Zinester is an NGO based in Nairobi, Kenya that focuses on DIY zine making. Their goal is to create a platform for the “voiceless” to be heard. In order to do so they created a kickstarter campaign called Big Stories Little Voices.
INTERVIEW: LANI SPICE
PHOTOGRAPHY: HARRISON THANE
A workshop was set up and run by Zinester involving children of all ages from the Wings of Life Children Centre in Kibera, Nairobi – the largest urban slum in Africa. Using basic tools and materials to create zines and publications, the aim of the workshop was to inspire creative thinking and entrepreneurial skills that in turn would boost confidence and innovative thinking
It seems your disciplines are quite diverse, from high fashion to design, was working within an NGO setting something you were always passionate about?
Definitely, I find working with NGOs so much more exciting than shooting fashion, and being able to travel around Africa meeting and exploring different cultures is very rewarding.
When I was on assignment for the Nike Foundation’s ‘Girl Effect’ in Rwanda, I met up with Tom who was working as Insights Manager. The focus was the production of media ‘from girls, for girls’ but in practice there were a lot of seasoned pros working across the magazine, radio and digital forms to get the word out there.
However, when we got out into the field we both met plenty of girls who wanted to do it for themselves. They often met in clubs and gossiped a lot. Maybe, we thought, with a little help, maybe some kind of kit and a workshop, real or in online video format, they could start to self-publish.
Do you mind giving us insight into what Zinester is and what was the drive behind this project? Who else is involved?
Zine culture is massive in the west as an alternative way to express your thoughts, ideas and creative talents. There’s a lo-fi, DIY punk aesthetic in a lot of zines, which I always loved.
So it’s pretty accessible to subcultures and coz its largely visual I saw a gap in the market among marginalized groups here. Tom and I had talked a lot about doing something like Zinester while we were working in Rwanda but we didn’t get our arses into gear until mid-2015. So we cobbled the airfares together and Tom made some calls and found a small children’s centre in Kibera in Nairobi where we could run the pilot.
Could you tell us why you chose to work within Kibera specifically?
Kibera gets a lot of press and some of the people we spoke to, even inside the slum, asked us the same question. We maybe should have done it in Mathare, which hasn’t had the same investment Kibera has had as a result, but as soon as we met Pastor Jane at Wings of Life school, backing out wasn’t an option.
She told us ‘even if you crawl under a bed to hide, he (God) will grab you by your ankle and pull you out’
We still want to go to Mathare to work with a group of reformed boy gang members at the Ghetto Foundation. Their stories working into the gangs who run the dumps are the stuff of nightmares.
You have since relocated to Nairobi. Where were you living before and was it at all a tricky transition?
Transitioning into Nairobi was fairly easy for me having already lived in Kigali but before this I was living in Shanghai – now that was a culture shock and I don’t think I ever really adapted to it. It really was another world.
Your emphasis on “Big stories, little voices” seems especially relevant; what made you decide on using DIY zine culture as a mode of engaging with socio-political issues?
There’s a lo-fi, DIY punk aesthetic in a lot of zines which I always loved and so as a format zines are democratizing. In fact the rougher and more direct and honest the output the better it gets.
Owning the means of production sounds like a kickback to 1968 but that’s the deal with zines. You don’t even need to be online. You just need access to pens, paper, scissors, some glue and a photocopier.
Most printers in the slums also have scanners so at that point, the thing goes online. That’s something we’re going to have to help with via distribution partners but our first job is to reach those with a big story to tell but who would otherwise be unable to be heard.
What were the children’s initial reactions? Were there any communication issues?
With forty kids in a tiny tin shack there’s little room for ‘active learning’ as it is called in the UK. In Wings and across the region kids are drilled. Teacher talk time is 99% and when we first came into the school we had five year olds standing to attention.
‘Jambo. How are you? We are fine.’
So we were keen to get the teachers out of the classroom and we broke the ice by getting the self-elected best drawers to do our portraits on the blackboard.
What was the first zine that you made?
The first zine i ever made was personal photography work from 5 years of selected travel work from across 5 continents.
There seems to be an overwhelmingly supportive response to this project and you managed to reach your kickstarter goal. I’m sure there are countless highs and lows, could you briefly discuss some of the challenges and rewards that you have encountered while working on this project?
The first challenge we faced was lack of $$ for the pilot. I was living in a leaky old tent and Tom was in an old van with no wheels, we cooked every night on an open fire.
We loved every moment of the workshop and the crazy stories the kids were coming up with but we were still unsure if the project would be successful so it was a great surprise when we released the video online that it went viral along with the kickstarter.
Now we’re talking to Safaricom who are interested in helping us to set up a digital platform and maybe run an event of some kind. We’re talking with some third sector guys too.
Do you still work closely with the Wings of Life Children Centre?
We try to involve them as much as possible and we’ve started taking some of them to cover live events. For example, they got invited to be part of the press-cor for Miss Plus Size Kenya, Africa’s biggest plus size beauty pageant.
So a couple of the kids came along to cover the event and ended up getting the best photos from the event and socialising with some of Kenya’s top celebrities. It’s easy to blow off an adult journalist but it’s another story when you have an eleven year old slum girl telling you to ‘work it’!
Harrison Thane is an Australian Photographer, Designer, Creative Director and zinester with the Nike Foundation as a photographer for the ‘Girl Effect’ Project. Harrison also Works as a Freelance photographer with NGO’s, to high profile fashion agencies in London, New York and Shanghai he has built a diverse portfolio of interesting and exciting projects. Harrison has a BA of photography & Retouching From RMIT university.