapped me and shouted that I should shut up. He threatened to push the knife down my throat. I kept on struggling, but he was holding me tight. He pulled down my underpants, and all I remember was a sharp pain in my lower abdomen…. In the morning I woke up and found myself on the ground. The pain was a little less and I was able to get up. I walked home slowly.”

“I found myself suddenly in the house with a group of men who were carrying pangas,” another young woman told the Shootback member. “I couldn’t run away. They told me to get out. They took me to a place…. I had to sleep with more than five of them. They kicked me and told me to go away without looking behind….. Later, I found out that I am HIV positive.”

Maybe, in the revulsion that it provokes, an exhibition of this kind can contribute to an appreciation of how close Kenya came to self-destruction. Maybe, the young generation of Kenyans will understand that ethnic pride need not mean tribal prejudice. Maybe, they will see that there are more creative and surer ways than violence to solve long-standing grievances…..

The Shootback project is another demonstration of how much young talent there is in Nairobi slums. This latest exhibition of their work deserves a more public showing. Not in a private house, not in an art gallery, not on the internet – but in the city centre.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation