Greg Constantine on shoeboxes and statelessness

August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

“A community becomes confident when it is recognized by other communities.” –Nubian Elder

Nubian family photo (circa 1940s)

How does a photograph get from a shoebox under the bed to the walls of an exhibition space? It takes a certain kind of vision, some good proposal-writing skills, a team of Nubian youth, and a lot of determination.

Greg Constantine came to photography when he was 34. He spent the first part of his career in the music business. Then he packed up house, moved to Asia, and started making pictures. These days, he’s involved in a multifaceted, multi-year, international project on statelessness called Nowhere People, done in part through collaborating with UNHCR, and using film (as in celluloid, not movies). I first learned about him last year, when he submitted a photo essay to PhotoPhilanthropy, in collaboration with Medecins sans Frontieres.

His work documents the struggles of ethnic groups around the world who have been denied or stripped of citizenship.

One portfolio within this project focuses on the Nubians in Kenya. I knew nothing about the Nubian community, so Greg gave me a brief history lesson (you can read more on the project website) and then helped me understand the various components of his Nubian project.

Nubians view Kibera as the homeland for the Nubian community in Kenya. Because many Nubians cannot find jobs outside of Kibera, some Nubian youth collect garbage to earn extra money. People buy the garbage bags and every Saturday, Nubian youth collect and remove them. They earn 30 KS ($.40 USD) per bag.

Basically, the Nubian community was incorporated into the British Army in the 1880s and brought from Sudan to Kenya in the late at the turn of the century. They fought for the British in the King’s Africa Rifles during WWI and WWII and played an important role in the development of Kenya and East Africa. Since Kenya’s independence, the Nubian community in Kenya has historically been unrecognized as a tribe of Kenya. Even though they’ve lived in Kenya for over 100 years, it wasn’t until the 2009 census that ‘Nubian’ was acknowledged as a tribe living in Kenya.

Unable return to Sudan, the Nubian community was given 4,197 acres of land by the British in 1912 to settle on. They named the land Kibra, or ‘land of forest.’ After askaris were demobilized, they used this land to farm and earn a living from. But after independence, the Nubian claims to title deed have been denied by successive governments. As hundreds of thousands of rural migrants flooded into Nairobi to find work, Kibra has been the place they were encouraged to settle. The small Nubian village of Kibra (whose population was 3000 in 1950) turned into Kibera (which is now home to around 1 million people, according to the BBC in 2009).

Four Nubian women sit on the green grass of an open field in the Laini Saba area of Kibera. Laini Shaba area was an old shooting range for the King's African Rifles. (circa 1950s)

In late 2008, the UNHCR provided Greg with funding to spend a month photographing and documenting the Nubian community who live in the Kibera slum.

As compensation for not returning to Sudan, the British gave 4197 acres of land to the Nubians to settle on. What was once the Nubian village of Kibra is now Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. All of their claims to land ownership have been denied by Kenyan authorities. Everyone living in Kibera, including the Nubian community are considered squatters.

“During that month,” he told me, “I would sit with families in their homes in Kibera for an hour or two, talking. And by the end of our conversation, they would have pulled out these amazing, old photographs from shoeboxes that they had never shown anybody outside of their own family. This documentation of the Nubian community was something that nobody had ever seen before. So the pieces of this project were already all there.

A Nubian woman holds a family photo of her grandfather as an officer in the King's African Rifles. He served for the British Army in WWII and held a British Colonial passport.

“The challenge for me was finding the funding to take all these pieces of the project and put them in one central location that could then be presented to the public in a variety of ways. And, importantly, I also wanted to be able to juxtapose these really old photographs that depicted the community’s situation in the past with my own documentation of the community now.

“Once I got the OSI grant in the beginning of the year, I worked with a team of six Nubian youth in Kibera who went from Nubian household to Nubian household, asking people to loan us these old photographs. I had been hoping to find about 100 photographs. But during the one month of the project, they found about 250 photographs that date back as far as 1912.”

Then the photographs were taken to a lab in Nairobi and scanned at high resolution and put onto a DVD, which the team sent to Greg at home in Southeast Asia. “They were incredible,” he said. “I went through and edited and touched up the images a little bit—minor dust spots and things like that. And I made a selection from those images to reprint and include in this exhibition.”

Nubian men of the King's African rifles relax in Kibra during a weekend after working at the barracks. (1940s)

In addition to the traditional exhibition he’s having at a gallery in Nairobi, which will travel to London next, Greg wanted to be able to deliver the project locally to the Nubian community in Kibera. (As well as the non-Nubian communities in Kibera.)

“Part of the motivation for doing the project was to elevate the awareness of the Nubian community amidst the broader society. Most people here in Kenya have no knowledge of the Nubians, and their contributions to Kenyan society, and the development of East Africa.”

Through utilizing these old photographs that families loaned the team, the project has incorporated the Nubians into the storytelling process in an innovative way. The project is designed to help them actively dismantle some of the stereotypes about them.

What was once the Nubian village of Kibra is now home to hundreds of thousands of people and is now Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. Once situated among bush, mango trees and green grass, this Nubian family's home rests nearly in the middle of the Kibera slum. The house is almost 100 years old and is one of the oldest homes in Kibera.

Greg also approached LiveBooks, in the US, and they agreed to donate a pre-designed website to the project, so that other people can see all the photographs, (since the exhibition included only 1/5th of the archival images). Those images have also been placed onto PhotoShelter, so that the Nubian community can access them and use them.

“I really embrace multimedia and online and new technologies,” says Greg, “But I also find that there are so many multimedia projects which consist of the photographer talking about their work. And I really wanted the Nubians to tell their story, and not for me to tell the Nubians’ story for them. And so the multimedia project we did only has Nubians talking, and it incorporates a lot of the photographs.”

Nubians played an important role in the development of Kenya and East Africa. Many of the first public services in Nairobi were manned by people from the Nubian community. British officers carry out a staff inspection in downtown Nairobi of the first Nubian group to be appointed by the Kenya Bus Service Limited. (1934)

He also printed a condensed version of the gallery exhibition onto huge sheets of white vinyl, which were displayed last week at the Kibra Secondary School in the Kibera slum.

Greg said that the Kibera exhibition, and the community engagement that went along with it, has been the most rewarding part of the project for him.

“It exceeded all expectations,” he told me. “We estimate that in the 2 1/2 days, some 2,300 people visited the installation. People couldn’t stop touching the photographs and pointing out relatives and ancestors in the photos that are no longer with us today. Parents were able to show their children who their great grandparents where and so forth.  I think the youth walked away with a renewed sense of pride in their community and also a renewed sense of motivation and responsibility to take what past generations have done for the community and move it forward to the next.

“It was an incredibly rewarding and amazing opportunity and one that I’m determined to duplicate for other stateless groups in my Nowhere People project.”

Meanwhile, the political struggle continues. The Nubians are still denied title rights to land and are still not fully recognized as citizens of Kenya.


Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Greg Constantine on shoeboxes and statelessness at look at the birdie.


%d bloggers like this: