The Faces of Kenya’s Youth Reform

A protester leads the way for ODM supporters against GSU resistance outside Kibera slum in Nairobi. The protesters attempt to reach Ngong road, a main highway leading from Kibera into the city center. Though they face heavy resistance, the protesters intend to participate in the “Million Man March” scheduled by the Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga to express dissatisfaction of PNU candidate Mwai Kibaki and support for their opposition leader, Odinga. (Photo by Bob Miller)

By Timothy Gillis

A powerful photography exhibit is showing now at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies on Congress Street. “Kenya Youth Reform” is by Bob Miller, from Birmingham, AL, and features three distinct series of photographs. “Brothers Fight” is on the walls of the conference room and displays pictures of the early days of the civil war. “Pamoja,” which means “together” in Swahili, is on the right side of the gallery and has images depicting the early, uneasy steps towards peace. “Faces of Kibera Olympic” is hung on the left side of the gallery, with portraits of six young men from Kenya, aged between 23 and 30, who are members of the Kibera Olympic Boxing Club.

“Brothers Fight” tells the pictorial tale of the “unrest that gripped the Kenyan slums, neighborhoods and villages following the disputed 2007 presidential election.” The images in this section range from the up-close and incredibly detailed to the broad, wide-angle of crowded violence. Often one sees hands raised under the threat of being shot, and huddled humans afraid for their lives. The ethnic conflict there was both perpetrated by and inflicted on the local youth, “typically unemployed and idle, (who) were routinely bribed by the political elite to carry out acts of violence against their neighbors,” according to the exhibit. “Ironically, youth were also the greatest victims of the violence, culminating in the deaths of over 1,000 Kenyans and the displacement of 600,000.”

Donna Galluzzo, executive director at Salt, said the show has made a powerful impact on the local community. She heard of Miller through an associate at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University.

“They’ve turned out some great photographers,” she said. “We saw his work online, Bob and I skyped, and we thought it would be a powerful show for our area.” Galluzzo said there are several Kenyans who have stopped in to see the show.

“One of the first days the show was up, a young Kenyan man living in Portland stopped in, and looked around, and knew a couple of people in the photographs,” Galluzzo said. “He said he had been at some of the events Bob had photographed in the gallery, so we connected them. I think it’s a great example of how worlds can collide.”

“Pamoja,” the second section of the exhibit, details the progress made immediately after the civil war, when the young people who had been used to create violence started to realize their mistakes. “Many youth began to seize active roles in the reform of their nation,” the exhibit says. “Young people are using gardening, waste removal, education, and athletics to encourage their peers toward a self-respecting and self-sustaining community.” Several youth there have wanted to move away from violence, or at least to channel this brute force.

“For example, a lot of the young men there are involved in boxing,” Galluzzo said. “There’s been so much civil war there, people are trying to heal and take it to a positive place.”

The “Faces of Kibera Olympic” focuses the lens on six young pugilists, and their attempts to use force for something constructive. What’s interesting about the boxing club is that it runs across tribal lines, counting its members from many different tribes that might normally wage war. “The group’s ethnic diversity is remarkable given Kenya’s post-election violence in which people from several tribes were forced violently out of slums,” the exhibit says. “Together, these boxers represent a nascent trend of cross-tribe brotherhood in a healing nation.”

Miller was in Kenya for three weeks from December 2007 to January 2008, and returned in March of 2010 when he met several of the reform-minded youth, including the boxers.

In 2011, he was able to finish his work after receiving a grant from the Alexia Foundation for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, which promotes photojournalism that deals with social justice. Their home office is in Bloomingdale, N.J.

Miller said he stays in touch with the boxers through email, and hopes when his iPad app, which is called Pamoja, comes out early next year, they will be able to interact with his images of them.

Miller’s more recent work is about the Hispanic assimilation into middle-class America, especially in eastern Pennsylvania. He was a Carnegie-Knight News21 Fellow when he worked on these American photographs.

Not sure what big project is up next, Miller said he hasn’t really been forward about getting on the list with editors for major publications.

“I’ve just done my own projects. I took a job in Birmingham, but I’m eager to get back to freelancing.” Miller said he hopes to meet with some editors in New York about working for them, and then perhaps do something local before he moves again. He lives in Birmingham with his wife Allison, and their first daughter, Eliose.

The “Kenya Youth Reform” exhibit opened October 19 and runs December 7. Salt’s gallery hours are Tuesdays through Fridays, from 12 to 4:30 p.m. You can see also Miller’s photos at bobmillerphotographs.com.

The next exhibit planned for Salt is the Fall semester 2012 student show, which opens December 13 and runs through February 8, 2013.