A Digital Story on Air Pollution by Dennis Waweru

By Megan Wainwright, Air Network Co-I

As part of the Air Network project, academic, research and community partners have carried-out four mini-projects over the past 12 months. The aim has been to experiment with and pilot different interdisciplinary methodologies to both study, and develop community-led solutions to air pollution in Mukuru. I was assigned to the mini-project “Raising Awareness” to methodologically support the group in applying both more creative and more conventional research methods to the study of the sources and effects of air pollution and create outputs that could be used to directly raise awareness of the issue in Mukuru. In this blog I’ll introduce the digital story “Air Pollution in Mukuru – Dennis’ Story” and give some background to this online resource for raising awareness.

Watch it here on YouTube

Firstly, let me introduce Dennis Waweru. Dennis is a community representative on the Air Network project and, like me, became a member of the Raising Awareness mini-project at the January 2018 workshop in Nairobi. Dennis is a photographer and was tasked with taking photographs of the sources and effects of air pollution in Mukuru. Dennis also has the accolade of having won the Mr. Mukuru competition in 2018! This is a yearly competition which occurs at the Mukuru festival. Dennis’ role as Mr. Mukuru is to represent youth in all community occasions and be the ambassador of Mukuru.

Dennis Waweru_Mr. Mukuru
Mr. Mukuru Dennis Waweru

In terms of the research, being able to see the issue through the eyes of the photographer who himself is a young and engaged resident of Mukuru, was a way of generating a richer understanding among the research team. We also knew the photographs could be used in different ways, for example as discussion aids in interviews, or as outputs in their own right to be included in publications, awareness raising materials, or exhibitions. They could also be used to create a digital story!

I came to this project with a background and interest in photovoice1,2, photodocumentary1 and more recently digital storytelling, an approach I learned from Selina Mudavanhu while a postdoc at the University of Cape Town. Digital storytelling seemed particularly suited to this project as it gives power to the storyteller to tell their own story, in their own words. In my opinion, a digital story is different in style to classic documentary, because it is based around a script, written as a story by the storyteller. That becomes the guiding narrative, unlike some other media forms where the narrator and the person whose stories are being told, are different people. Dennis was keen to try it and volunteered to create one.

We knew that the challenging part would be supporting Dennis to do the technical editing and produce of the film without face-to-face assistance, but we were determined to try our best. He was new to video editing, and I was new to the specific software we were using! My previous experience in digital storytelling had largely followed the StoryCentre method which had involved supporting participants to create their digital stories start to finish in a 4-5 day workshop face-to-face using a computer lab equipped with all the necessary software and hardware. In this project we did not have the human resources on the ground to provide an in-person intense workshop, so we had to work entirely over the internet. Mike Wilson of the AIR Network recommended the online video-making programme WeVideo, and his colleague Antonia Luguori kindly helped me get a handle on how it worked.

Dennis was introduced to digital storytelling through a presentation I prepared with step-by-step instructions delivered at a training day in Mukuru by Cassilde Muhoza, the local lead on the Raising Awareness Mini-Project. Dennis was given a copy of the slides which offered the rationale and a step-by-step guide, including writing, storyboarding and voice recording the script. He also received training in ethical practice in photography and in how to  use the consent and release forms supported by Air Network and Raising Awareness Mini-Project co-lead Charlotte Waelde. He had to arrange to borrow the digital voice recorder from the interviewers in the team to make his voice recording, and was provided funds to rent a camera for 2 days. Emphasis was put on getting a good quality voice recording. I didn’t edit or approve the script – what he wrote, was what he recorded. Dennis met with other members of the team when they were in Mukuru to transfer his photographs, his script, and the voice recording. His script sent a powerful message, the recording was clear and crisp and the photographs were excellent, so we had all the ingredients for a great story.

But then, the tricky part! After a few failed attempts to coordinate Dennis logging-in to WeVideo while speaking to me over WhatsApp, it was clear the geographical and technical gaps were too big to cross and Dennis asked me to produce his video. The final product is thus a joint effort. While the script, the recording and the photographs are all Dennis’ own, the choice of music, style and photographs to illustrate parts of the story were made by me. He viewed and approved the production over WhatsApp before it was finalized, and it went on YouTube on February 6th 2019. The link was sent to our mini-project WhatsApp group and all were asked to share with their networks to help raise awareness. It was also sent to all Air Network members to distribute to community representatives and colleagues. Within 24 hours it had been viewed around 100 times, and within 20 days 269 times. The digital story, as well as two of Dennis’ still photographs, were exhibited at the Air Network exhibition in York in March. Dennis also submitted to a Wellcome Photography Prize and is waiting expectantly for the results.

As for the future of Dennis’ digital story, we hope it will become a powerful and accessible community resource for raising awareness of the sources and effects of air pollution and look forward to tracking how it is used. This blog has given you some insight into the rationale of digital storytelling and the detailed process we went through to produce it. In it, Dennis highlights the impact of burning trash, industrial dumping and burning, domestic equipment for cooking and lighting, and the polluted river. He highlights the particular effect the smoke and dirty environment has on children, affecting not only their health but their education. In Dennis’ words “Let’s be our brother’s keeper” and raise awareness of air  pollution in Mukuru.

Watch the digital story HERE.

Written by: Megan Wainwright (Air Network Co-I)

1 Wainwright, M., Bingham, S., Sicwebu, N. (2017). Photovoice and photodocumentary for enhancing community-partner engagement and student learning in a public health field school in Cape Town. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(2), 409-424. Doi: 10.1177/1053825917731868

2 Allen, D., Wainwright, M., & Hutchinson, T. (2011). ‘Non-compliance’ as illness management: Hemodialysis patients’ descriptions of adversarial patient-clinician interactions. Social Science & Medicine, 73, 129-134.

Exhibition: Air Pollution in Nairobi’s Informal Settlements

When we usually picture the problems posed by air pollution, we might tend to think of industrial smokestacks and vehicle emissions. These are certainly some of the most the dominant images that appear in news stories on the topic. They help to provide striking, memorable and recognisable representations of an issue which, in other ways, can impact in ways which are all but invisible to the naked eye. However, could departing from these conventional images help to raise awareness and provoke discussion about the different sources of, and effects of, air pollution, both indoors and outdoors?

Since 2017, the AIR Network has brought together researchers and people who live and work in informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss air quality issues, raise awareness and explore new approaches to tackle air quality. The network has used a mixture of methods to discuss, explore and engage with the issue of air pollution, including theatre, visual arts, games, story-telling and music.

All of these activities have generated an incredible amount of visual material on the subject including photography, comics, community art, mapping and music videos. From an early stage we wanted to mount a project exhibition to showcase these diverse and engaging works, but a subsequent challenge has been how to distil this massive amount of material to a relatively short number of representative images. For many months we considered how to use these to tell the most effective story, about the overarching issue, the individuals encountering air quality problems on a day to day basis, and the work done as part of the mini-projects (https://airnetworkafrica.com/2018/03/12/mini-projects/) which have been the core of the Network’s day to day work.

Our exhibition is now ready, and through it we tell the story of the project, its initial aims, how it developed as a result of our project inception meeting in Mukuru, and the results and outputs. For instance, the exhibition showcases the story of the evolution of our wonderful network logo; photographs which document the legislative theatre performances, and a selection of the locally-produced maps created to help identify ‘hotspots’ of pollution. As part of this installation, we will also be playing videos of the digital stories created for the Network as well as the Mukuru Kings music video. Each gives a very different presentation of air pollution, as well as ways to try to solve the issues affecting the local community.

The exhibition will run in the Ron Cooke hub (University of York) from 4th – 7th March and will be available to view between 10am and 4pm on those days. See https://www.york.ac.uk/sei/news-and-events/events/2019-events/airpollutioninnairobiexhibition/ for full details.

Can legislative theatre help tackle air pollution in Kenya?

By Fiona Lambe

I was recently in Mukuru working with the Air Network on a piece of “legislative theatre”. I witnessed the power of using less conventional research methods to understand what’s important for local people and to communicate this to policy-makers. The results were unexpected and inspiring.

Successful interventions to tackle air pollution in low income countries are few and far between, despite many potential solutions being available. Why such a gap between science and action? Perhaps the evidence and how it is presented fails to connect with the lives of urban residents.

Legislative theatre was first developed in the 1970s by Augusto Boal, then a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, to give a voice to voters. The method aims to open up a dialogue and flow of power between citizens and decision makers. It is a form of improvisation theatre, where the audience (policy-makers) are invited into the play to help to “solve” a problem, and the actors in the play (community members) demonstrate the difficulty in finding an easy answer. It offers a platform for ordinary people to speak frankly and directly to higher level policy-makers to whom they would not normally have access, and it allows policy-makers to step into the realities of the local community. In the case of Mukuru, the result was powerful.

I had expected the theatre story lines to relate to the sources of air pollution – charcoal cooking stoves, burning rubbish in the neighborhood, and pollution from vehicles and factory chimneys. Because these are my perceptions of where the problems are.  But the sources of pollution were not the main focus of the theatre pieces and the discussions that followed.

For the first act, the community members chose to highlight the issue of dangerous working conditions in the local factories, where workers are typically not provided with protective gear to protect them from harmful fumes. The second act focused on the frequent outbreaks of fire in the community and the poor quality of the emergency services, where fire engines often run out of water and households must fight the fires themselves with buckets of water. Though only indirectly connected to the issue of air quality, the theatre pieces dealt beautifully with the underlying reasons for air pollution in Mukuru – the lack of basic services in the community, and the difficulty many residents face in demanding their rights and protections.

As the theatre played out (all in Swahili) I watched the audience, anxiously trying to read the reactions of the stony-faced policy crowd. We had decided not to tell them that this would be a “special” kind of theatre, one which required their direct participation. That’s because this moment of engagement needs to be spontaneous, unrehearsed and honest. How was this very direct communication going to be received? Would our policy-makers walk out?

At the end of the first act Kelvin, our slightly nervous facilitator and local resident, asked if anyone in the audience had a solution to the problem. Right away a hand went up – the local ward administrator had an opinion. There was an anxious moment when he refused to join the other actors on stage but in the end, with some coaxing, he was convinced (see image). And then the drama really began.

“The answer is simple,” said the policy-maker, “protective clothing needs to be stipulated in the employment contract – I would never sign a contract that doesn’t provide this basic protection.” To which the factory owner (played by a community member) replied: “Don’t bring your own rules to my company, you are delaying my work.”

Policy-maker: “Well, then I will get the union involved.”

Factory owner: “There are many other people waiting for a job, why should I hire someone who will make trouble for me?”

And so it continued, back and forth: a solution proposed by the policy-maker, and the reality delivered by a community member.  In the end, the policy-maker finally put up his hands – “Ok, I give up!” – to a resounding cheer from the audience.

The second act was no less gripping – the scene opened in the home of Mama Wamboi, sitting in her living room, counting her days earnings, when suddenly panic broke out. A fire has started in the settlement. “Fire, fire, fire!” screamed a neighbor, and everyone was running. The scene didn’t end well: the fire engine ran out of water, Mama Wamboi lost her home.

This time, though, the audience was eager to provide ideas. One representative from the local ward took on the role of the resident who lost her home and to show how she would have tried harder to save her belongings. In the moment of crisis, however, when the fire alarm sounds she seems just as panic stricken as the resident was in the original scene (see clip) and just about manages to leave her home – she is visibly shaken.

And this is really the magic of legislative theatre: as well as enabling discussion of solutions and alternative realities, it forces the audience – the decision makers – to literally step into a scene from the residents’ lives and understand their reality on a different level; it allows for empathy with the community.

After the performances we gathered the audience and actors into small discussion groups to talk about solutions to the problems raised. Each group then came up with concrete ideas for tackling them, and roadmaps outlining who should do what. These ideas and, in some cases, pledges from the policy-makers were carefully documented and the community will use them to follow up with their local and county representatives on improving conditions in Mukuru.

The hope is that this process has opened a new space for residents and decision makers to tackle some of the underlying problems in Mukuru, like poor infrastructure, lack of access to basic services, and the need for community empowerment – issues that are indirectly connected to air quality and which are vitally important when it comes to improved quality of life for the community.


The AIR Network’s interdisciplinary working agreement

The main aim for our project is to develop an interdisciplinary research partnership of African and European researchers and African community members, with the long-term goal of creating innovative, participatory solutions to air pollution and its effects on human health in low-resource settings in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, we know working together with people from different disciplinary backgrounds and with different life experiences can be challenging. At our workshop in Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi  in January 2018, we decided to address this head on. Researchers and community members worked together in groups to discuss the challenges they had experienced in working in an interdisciplinary way…and there were lots!


Bearing in mind these challenges, we then asked participants to think about how we want to work together differently in the AIR Network. Participants brainstormed the personal attributes of a ‘good interdisciplinary team member’, which we compiled and agreed on as a group. These form the basis of the AIR Network’s interdisciplinary working agreement, and includes having patience, respecting others, listening, being generous, and having a sense of humour.

Working agreement

When the going gets tough in our project, we will use the agreement to remind ourselves of how we all agreed to work together. We’ll let you know how well it works!

Working in groups

Post by Heather Price, Stirling University