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 ( 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 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.


Hood 2 Hood this Sunday

Hood2Hood event in Mukuru 16th of September 11am – 5pm

We want to celebrate and communicate the research carried out by The AIR Network team. We want to let the community and the wider world know about what has been taking place up to now and get feedback on what we have done and plan to do next.

We will be running the event in Rueben stadium on Sunday 11am – 5pm.

Here is some of what will be going on:

Display of the AIR Network maps

Creating murals to illustrate project findings

Story-telling events

An exhibition of work by local school children to describe their experiences of air pollution

Live performances of songs created by Mukuru musicians especially for the AIR Network

Live interactive theatre performances and group games

Face painting and clowns

Opportunities for group discussions about the project, what to do next and how to take forward community-driven ideas for solutions to the problem of local air pollution

DJs, MCs, singing and dancing

Please come and join us!!

The story behind the logo, by Jared Omae

In this blog, Mukuru resident and designer of the AIR Network logo Jared Omae talks us through his design:

AIR logo V2

“The green colour represents the environment and nature of our community. The yellow colour represents the nature of our slums – this means that everything in Mukuru has been polluted – starting from the air, water, drainage and natural resources, these are yellow.

At the bottom are the industries that pollute the environment and the air we breathe, and a charcoal stove that pollutes the air inside the houses as people prepare food.”

Jared can be followed on twitter: @omaemukuru.

Participatory mapping in Mukuru

We’ve got loads happening in the AIR Network this September. This week alone we’ve seen our Mukuru-led solutions group starting work on a theatre piece to identify sources and causes of air pollution, with the aim of coming up with sustainable solutions, and started our participatory mapping work. This work is with the Engaging with Industry group, and our talented artists have made a beautiful base map of the area and are taking it around the settlement to get information about where industrial pollution is bad. This will help us to identify ‘hotspots’ of pollution and specific industries that we can try and work with to find ways of reducing their contribution to air pollution.

Participatory mapping

SEI’s Annemarieke de Bruin ran some training on participatory GIS for three Mukuru residents earlier this year, which has put them in good stead for this work. We are looking forward to seeing the outputs later this year.

To follow along all the activities in Mukuru on social media (Facebook and twitter) search for #AIRnetwork


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



We have all been busy deciding what to do for our ‘mini-projects’ – the main work of the AIR network in this first phase. Proposals have been developed, budgets worked out, and then they were submitted to our advisory board for comment. The four mini-projects we are going to work on this year are….

Raising Awareness – aiming to raise awareness of air pollution amongst Mukuru residents

Mukuru Action Against Air Pollution – aiming to identify potential solutions to air pollution in Mukuru

Engaging with industry for Hewa safi, Afya bora (Clean air, Good health) – opening up dialogue between surrounding industry and Mukuru residents

Prioritising policies for cleaner air in Mukuru – engaging decision makers to prioritise and implement actions relating to air quality

Pitching ideas for mini-projects at the January workshop