Yet I felt that I had been scrupulously careful to be impartial in meetings, to try and represent the pros and cons of both approaches and to not let my feelings be known. However, humans are perceptive and I cannot rule out the possibility that I affected the decision of the group. On the other hand, would a whole group of young, free thinking men and women have their opinions swayed by the unexpressed thoughts of the coordinator?
I do not really have an answer to this. My approach is to be aware that this could be the case, to be as sensitive as possible and also to accept that absolute impartiality as probably impossible. Also, although the members are quite ‘vulnerable’ in this situation, and could be the victims of an unbalanced power relationship, I think it is also slightly patronizing to expect self-exploitation from them. These issues of exploitation are intrinsic to many artist-led participatory projects but I think it is important to at least the consider the thought that participants have an agenda as well. Perhaps these endeavors are not so much collaborations as alliances, where both parties have a certain amount of agency for decision and change making.
Another good illustration of how this ‘non-influential facilitator’ role has been compromised is the context of the present newsreel. However, whilst in this previous example my impartiality, if at all, had been subconscious, here it was a very conscious decision. The newsreel has the theme of DIY culture. This is not a theme that the members chose, but one that they have responded to. However, one of our main criteria at the outset of the project was not to define content. Within the development context, most participatory media initiatives stipulate what the projects should be about e.g. HIV, Gender mainstreaming, Water, Sanitation. We wanted to distance ourselves from these ‘NGO aesthetics” and to give the members proper creative input into the content. Yet, here we are providing a theme. Are we not acting in the same way as the NGO’s that we scorned?
DIY culture is such a broad theme and encompasses so many facets of life in Mathare, from home-brewed alcohol to pirate cinemas to shoes made from old tires, that it does not really restrict what the members want to work on. Secondly, a critical difference between DIY culture and issues such as HIV and Water is that this has a positive feel to it and highlights the resourcefulness and ingenuity of people in the slum, as opposed to documenting the plight of HIV patients and the pollution of the water.
But perhaps these differences are cosmetic and the key issue is that of methodology; that we had somehow restricted the content. I think this is a valid criticism, and responding to this I should start by first stating that this was a very practical decision. We are short of funds, and that really affects the motivation of the members as we can barely pay them. We received a commission to make a series of short films about DIY culture and it seemed a good solution. This way we would be able to carry on production and pay the members a good fee. And again, returning to this issue of the agency of the participants, I think there would have been a sense of reluctance if they had not been keen. This was not the case at all and this newsreel has generated the most content so far!
So, whether it is subconscious or conscious, implicit or explicit, I think the role of a coordinator in a project like this is always going to face issues of power, manipulation and exploitation. These are unavoidable and have to be negotiated in relation to criteria that you, as initiators, establish. At the same time, being a work in progress, some situations cannot be anticipated and these criteria may have to be reformed in response to changes in the context. Pragmatism, rather than a compromise should be seen as a very useful tool for process-based work.
I also feel these issues of exploitation are particularly prevalent at the initial stages of participatory work. As I begin to slowly withdraw from my capacity as initiator, a process that I anticipate will take place over the next two years; the level of the engagement of the members will hopefully increase to fill this absence. Following this logic, perhaps participation can only be fully achieved when I have actually stepped out of the project. Until then, I hope I can continue as I have until now; making some progress, encountering problems, finding solutions, some of which work, some of which do not. For those new problematic situations, we try new approaches, see if these work, and so on. It is a bit like walking backwards through a landscape, things become clear only as you progress, and occasionally you trip on an unanticipated patch of uneven ground. But so far we have managed to carry on going forward, and the landscape that is revealed has been worth the occasional stumble.
After a year of existence and more than two years since the idea was born, Slum TV has really gained momentum and become more established. This is very exciting. Almost every week, I see the members developing their abilities, I see the stories getting better and I see our resources expand.
However, at the same time as this growth is occurring, I find it increasingly hard to talk about the project. This is not due to me losing faith in the idea, but because the context I am presenting it in is mainly that of pitching the idea to funders. And these discussions invariably revolve around the same key themes; ‘empowerment of the youth’, ‘job creation in the urban slums’ and ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’. These are admirable goals but I am tired of reducing the project to these specific terms.
So this is either a warning or maybe a disclaimer, or perhaps an excuse. In this article I am not going to sell the project, I am not going to tell you why it is so important and I am not going to try and convince you. Actually, I am going to do the opposite and talk about some of the challenges that we have to negotiate. This is a process, and processes involve encountering and negotiating challenges. What I hope to do here is look at how the recent political crisis affected the role of Slum TV, reflect on what impact my position as local coordinator has had, and briefly address the dynamic of my relationship with the participants.
The beginning of 2008 was a very unstable period in Kenya. The recent election results had been contested by the opposition and the country seemed to be descending into the worst inter-ethnic violence that it had experienced since independence. From the perspective of Slum TV this was a context that forced us to address what we were really trying to do. From being a small grassroots media initiative, focusing on local concerns, we were suddenly located in the middle of the biggest story in the international press. Mathare, where we are based, saw some of the worst violence in Kenya.
Thus we were faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, we were perfectly placed to get footage and material that would be simply impossible for other journalists, and thus tell a more full story of what was happening. On the other hand, every other journalist in Kenya was focusing on the violence, and the stories of solidarity and assistance between different ethnic groups were not being told.
We make our decisions on a consensus basis and had several meetings during this stage. From the very beginning, almost all the members were adamant about representing the stories that were not being represented. Again and again members talked about ‘telling the other half of the story’. So this is what we set out to do. Although we could not hold screenings until April (public gatherings had been banned by the government) the members set about covering stories, which moved beyond the ‘machete-wielding native’ cliche, and looked at the courage and mutual assistance of everyday people in the slums.
The result of this was our ‘Peace Newsreel’1, which we screened on Friday May 25th containing stories such as Mr. Onyango’s Neighbors about an old resident of Mathare who refused to leave an ethnically mixed area where neighbors no longer trusted one another and Tell tale for Peace about a workshop in which young men who were swept up in the violence tried to address why this happened. Almost all the stories focused on issues of solidarity and grassroots efforts to heal rifts within the community, as had been the decision taken by the members. I had only been there to help them achieve what they decided…or had I?
One of my key criteria for running the project has always been to be as ‘invisible’ as possible. I see my role as that of a facilitator, someone who is there to make things possible for the members; to train and offer assistance but not to manage or direct. However, the very real danger of death for these young men and women if they got caught in the wrong place made me critically re-evaluate this position. Being older than the participants (they are predominantly in their early 20’s) and actually being an initiator meant that I was in a very real position of responsibility. If the consensus of the group had been to go and cover the troubles, to get as close to the action as possible, would I have been comfortable? Would I have been placing the members in danger? On the other hand, the members are all adults, and in fact, a couple of them did go and cover the clashes and got exclusive material which earned them a lot of money from foreign news bureaus.
Strongly related to this issue of responsibility is, of course, an issue of power relations. How ‘free’ are the decisions of the participants here? To what extent am I unwittingly influencing the outcome of the meetings? The fact that the consensus of the members was to cover the ‘positive’ stories to some extent concerned me. Being honest, this is the outcome I would have preferred. I began to wonder if I had, subconsciously, manipulated the participants into this decision.