Speaking up from the slums

An Amnesty International-supported radio project in Ghana and Kenya aims to challenge public perceptions of people living in slums and give inhabitants a platform to tell their storiesWhen business graduate Al Hassan Abdallah arrived in Accra in 2005, he struggled to find a room he could afford to live in. Like thousands of other Ghanaians, he ended up in Old Fadama, one of the capital’s largest slums, popularly referred to as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.    Seven years later, he now has a teaching job but still lives in the slum. It’s not been easy: there are frequent fires, drinking water is unsafe and cholera is rife. People also fear being forcibly evicted. Al Hassan carries all his valuables on him at all times, as he is not sure his home will be standing when he returns. He has struggled to open a bank account, because of the negative perception institutions often have about slum residents. “People don’t respect you if you tell them you are living in Old Fadama. They say we are criminals,” he says.But thanks to Slum Radio, a project initiated by Amnesty International to help change negative public attitudes towards slum dwellers in Ghana and Kenya, listeners in those countries have been able to hear about the challenges Al Hassan and other slum-dwellers face every day.Last month, Al Hassan and Mustafa Mahmoud, a community leader from Kenya’s biggest slum Kibera, co-presented a show together with journalists from Kenyan station Radio Jambo, part of Radio Africa.While the project finished mid-April, Al Hassan hopes to continue to do more radio from the slums. “The local authority in Accra wants to evict us, but they never talk directly to us. Now we have a platform to share our stories from and many people I have met who heard the programmes say they want to know more,” he says.Many of the stories broadcast on local stations challenge the prejudice that slum dwellers are uneducated and unemployed:Radio Africa listeners in Kenya have heard Mary Obonyo from Mathare talk about her cafè, the dishes she makes and how the business has helped her.  They have listened to Samson Aluda, who at 26 is a secondary school principal in Kibera, and is studying as well for a degree in engineering. “We’re taking radio stations that have middle class listenerships into the slums, in order to throw a spotlight on the people living there,” said Martin Davies, managing director of Between the Posts Productions, the company working on the project with residents, journalists and Amnesty International.In Accra, one third of the population live in slums, while in Nairobi the figure is more than 50%. Local radio stations – Radio Africa in Kenya, Joy FM and GBC in Ghana were easily persuaded to give air time to the project, broadcasting stories from the informal settlements for six weeks. In return, Between the Posts Productions and Amnesty International offered the stations training, access to contacts in the slums and live broadcasts from temporary slum radio stations. There has been no shortage of stories to cover – a substantial one broke the day Slum Radio launched last month with Kenya’s Radio Jambo, broadcast from Mathare slum, as Martin Davies recalls. “The morning the show was taking place there was a fire in Mathare: It was a classic tale of a breakdown of who’s responsible for what. There had been a road-widening project going on in order to enable things like fire engines to get in. “However, the stones that had been delivered for the road had been left in large piles they prevented any vehicle passing. Nobody was clear about who should have been spreading out the stones in order to prepare the road. As a consequence the fire engine took four hours to get through and three people died. “People were coming out of the slum with photographs of the skeletons, eye witness reports, all unfolding. The breakfast show really captured a cross section of life.”“Part of the success of the project is connecting journalists with the very eloquent but kind of hidden resources of the slums, the community leaders. That can in the future lead to far more exposure, which in turn can lead to a change in attitude,” said Davies. Back in Kibera, Mustafa Mahmoud, who also presents a community radio programme in his area, has already been in touch with local station Radio Maisha on creating more material from the slums. “People in Nairobi often think of us as illiterate beggars, idlers and thieves. It’s true that we don’t have roads, sanitation is poor and sometimes it feels as if we live in a forgotten land,” he said.“But by listening to our stories on air, radio audiences got to know that we are just ordinary people with normal jobs – watchmen, drivers and cooks – all people that the rest of Nairobi interacts with on a daily basis. We are living here by default and now the challenge is to hold governments to account over the human rights violations that take place inside the slums.”