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FEATURE: Korogocho, Kenya – The power of art during crisis

In Korogocho, an informal settlement of Nairobi, Kenya, a community- based organisation is mobilising a group of artists and creating graffiti to build awareness regarding COVID-19. Daniel Onyango reports. This is the twenty-fifth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

With approximately 1.5 – 2 million inhabitants, Korogocho is the third largest informal settlement in the eastern part of Nairobi, Kenya. Korogocho has a bulging youth population (almost 70% percent), in the age group of 18-35 years. Most of the residents here survive on less than a dollar a day.

Historically, violence, particularly gender-based violence, has been considered as one of the major impediments towards economic development of women and young people in Korogocho. Violence, crime and drug abuse have become common phenomena, putting the lives of children and youth at risk. Studies have indicated that Korogocho is one of the most insecure neighborhoods of Nairobi.

Hope Raisers Initiative, a community-based organisation initiated in 2007, has been working for years to bring positive changes in the lives of children and youth through sound social and cultural development. Building upon the role that arts and sports play in bringing social and economic empowerment, they offer mentorship and outreach programmes to children and youth of informal settlements.

Using art to adapt to the new normal

In March 2020, when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Kenya, panic and confusion spread around the communities. Though information about the pandemic was spread globally through news and social media, informal settlers couldn’t have hands on them due to lack of access to internet, TV, smartphones or newspapers.

Considering a majority of communities in the informal settlement lacked access to proper information about COVID-19, Hope Raisers Initiative launched the Talking Walls initiative. The initiative aimed at creating community awareness through installation of murals and graffiti on the walls of key public places.

“Seeing the information gap in informal settlements, we decided to use the most effective method, art, to inform people what they were supposed to do to prevent themselves from contracting the virus”, says Harrison Chege, a graffiti artist, working with Hope Risers Initiative.

“As artists we have also been affected due to COVID, our movement has been restricted, cutting us off from interacting with our clients,” he continues. But the artists have not given up. Through mural installations, they created community awareness and depicted prevention measures.

Together with Nairobi artists, Hope Raisers created two murals along the streets of Korogocho. Initially, they started off with their own funding. Later, the initiative was backed by online fundraising and support from Landskapslaget in Sweden and friends of Hope Raisers.

The initiative has been highly praised and liked by the community as well. It has made a great contribution in informing people about the virus and the mandatory precautionary measures.

“They are doing an amazing job and reaching out to many who are not informed, especially the children. Following the precaution, now we are cleaning our hands and doing the right thing. Let’s be hopeful and believe in God that all will be okay” says Kelly Brown, a 15 year old boy, living in Korogocho.

“What I have seen the young people doing has really impressed me as these artworks can reach out to many people of the community whom we can not reach at a time” says Anastasia Mbala, a community health worker in Korogocho.

In order to spread accurate information and know community perspectives, Hope Raisers Initiative also started an interview series called “Corona University” that offered communities an opportunity to share their experiences. Furthermore, they mobilised resources such as food and other essentials for the most vulnerable.

“As artists, we have a responsibility to be engaged in building our communities. Such belonging  has inspired me and my friends to be involved in this project to help the community adapt during the crisis,” Chege proudly shares.

Challenges to overcome

The pandemic has provided an avenue for artists to work together. But it has revealed numerous challenges in their path as well. “There is a misconception about the role of arts in general. It creates a barrier for us. But through initiatives such as the “talking walls”, we have been able to engage the community who are now appreciating the use of arts to create awareness,” he reflects.

With government restriction on movement due to COVID-19, it was a challenge to implement the intervention in the areas that were most affected by the pandemic.

Furthermore, the high price of art supplies, such as paint, hindered progress on the initiatives. “With little or no financial support, artists are unable to quickly respond whenever crisis strikes,” he adds.

“Besides, we encountered situations where finding walls and spaces to create murals became very challenging. Seeking permission from authorities to create graffiti was difficult,” he continues.

Support required to deal with future crises

COVID-19 has taught Chege and his friends how important it is for communities to be prepared in the face of future crises. According to them, the best solutions with the greatest impacts come from local knowledge that communities bring in, and hence they demand the community to be at the centre of decision-making.

“Despite the challenges encountered by communities, they have models and ways of responding to those challenges. That is where help is needed to build capacity of community leaders and organisations and provide all necessary support required,” he shares.

“Invest in and support innovative community initiatives such as Hope Raisers who are using arts for social change” he proposes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

Covid-19 has disrupted the status quo of the society and exposed the institutional gaps that has left communities even poorer than before. Now the citizens have to put their government and duty bearers accountable. Hence we have to speak out more and be conscious when putting people in power because how they respond to crisis determines if they care for us.

About the Interviewer

Daniel Onyango is a community activist, an artist as well as founder and director of Hope Raisers Initiative. Through his organisation, he aims to bring about social transformation among underprivileged children and youth through arts, music, and sports in his community.

You can find out more about the Talking Wall project via https://www.hoperaisersinitiative.com/covid19

About the Interviewee

Harrison Chege is a 33 year old man, who has lived g in Korogocho community of Kenya for the last 10 years. He is an artist and a mentor.

Kelly Brown, is a 15 year old boy living in Korogocho, Kenya.

Anastasia Mbala is a community health worker living in Korogocho, Kenya.

Read more Voices from the Frontline

Read the whole ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series from communities across the world.

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