Life in the URBAN SLUM: Kisenyi

21 02 2012

“I was born in Masajja – a Kampala surburb. My mother worked in Owino market, when I was young she used to carry me on her back every morning and bring me along to the market. Eventually I got used to Owino and found my way to the Kisenyi area. One day I walked out of the market and I didn’t return. This is how I found my way out of the market onto these streets. My mom’s workplace was no place for kids – it was boring.” a fifteen year old street kid said to me.

Often I see young boys and girls on the streets of Kampala looking shabby, starved, lost and puzzled and I wonder – where do they come from? Do they have parents? How do they end up on the streets like homeless cats or stray birds? It breaks my heart to see teens on the streets eating from the garbage, doing drugs, chasing around people; begging for UGX100 (barely a penny!) Monday through Friday when in actual sense they should be in school or their parents’ homes. Many times I have witnessed Kampala City Council Authority “enforcement officers” and Uganda Police roughing them up like wild animals – and only one question comes in my mind: Whose responsibility are these children?

Three weeks ago I found some vague answers to the above questions. I say “vague” because there is very many complicated answers to those questions!

I walked to Kisenyi – the biggest slum in Kampala with friends to do a photo shoot. The idea of the Kisenyi Photo Shoot was born by Andy Kristian (a professional photographer): to go to Kisenyi, take portraits of the people who live and/ work there, print them and then give them a copy to keep. Photos are always beautiful to take, see and keep. Together with a couple of friends (Andy Kristian, Rosebell Kagumire, Edward Echwalu, Ruth Aine, Evelyn Namara, Patricia Twino, Patricia Kahill, Joan Nagujja, Ford Tumwesigye) we went to Kisenyi – the biggest slum downtown Kampala.

It was a very hot Saturday and I got sweatier as we entered the slum. On a hot day like this you need to drink a minimum of 2 liters of water to avoid dehydration. Just like any typical slum, Kisenyi fills up the air soon as you enter the slum; smoke from burning plastic bottles, rubbish littered all over, uncensored language from the youth standing along the road side, shabby young boys and girls, sewage and groups of young men doing drugs openly.

As we entered the slum, my mind wandered 12years back; I used to walk through this slum frequently. In the year 2000 I lived on the outskirts of Kisenyi about 5 minutes walk from this slum; at the time I was only 12. Kisenyi is not just a place for street children, it’s a very commercial slum – maize millers set up their machines here. Kisenyi is the source of most of the maize flour on Kampala’s market, metal works extra. As a child I had to be careful when I walked through this slum. It was always a filthy environment to walk; also the boys and men on the streets were always aggressive. The crime rate in the slum was always high.

My recent visit to the slum (12 years later) was not very different. I could recognize most of the buildings and shortcuts. The young people (I am talking about boys and girls between the age of 4 and 25) in this slum are still doing the drugs in pubic, they don’t have access to clean water, sanitation is still very poor, they all look sweaty and dirty. How or whether they get food at all is not a question because most of them look starved.

Quick forward:

Unlike me, most of my friends had never walked through this slum. And they were all terrified by the kind of environment these young people live in. We walked into the slum carrying smart phones, expensive professional cameras, laptops, iPads and other valuables. Again, you can’t feel safe with this expensive equipment in an environment where people are starving, when young people are doing drugs around you.

Joan Nagujja a volunteer at Peace for Children in Africa together with her colleague helped us to mobile these young for the photo shoot. Peace for Children Africa is a local NGO which is helping rehabilitate and educate the street children in Uganda. One of their projects is focused on rehabilitating the street children in Kisenyi.

After about 30 minutes of mobilizing, we finally got a chance to interact with the young boys and girls who immediately put their demands before the photo shoot. Some of them said that they wanted sugar cane, money, food, water while others were bothered by the heavy presence of camera. When all that was sorted Joan’s colleague talked to a handful of strong looking boys. He told them to maintain order and that he would give them some money after the photo shoot. I was actually hoping that we could get some “big boys” to maintain some order.

Andy Kristian and Edward Echwalu did the actual shooting while I walked around taking random photos. Rosebell and Ruth recorded some of the stories. These young people told different stories on how they ended up in this place, the difficulties they were experiencing and shared some of their dreams. Some of the boys said that their step mothers mistreated/ bewitched them, while some of the young ones were born here – the slum is their home!

Even though some of the youth looked desperate and of course they had higher expectation from us; thinking that we would pay them to take their photos. Others only wanted to smile at the camera, take a few shots and leave.

Edward Echwalu (Left) and Andy Kristian (Right)

As we recorded the stories a woman who was watching from the veranda of her house asked loudly – “why aren’t you taking photos of the girls?” We would very much want to take photos of the girls, but we can’t find any big girls – we responded collectively. She immediately asked a young lady and woman to join the photo shoot. The old woman had scars on her arms she said that they were a result of domestic violence – he husband battered her.

survivor of domestic violence

The myth about slums:

Almost everybody thinks that everyone in the slums is a thief, sex worker, does drugs or has some kind of ill habits. When you go to the slum, the story is different. Well, the myth is partly true but there is more to the myth. The little beautiful children; born in the slum. Women and men work to earn a living to feed/ support their families. I remember the woman who sells sugarcane and I saw a couple of young people sorting rusty pieces of scrap to find reusable parts.

Earning a living in a slum

We can blame the government and Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) all we want but, by now we should know that the government has failed to create a better environment for the children. Let’s stop judging these children or treating them like hooligans and instead help make them better people. It’s about time we all returned to our rightful senses as human beings and find a way of help!

To these cute little children, the slum is their home!

Yes, Spiderman once lived in Kisenyi or some how a little version of his constume ended up here!

The Rest of the photos are available in my Facebook Photo Set:



5 responses

22 02 2012
andy kristian (@andykristian)

Hi Ssozi. Thank you for posting this touching experience. I fee like we should do this more often. Telling stories of the voiceless, and intentionally doing something about it. It was an honor to serve with you on that day.

22 02 2012
Ruth Aine (@Ruthaine)

Thank you for catching in on the vision, and being there. Twas great serving with you!

22 02 2012
Ford Tumwesigye (@4dmtj)

Inspired, Indeed “We can blame the government and Kampala City Council Authority (KCCA) all we want but, by now we should know that the government has failed to create a better environment for the children. Let’s stop judging these children or treating them like hooligans and instead help make them better people. It’s about time we all returned to our rightful senses as human beings and find a way of help!”. Its in our means to make a change.

23 02 2012
Nagujja Joan

Wow! this is really touching…..Thank you Ssozi for posting this.

9 06 2012

Hello! I am an American from Colorado, and I visited Kisenyi in January. When I was looking through your FB photos I saw a boy that I photographed as well. He told me his name was Jesus, and he is the one wearing the wooden fish necklace. It was pretty exciting to see him again here! 🙂

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