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Armed with just a paintbrush, an artist takes on COVID-19… and discovers a whole new calling

Disseminating vital information to vulnerable communities in informal settlements during a raging pandemic can be a daunting task. With the hearing-impaired locked out of much of the life-saving messaging on COVID-19, one ingenious artist took to her regular canvas - of walls or anything she could paint on - to make sure that everyone got the message. Now she and her team are providing not only social messaging but even commercial advertising on walls across Kenya.

By Henry Owino, bird

On the exterior of an iron-sheet kiosk in Kibera - the sprawling informal settlement that is home to thousands of low-income residents in the Kenyan capital - a mural of a woman wearing a mask screams; "COVID is real".

It is a "loud" and imposing reminder to the residents and visitors who meander and mingle as they go about their daily chores in narrow alleys lined by iron sheet houses in the densely populated area - an arresting yet eerily inviting message - to mask up and sanitise in an effort to keep COVID-19 at bay.

This and many of the other murals, drawings and paintings that adorn walls across an informal settlement squashed between some of Nairobi’s more affluent neighbourhoods, is the handiwork of Faith Atieno. She, too, is a child of this 'hood - born and bred in Kibera.

Murals on the need to wear mask, wash hands and keep physical distance [big]. Photo : Henry Owino

Atieno decided, in the midst of the unprecedented period of social turmoil to turn her Kibera village into a huge, open, gallery.

Kibera — or, Kibra to the pioneer Nubian settlers from Sudan who founded the area — rubs shoulders with elite and formerly elite estates, such as Karen, Woodley and Ngumo and comprises 11 villages; Kianda, Soweto East, Gatwekera, Kisumu Ndogo, Lindi, Laini Saba, Siranga, Makina, Salama, Ayany and Mashimoni. Although melting into a larger “informal settlement”, each of these villages has a distinct origin and heritage - and to some extent its own quasi-rural, ethnic identity.

The original Nubian community, most of whom are Muslims, came to Kenya with their families after being recruited to serve in the East African Rifles, a regiment of the British colonial army. They were settled here - and in other urban centres across the country - in little Nubian villages, in the early 1890s.

Kibera is today a melting pot of diverse cultures with an almost paradoxical sense of existence, thanks to the close proximity of rich and poor neighbourhoods and is also a hotbed of political activism - so street art is nothing new.

A mural on enforcing mask wearing sanitizing passengers in public transport [big]. Photo :Henry Owino

Nevertheless, with the pandemic disproportionately affecting people in this neighbourhood, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions, the creative artist and founder of Art 360 Kibera knew she had to do something.

The urgency of her drive was spurred on by the realisation that the coronavirus messages were not reaching people with hearing and speech impairment, explained Atieno, 32.

“I have always aspired to be an artist and serve the community where I live with impactful and deliberate information, artwork without discrimination… I understand the problems we face here," Atieno said in a conversation with bird, at her Art 360 Kibera gallery.

She had the passion and a little saving of her own to start with but she knew she could not do it alone. She needed more hands— and ownership of the initiative - from residents.

Mobilising an army of young, talented and upcoming painters bubbling with eagerness to make a social impact, she kicked off with a campaign to complete one street painting. Word quickly spread through the villages and before she knew it she had scores of volunteers.

Art 360 Kibera team drawing on a school wall [big]. Photo :Henry Owino

Atieno had quit her job at a five-star hotel in Nairobi to start the new venture. Reaching out to and communicating with neglected groups of people through her artwork - and potentially changing their lives - was a reward that she felt was worth the initial sacrifice.

However, she faced almost instant challenges. She had no painting materials, or mentor, making it difficult to learn the ropes. Nonetheless, she forged on, teaching herself all she needed to know to create artistic works.

Atieno then decided to create Art 360 Kibera, an art gallery located in the heart of Kibera, where she could meet with talented artists. Her gallery features young, independent artists born and raised in Kibera.

As COVID-19 turned life on its head and threw her community into socio-economic limbo, she and her fellow artists built campaigns using their street art to address elements of the pandemic containment measures. She used everything in her stable, including graffiti, to convey the messages.

“Initially I had no money to buy paints, brush and other materials... However, my parents and a few friends whom I explained the idea to supported me overwhelmingly,” said Atieno.

But the question of "where?" still lingered—and needed to be resolved.

“Surprisingly, I took a step to communicate directly with people by painting over neglected iron sheet walls and using them to communicate different issues, such as the measures to take to combat the pandemic," she explained.

Admittedly, Atieno said the first murals were not very good, but they communicated the envisioned message.

Faith Atieno with her colleagues preparing paints to draw artwork on surfaces [big]. Photo : Henry Owino

Throughout the following months, the feedback from residents encouraged her and she realised that the creative paintings were not just informative but also a source of inspiration to many, especially the youth.

Malasen Hamida, a resident of Kibera, was one early fan.

“The message so clearly illustrated that even those who cannot read and write can tell what is expected of them and also reminds residents to adhere to the protocols,” she said.

“The painted walls or surfaces also look clean and appealing to eyes hence everyone gets attracted to read or observe and thus (the) intended message is conveyed," she explained.

Area chief, Nehemiah Amwocha, said the local city authorities fully supported the artwork initiative, adding that mural massaging has made it easy for local administration to implement the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 protocols in the slum.

“I am personally grateful for the painting work of the Art 360 Kibera which have complemented our role,” he said.

Faith Atieno , having a hearty laughter with her colleagues [big]. Photo : Henry Owino

Atieno's murals have been a constant reminder to residents to adhere to social distancing measures in all sections of Kibera.

Atieno’s murals, with messages such as "Covid is real and it kills!", "Avoid shaking hands," "Avoid hugging," "Wash hands using running water or Use hand sanitisers", "Keep social distance", "Wear a mask and when feeling unwell", "Cough, cold or fever call toll-free number 917 for rapid response" reverberate throughout Kibera.

Atieno's protégés have also begun using art as a tool to address and create a sense of urgency around socio-economic issues that affect residents of Kibera.

“I realised apart from targeting persons with a disability using graffiti, illiterate people and even children understand the murals. One could tell from the sudden increase of washing hands, sanitizing, wearing a mask though physical distance not so much,” she said, adding; “my aim was to create awareness on COVID-19 protocols for all residents regardless of their social or economic status or health conditions”.

The creative artist explains that the message one intends to convey, may also dictate the colour to use in passing such information. For example, HIV/AIDS information will go with pink colour while tuberculosis (TB) may take yellow and environmental conservation could be green, brown depending on the situation.

Atieno’s creative artwork has since been adopted elsewhere in the country, especially by youth who have taken it a notch higher as an occupation.

It has also become an advertising strategy replacing billboards and banners for a certain target group of people.

According to Atieno, she has mentored about 50 people, most of whom are either in upper primary or lower secondary schools.

The students train on weekends and during school holidays, for free. The skills complement the country’s new education curriculum emphasizing practical work as well as theoretical and Art 360 Kibera is today an educational institution in its own right.

The gallery also offers free space to artists undertaking different projects and showcasing different artistic skills.

Residents of Kibera have also seen the creative artwork itself as a solution to some of the problems they face as a community. Currently, Art 360 Kibera provides artists with the opportunity to build careers by selling their artwork to corporations and private collectors. Artists are compensated fairly for their work, thus creating meaningful employment.

Atieno’s colleagues are optimistic that the future is bright, as learning institutions and the hospitality industry usually contract them for graffiti artwork. They have become famous in Kibera and their artwork has started popping up in towns and cities well beyond Nairobi.


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