Kenya’s Largest Slum Looks Different Than You Think

Behold
The Photo Blog
Nov. 20 2013 11:04 AM

Kenya’s Largest Slum Looks Different Than You Think

Balancing Act Father Dan had fun balancing his 5 month old son, Dylan, on his hand.  This pretty much went on all day long, much to everyone’s delight. This is the family compound where the POHK office and storefront are located.
Balancing Act. Father Dan balances his 5-month-old son, Dylan, on his hand. This is the family compound where thePower of Hope Kibera office and storefront are located.

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart found herself examining her life last March while preparing to memorialize her recently deceased mother.

It wasn’t the first time she had stepped back to look at herself, but it was the first time—at age 59—she had lost a parent. She wanted to honor her mother by giving whatever she could by volunteering her time and talents for someone who could use them. “Losing a parent really brings home the finality of this life; it represents the last phase because now you have become the oldest generation,” she said.

Kelly Fenson-Hood, a good friend, had recently quit her job to become a full-time unpaid administrator of a nongovernmental organization with Power of Hope Kibera (POHK), a hygiene-centered microenterprise based in the Kibera slum—the largest slum in Kenya and the largest urban slum in Africa—outside of Nairobi. Because Burkhart is an accomplished photographer and documentary filmmaker, she asked Fenson-Hood if POKH might need help with photography. As it turned out, they needed images that showed their work in the slum for research and development and to develop a grant-writing campaign. Burkhart paid her way to Kenya and spent four weeks this past July documenting the people who live there.

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At first, Burkhart found her greatest challenges to be technical—dark interiors, bright sunlight against dark skin—and it took her a few days to get the hang of things. She said she didn’t intend at first to create a series in black and white, but after a few days it became clear color wouldn’t work. “I see color as the ‘great seducer,’ sucking us in with its vibrancy,” she explained. “Color is full of emotion, and I knew that I wanted the emotion to come from the subjects themselves. I needed to convey the virtues that I was handed by my subjects, pure and raw.”

Tea Party. One of the other soapsellers, Miss Loreto, had us over to her house for a tea party with her and her girls. I photographed Loreto making traditional chapatis from scratch in her ‘kitchen’ (doubles as bedroom). Then she served chai and traditional chapatis (fried bread).  The lace fabric on the walls covers the corrugated metal sheeting.  The girls were dressed in their Sunday best, in honor of our visit.
Tea Party. One of the soap-sellers, Miss Loreto, hosted a tea party with her girls. Burkhart photographed Loreto making traditional chapatis (friend bread) from scratch in her kitchen, which doubles as a bedroom. The lace fabric on the walls covers the corrugated metal sheeting. The girls were dressed in their Sunday best.

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart

MISS HELEN:  Helen is more beautiful than she perceives herself to be.  She is one of the POHK soapsellers and was instrumental in getting our documentary photos done last July.  I LOVE this picture of her, where she appears to be the mistress of her environment.
Miss Helen. Helen is one of the POHK soap-sellers and was instrumental in getting the documentary photo project completed. Burkhart said she loves this picture of Helen because she appears to be the mistress of her environment.

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart

MY PHONE TAKES PHOTOS TOO: While visiting Evinta’s home (Helen is her mother), she mimicked me with her mother’s cameraphone. I couldn’t resist her ‘O’ shaped mouth ironically repeated by the camera lens.
My Phone Takes Photos, Too. While visiting Evinta’s home (Helen is her mother), she mimicked Burkhart with Helen’s cameraphone. Burkhart said she couldn’t resist Evinta's O-shaped mouth mirroring the camera lens.

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart

Burkhart decided to call the project “Slice of Heaven” because after the first day of shooting, rather than the bleak dreariness one might expect from visiting a slum, all she could remember were the smiling, laughing faces of the people she had photographed. “I thought that truly this place is a slice of heaven,” she said. “To my mind, heaven is a place devoid of earthly possessions. What makes heaven what it is, is a state of being—being loved, being joyous, detached from the trappings of this world. Of course we are human and have basic human needs like work, shelter, health, and education—thus the title.”

Early in the process, Burkhart felt like a conspicuous foreigner, as many people honked their horns or stared at her, calling her muzungu or “white person.” But once she was deep inside Kibera, many of the residents were accustomed to seeing outsiders (POHK has been working there for years), and she felt the residents were happy to see her. All the subjects she photographed were given a print. “For one mother, the print I gave her was the only one she had ever seen of her two young children and just could not stop staring at it,” Burkhart recalled.

“I went to Nairobi with a sense of confidence in my skills and an attitude of openness,” she said of the experience. “I knew I was where I was supposed to be.

Burkhart has already planned another trip for February for three weeks and has found a donor who will underwrite her visit, which will also be funded through Toilet Hackers. POHK has held fundraisers and auctioned off some of Burkhart’s prints to raise money. Signed archival pigment prints can be ordered by going to her website, with all proceeds benefiting POHK.

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH:  The title says it all, this at the heart of the slum—everyone watches out for everyone else, including children watching out for other children.
Neighborhood Watch. In Kibera, everyone watches out for everyone else, including children watching out for other children.

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart

WIRE JUMP ROPE:  We spent a fair amount of time waiting for things to come together, so Kelly found a wire and taught Evinta how to jump rope.  She proceeded to practice the entire afternoon without resting.  At the end of my time there, I gave her a real jump rope.
Wire Jump Rope. Kelly found a wire and taught Evinta how to jump rope. She proceeded to practice the entire afternoon without resting. Burkhart said she gave Evinta a real jump rope at the end of her time there.

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart

WE WON!  Schoolchildren celebrate when they hear that they won the contest for best hygiene essay at the POHK  http://pohk.org and GLOBAL WASHES http://www.globalwashes.org  sponsored WASH festival (WASH is a universal term for Water, Sanitation, Hygiene).  I was impressed that they didn’t ask what prize they got for winning!
We Won! Schoolchildren celebrate their victory in a contest for best hygiene essay at the POHK- and Global Washes–sponsored WASH Festival. (WASH stands for water, sanitation, and hygiene.) Burkhart said she was impressed that they didn’t ask what prize they got for winning.

Maureen Ruddy Burkhart