Slums throughout the African continent are places of extreme violence and poverty. But they are also places of extreme human potential and promise. Groups from the Kibera slum in Kenya, one of the largest in Africa, to the Alexandria Township in South Africa are increasingly making the world recognize the inherent beauty and ingenuity of Africa’s slum dwellers. Art has enormous power not only in terms of individual empowerment and self-expression, but also in terms of the communal power of social justice and economic independence. Africa’s slums are looking inward and capitalizing on the power of art for social, economic, and political empowerment.
Art is social power. The Maboneng Township Arts Experience creates public street art and turns homes into art galleries throughout South African townships. The program firmly believes that “townships are the epicenter of arts around the world.” Maboneng’s vision is also focused on ending the stigma surrounding slums and townships by using art. When outsiders see beauty coming out of an unexpected place, they will hopefully question their preconceived mindsets. The Slum Drummers of Kenya are also working to voice positive social messages. Seen as “beats of hope,” they encourage youth through their drumming to steer from the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse. With a community focus, the slum drummers are not just sharing their musical talent but are also encouraging vulnerable youth to resist the temptations of the slum. Thus their vision is to “represent a role model of social improvement through art for vulnerable and disadvantaged human beings.”
Art is economic power. The Umoja Uaso Women’s Group, located in Kenya, is a cooperative of women who use their skills in beadwork to make a living. The Umoja group is dedicated to women’s rights in the face of men who have tried to prevent them from acquiring their own land. The women participants in Umoja all receive heathcare, with a particular emphasis on prenatal care. Zulu women in South Africa also make a living from their craft, weaving recycled telephone wire into baskets with beautiful patterns and designs. For these mbenge baskets the women are paid a fair living wage and can work from home. Each mbenge is original and unique and the women are encouraged to express themselves through their art.
Art is political power. To the men of the Les Sapeurs Congo Fashion Subculture, fashion is a political statement. They view the clothes they wear as a break with the country’s colonial past. By being the “best dressed and best behaved” men around, they believe that they can “improve the morale of their neighborhoods by being an example of couture and courtesy to others.” They are seen by their community as a source of inspiration and positivity. One Sapeur, Hassan, says that when a well-dressed Sapeur walks down the street, people “forget their problems.” Another group using art as political power is the Kibera Walls for Peace Project, which aims to “encourage unity and cooperation between ethnic and political groups” and prevent a repeat of the crises that have accompanied previous elections. The youth participants study peacekeeping and art, create public murals around the slum, and participate in other art forms like music, poetry, and dance.
For the individual, art is a vehicle for self-expression and a strengthening of internal dignity. Shining Hope for Communities, or SHOFCO, “builds urban promise from urban poverty” in the Kenyan slums of Kibera and Mathare. SHOFCO combines free education for girls with holistic social services for all, and uses artistic enrichment in its youth empowerment programs. A song posted on YouTube embodies the empowerment the girls of Kibera and Marthare feel with the lyrics, “I know I can, be what I want to be.” The Nairobi Slum Film Festival is another organization working to empower those living in the slums through art. The Festival is a “celebration of the creativity of filmmakers living and working in slums,” and is also an opportunity to promote films in communities that have little or no access to cinema.
Above all, art is a celebration of self and of community. African slum dwellers from Nairobi to Mathare are challenging the stigma of slums and the international community’s judgments through beauty. From film to fashion, art can lift the morals and manners of a community, ease ethnic tensions, and improve economic wellbeing. There is enormous strength and potential residing in Africa’s slums.
About the author:
Rara Williams is a high school senior in Athens, GA. She is a 2014 ANNpower Fellow and was selected as a participant in the WiSci Girls STEAM Camp in Gashora, Rwanda, a three week program in the summer of 2015. Through an ANNpower grant she has launched and runs an after school artistic enrichment program in Athens federal housing projects. Rara has conducted research on global poverty and the African debt crisis with faculty members at the University of Georgia.