When I look at the photos above, it’s almost as if there is a file in my first world brain labeled: AFRICA. The file opens up, revealing shameful contents: poverty, sewage, AIDS, children with distended stomachs, malaria, political corruption, blood diamonds, ethnic conflict . . . you get the picture, because this picture is all too common in the Western world. Indeed, most Americans conceptualize Africa as monolithically dirty, impoverished and hopeless. After all, so many charities do not get Americans to donate money by sending them pamphlets full of healthy, happy, thriving people. But this negative image of Africa is harmful in a couple of ways. First, it is not quite fair to refer to “Africa” as if it is one big, unvaried place. Africa is full of many different peoples and cultures, and ignoring this fact only perpetuates ignorance. Second, this negative conceptualization of Africa is degrading. As a human being, you would never want to be labeled as filthy, hopeless, or sad. Most people do not find it uplifting or empowering to be pitied. Though someone living in an African slum is certainly affected by poverty, this does not give anyone the right to dump his or her entire life into the contents of their reductive AFRICA file.
Of course, these photos reveal certain realities about the country in which they were taken. Captured by our talented PeaceTones photographers, Daniel Maissan and Joshua Smith, during the Songs For Justice trip to Nairobi, Kenya, the images give a glimpse of the poor conditions in the slums of Nairobi. For example, according to Homeless International, “there is little or no access to water, electricity, basic services and infrastructure in Nairobi’s slums,” and “around 94% of slum dwellers lack access to adequate sanitation.” Molly Dow, the Program Director of PeaceTones, confirmed the reality of some of these conditions in Kibera, Mathare, and Babandogo, the Nairobi slums that are home to the PeaceTones Songs for Justice project participants. Basic services that so many take for granted must be funneled in illegally. The roads are in poor condition, and often covered in sewage. Any service, any break one does get, they have to fight for. Obviously, the poverty in Kenya’s slums is very real.
Other problems in Kenya are less tangible. Corruption plagues Kenya’s government, officials often demand bribes, and though technically a democracy, Kenya’s political system is truly an ethnocracy. A New York Times article discusses how “People vote for members of their own [ethnic] group, however sullied the politicians’ reputations are, and coalitions among the five or so major ethnic groups are held together, somewhat tenuously, by doling out posts, often to people grossly unqualified.”
However, while poverty and political corruption are alive and thriving in Kenya, this is not the whole story. Creative expression and optimism for the future are also alive and thriving, and they fight back against negative realities every day. Oftentimes, artistic expression is a way to address grievances about the conditions in Kenya. For example, Eric Wainaina, one of Kenya’s most popular musicians and a UN Goodwill Ambassador, sings songs about political corruption and social injustice. Linda Poon, from NPR, describes how Wainaina’s “2001 hit that criticizes the government for taking bribes” was adopted by Kenyans as their “unofficial national anthem.” Wainaina also writes songs that address the disparities between wealthy politicians and impoverished slum-dwellers.
Artists like Wainaina demonstrate the ways in which art can be empowering. The PeaceTones Songs For Justice project also operates under this belief. Before participating in educational workshops and a music competition, Kenyan musicians were asked to complete a survey that addressed everything from the number of hours they practice per week to their confidence with social media. I had the opportunity to type up the survey responses and analyze the data. I loved seeing the responses, especially the responses to the “optimism for the future” question. Participants were asked to rate their general optimism for the future on a scale of 0 to 10. On average, these artists from Kibera, Mathare and Babandogo rated their optimism as 7.44 out of 10.
I found this extremely inspiring. Where does this hope come from? I choose to believe it’s related to the fact that all survey participants have a creative outlet through music. Creative expression and optimism thrive despite the conditions in these Nairobi slums. While this does not minimize the reality of poverty, it does highlight the power of music to bring joy and hope into people’s lives. In Nairobi, just like in every place around the world, there exists hope, creativity, and individual and collective agency.
My time with PeaceTones and my involvement in the Songs For Justice project in Nairobi has fully convinced me of the power of using art as a vehicle for community empowerment. Instead of focusing on what is wrong, bad, or ugly about the communities in which we work, PeaceTones focuses on what is right, good, and beautiful. Working with PeaceTones has helped me to delete the AFRICA file from my own brain and replace it with excitement for fair trade music and the opportunity for people around the world to fulfill their creative potential.
By Lydia Vieraitis