Nairobi is home to some of the world's biggest slums, and more than half of its 3 million people live in them. Many in the slums don't even have electricity, so it was quite an event recently when a white screen went up, the speakers were turned to full blast and dozens of children saw the first episode of Slum-TV. Nick Wadhams has the story from Nairobi.
On the giant screen, a crazed preacher heckles his worshippers, steals their money and loses his parish to a competitor, all within minutes. The crowd gathered in a dirt courtyard applauds and laughs in delight.
This is Slum-TV, a new project that gives a team of kids in Nairobi's slums the video camera to record everyday life and then play it back on the big screen. The first episode told of life in Mathare, one of the largest slums on the planet, and was played after dark in a neighboring slum, almost as big, called Korogocho.
As well as maniacal preachers, the episode featured interviews with people who wouldn't normally get much of a voice: a man who makes donuts, a woman who feeds poor children, another man who makes his living pushing a cart down the street.
In Korogocho, few people have televisions or the electricity needed to turn them on. Earlier this summer, police cut power and water to try to crush criminal gangs in one of Nairobi's slums. The move ended up hurting regular people, particularly women and children, most of all.
Peter Ndolo, one of the organizers, says he hopes Slum-TV will open up worlds for the kids of Korogocho, some of whom hardly ever leave this maze of dirt paths, tin-roofed tenements and shops.
"We are in Korokocho slums and maybe somebody has lived here for the rest of his life," he said. He doesn't know about Mathare. We just screened about Mathare, about the informal schools, about the feeding programs, about the business in the slums. So at least they know there is this kind of business."
The United Nations estimates that about a sixth of the world's six billion people live in slums, and certainly in Nairobi's shantytowns, there is little organized entertainment.
Slum-TV is definitely a work in progress. For the first few minutes, the sound fails. But then it's pure magic. The crowd is silent, listening attentively, or laughing hard.
Irene Senna, 15, pauses for a minute to talk about what she saw. She says she appreciated the lessons and the entertainment of the piece.
"It was great. I learned a lot from what I didn't know. I've seen what's been happening to the other side of the slum," she said. "And I've seen some people do things which are not necessary, like stealing from each other."
Slum-TV got initial funding from the Austrian Development Corporation and now most of the producers are members of MYSA, the Mathare Youth Sports Association. They are volunteers looking to gain a skill, like working a video camera, that they can then parlay into finding a well-paying job.
Among the organizers is Sam Hopkins, a Kenyan-born artist. He sits atop a van through the entire show, taking pictures of the kids in the darkness and shouting occasionally to the crew if the sound goes bad or the video needs tweaking.
As he gathers up his crew to leave, Hopkins says Slum-TV is more than entertainment. It is meant to teach lessons to children who sometimes can't go to school. It is meant to teach the production crews who work on it new skills. And it's meant to serve as a living record of the slums.
"We have a Web site where we archive all of the material so people can hear about whatever, how people fry chips in Mathare," said Hopkins. "Because in 10 years time, you know, the language will have changed, chips will have changed, and that's not being preserved in any document. The other side, the guys can go once a month on a screen, see themselves represented. Which is critical I think in terms of how you identify yourself within a society."
Well after the movies end, some children dance in the white light of the projector. But they do not linger once the lights are turned out. The slum is a dangerous place at night and has recently seen raids, arrests and killings by police looking to round up members of a mafia-style group known as the Mungiki. Few people, especially children, want to stay very long.
With all that hardship, Ndolo says he's learned a valuable lesson about finding the best way to get kids in the slums to pay attention.
"I am so happy people saw it, people laughed, enjoyed it. They want more, you can see them shouting," added Ndolo. "They want the comedy back. At least now we know what we'll use as a video to pass the message through it. Like if they are so enjoying the comedies, we'll use the comedies to pass the message. So every screening, comedy. This is Peter Ndolo, keep it lock, VOA baby."