Nairobi — The Mwelu Foundation in Nairobi teaches impoverished children how to document their lives through photography. The images from this experience have found their way to a global audience, and in turn, created a self-sustaining scheme for improving and changing lives.

It's Saturday afternoon. A group of children in a small room are chatting animatedly and assigning themselves duties. After some debate, a select few emerge from the room with heavy-duty cameras, and take off in various directions. Some follow them, to eagerly await their turn. Others go to sit behind computers to edit their self-shot pictures to prepare for sale.

The Mwelu Foundation has been welcoming children for the last nine years to learn photography and exchange ideas. Its backdrop is Mathare, a collection of slums in Nairobi, Kenya, where the foundation was born and continues to thrive. home

Julius Mwelu (27), the founder, grew up in Mathare. The third of seven children, he realised early that life was tough. So when an opportunity arose when he was 13, he took it. This life-changing project was 'Shootback', which taught photographic skills to a group of slum children. Some of Mwelu's photographs were published in books and the exposure helped Julius a great deal.

A year later he was taken in by a family in the Netherlands, where he continued his schooling. In 2003, he returned to Mathare as a freelance photographer. The local children would follow him around and ask "Why don't you do something with us, too?" and "How come we never get to see your pictures?"

Natural talents

Mwelu noticed how some of the children were not going to school or were just idling on the streets. So he started to share his camera with them and noticed that even without any professional training, the children took consistently interesting pictures. He began to see them as talents worth nurturing.

So with his own funds, he bought a couple of simple cameras and began encouraging children to start taking pictures based on their lives. As the number of children grew, he solicited for funding from Africalia, a foundation based in Belgium, and received enough for office space and more equipment. The children are now also collaborating in shooting up to 15 motion films a year.


During the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, the children got involved by taking pictures of what was happening around them. Besides providing a sense of responsibility and belonging, photography also evolved into a livelihood. One of the teenagers, Maxwell Odhiambo (18), says, "If I had not been here, I would probably be drinking chang'aa [a local alcoholic beverage] somewhere, or stealing. I have become more confident, and besides the shooting and editing skills, I have also learned to befriend people."

Another beneficiary, Peter Gikonyo (16), began as an inexperienced seven-year-old. Now a form two student, he has been paying his own school fees since primary school. Peter Likono (17) says, "Mwelu is like a parent; it pays my school fees and keeps me occupied, so I do not get up to anything naughty. Because we all know that an idle mind can make you do crazy things."


The children sell their photographs to local markets through workshops, and also to global audiences, with each picture selling for 80 euros via their website, Half of the proceeds go to supporting the foundation, and the other half they keep.

The foundation, which now has 45 children, ranging from ages 12 to 19, is now totally self-supporting, with trained children taking the younger ones under their wing. As Mwelu says, "I have learned that if we invest in the future of today's youths, we will make this world a better place for everyone to live in."


Source: Radio Netherlands International

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