Art

Slum art festival draws thousands

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Shabu Mwangi, the founder of the Wajukuu Slum Art Festival. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • The thriving informal settlement, nestled deep in the heart of Nairobi’s Industrial Area is where one of Kenya’s most world-renowned artists, Shabu Mwangi, chose to establish the Wajukuu Art Centre back in 2003.

  • When BDLife arrived on day three of the Fete, we counted at least a thousand mainly children just as enthusiastic as they must have been when the festival began.

Thousands of children, artists, and other adults flocked to Mukuru Lunga Lunga to attend the Wajukuu Slum Art Festival over the pre-New Year’s weekend.

The thriving informal settlement, nestled deep in the heart of Nairobi’s Industrial Area is where one of Kenya’s most world-renowned artists, Shabu Mwangi, chose to establish the Wajukuu Art Centre back in 2003.

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Warembo Wasanii founder Joan Otieno at her new space in Ngomongo, Nairobi. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Shabu wasn’t working alone. He was with fellow artists Ngugi Waweru and Joseph Weche Waweru among others who had attended art colleges established all around the slums by a Catholic nun, Sister Mary.

Initially, Wajukuu was set up especially for up-and-coming local artists so they could share their knowledge and experience to grow artistically together. But then, they found more interest among the neighborhood children who initially were kept away.

But the children persisted, and finally, Shabu and his crew decided to start the Wajukuu Art Club for little ones to come to draw and paint. Then came the music, dancing, and even teaching the children to create their own instruments, some of which appeared on stage with Art Club children performing at the Fete.

But that was only when there was a pause in performances by the scores of other musicians who came from all around local informal settlements to get up on stage and entertain the largest audiences ever gathered at Mukuru Lunga Lunga.

When BDLife arrived on day three of the Fete, we counted at least a thousand mainly children just as enthusiastic as they must have been when the festival began.

“We left the musical side of the programme to Majeshi, [two rappers] who invited musicians, dancers, and acrobats to perform at the festival,” says Shabu.

But besides music and dance, he says there was feasting as a dozen sets of neighborhood parents helped cook up a storm of chapati and rice served with a mix of potatoes, green peas, and a bit of meat.


Asked how they could feed all those children, he simply said it happened, rather like Jesus having five loaves and two fishes, but somehow, he miraculously was able to feed 5,000 men plus women and children.

“But the Festival wasn’t only about food and having fun;” says Shabu as he takes a brief moment to discuss events of the weekend. “We also planted trees and taught children the importance of tree planting to reduce climate change and save the planet,” he adds.

“We also showed them how to prepare the soil,” he adds, not mentioning the obvious point that the soil in their area is mixed with rocks and other debris, so there’s a lot involved in soil preparation.

Fashion show

The day we attended the Festival the next act was Warembo Wasanii, the girls collective started by Joan Otieno to rehabilitate young women and girls off the streets and into art.

“We collect and recycle garbage from the Dandora dump and transform it into fashionable art,” she says right after escorting a dozen girl models, ages eight to fifteen, up onto the stage where they showed off their handmade outfits made from the packaging of everything from Colgate toothpaste to Ketepa tea.

Warembo’s fashion show was one more revelation of the creativity tucked away in the so-called slums that Wajukuu taps.

More evidence of it was to be found in Wajukuu’s new and capacious art centre where there was an exhibition of recent works a half dozen Wajukuu artists. They included Shabu, Ngugi Wawere and Joseph Waweru as well as Fresha Njeri, Lazarus Thumbi and Muturi Mutugi.

This was already the third exhibition curated by Shabu at Wajukuu’s new art centre and he hopes in future it will become a venue for exhibiting other young Kenyan artists.

In the meantime, during the festival, the art centre became a space where children were invited to come and create graffiti murals on the walls, which was one more interactive aspect of the Fete the children enthusiastically embraced.

But where one could most easily see the success for Wajukuu’s art festival was by just standing a moment in the middle of the tents, loudspeakers booming hip hop tunes, and seeing limitless white plastic chairs occupied by happy local children. From there, one could pick up the children’s infectious enthusiasm instantly.

Even on the last day of the festivities, the children are still ebullient, infatuated with the feeling of their importance. That, of course, is a mission of Wajukuu, to nurture the children and educate them upwards through art.

The Festival had support from the German Embassy, Goethe Institute, and Documenta another German arts organisation.