Just across Thika highway from the green glade of Muthaiga’s elite golf club, Nairobi’s second-largest slum, Mathare, is home to around 600,000 people. Cut off from the city’s main infrastructure and job opportunities (Kenya’s unemployment rate hovers around 40 percent), Mathare residents have to get creative to get by, starting small businesses or operating within the informal economy to support themselves and their families.
Born and raised in Mathare, photojournalist Julius Mwelu saw potential in the storytelling skills of the kids living there, not only as a way for them to find work in the future but also as an opportunity for them to dispel the myth that slums like Mathare are places of stagnation. He started the Mwelu Foundation in 2007 to give photo and video training to young Kenyans. At the same time, the program mixes in life-skills lessons and offers a safe space for the kids to discuss health, relationships and sex.
The foundation’s girls’ group, Mwelu Divas, focuses on making films and documentary photo projects about life in Mathare.
“Mwelu is a home and a place to be,” says Rachael Ouko, 26, one of the organizers of Mwelu Divas. “This group taught me that life is not only about me, but that I should always think and help those in need whenever I can.” That means working closely with young women to advise them on reproductive health, early pregnancy and relationships – issues that are very personal to Ouko. Her own early pregnancy changed the trajectory of her life. At 17, she was a student at a girls’ school when she became pregnant. “I had to run away from home,” she says. “I was chased away from school. My mom was so angry. My dad also. I went to live with my sister. I was pregnant and it was so embarrassing. I thought, maybe I should just have an abortion or just die.”
Eventually, she went back home to her parents. After she gave birth to her son, she opened a small restaurant in Mathare with the help of her sister. She also went back to school, and then discovered the Mwelu Foundation.
“When I gave birth and had nothing to do in the evening, I joined a football club under Julius Mwelu. This football club was also doing photography,” she says. The girls found the boys were too competitive, so they formed their own group, calling themselves the Mwelu Divas.
Now Ouko works for Femme International, a young women’s health organization, where she leads workshops on reproductive health for girls. And she’s now working as the accountant at the Mwelu Foundation while she studies for her CPA degree.
“I am proud,” Ouko says. “I think about what I went through. I never want to see any other girl going through that. I don’t have money to give them and I can’t pay their school fees, but at least I can help them with life skills to overcome the challenges they face.”
Judith Atieno was one of the first girls Ouko mentored. After receiving photography training through the foundation, Atieno, 21, now works as an official photographer for Femme International. She also shoots weddings and events to support her mother, grandmother and siblings.
Mwelu Divas creates “films related to girls, showing what girls go through,” Atieno explains. “We use [the films] to inspire other girls.” One of the group’s first films, “Being a Girl,” won an award in the Slum Film Festival in 2015. The film is about a girl who couldn’t afford sanitary pads, so she misses school every time she gets her period. “That’s from a real story,” says Atieno. “Rachael went through that. It is about raising awareness that your menstruation isn’t something to be afraid of. We are using film to send a message to people and tell them there is another side to the story – your menses are a natural thing.”
The closeness of the girls’ group allows them to talk about issues that are normally not discussed among communities or even within families, such as domestic abuse, rape, prostitution and poverty.
Atieno credits the foundation with saving her from following the same destructive path as many of her friends. “Most of them got involved in other things, they ended up having early pregnancies, dropping out of school, and that didn’t happen to me because most of my time was spent here at the foundation,” she says. “Parents are afraid to talk to girls about their reality. But the foundation mentored me, advised me. Those meetings changed my life, so I’m on the safer side.”
Atieno now shares what she’s learned from her experiences as a mentor to girls like Anne Sylvia, 11, who has photographed the Cultural Day celebrations at the Belgian Embassy and the Sun King event in Nairobi. “I like landscapes and events,” Sylvia says.
Another Mwelu Diva, Millicent Adhiambo, 16, has developed a love of filmmaking, and is most proud of one of her documentaries, “Dream Shutter,” about a girl torn between her education and her responsibility as a mother. One day, she wants to be a journalist and travel the world reporting stories. “People refer to Mathare as a place where only trouble exists, a place where all the wars start,” she says. “But I believe that leaders are made in Mathare.”