Hungry for help in Nairobi’s slums

May 2, 2012

“Will you pass by and see her?” Anne asked me, nodding to her two-year-old daughter who was playing barefoot in the nearby dirt with another young girl.

It’s amazing how children can laugh amidst utter squalor that makes adults want to weep.

As a journalist, you often spend your time trying to get people to open up to you, to tell you their most intimate thoughts.

And what do you offer in return? A vague hope that telling their story will ‘make a difference’?

I ducked Anne’s question, busying myself with my tripod.

We were filming Anne as part of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s special coverage package on food security and innovations, called Solutions for a Hungry World.

Urban hunger is a growing problem in Kenya. Yet it attracts much less attention than the traditional image of hunger – livestock herders hit by drought in the country’s arid north.

Anne lives in Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum, often tagged the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa, minutes away from glitzy bistros and shopping malls thronged by Kenya’s growing middle class.

Rachel Weisz was filmed for the movie adaptation of John Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener here, earning it a certain kind of edgy glamour.

We spent two days hopping across open sewers and navigating rubbish-strewn pathways in the sweltering heat to find a family to illustrate our story.

One woman we judged too plump.

The lighting in several dank homes was too poor to take any pictures.

I didn’t have the guts to spend the day with a deaf grandmother who looks after 12 children. Just driving past kids begging by the roadside at night makes my heart ache, overwhelmed with helplessness.

Eventually, we settled on Anne.


Her husband was a construction worker but he’d been sick with typhoid for two months. She was trying to make ends meet by washing clothes for her slightly less impoverished slum neighbours.

The shoot was hard work. The family lived in darkness because they couldn’t afford electricity or paraffin. We had to bring our own light to film her children drinking black tea at dawn.

Anne was tired and distracted. She hadn’t eaten properly for days, even weeks.

I felt ashamed asking her to walk down the street a third time, trying not to get irritated because she kept spoiling the shot by looking into the camera. It was draining for all of us.

It was only once she’d eaten lunch that some life returned to her face; the ability to smile, to interact with other people.

You could literally see the energy from the food seeping into her body.

After finishing the shoot on Friday night, I lay in bed thinking about Anne’s oldest son.

He wasn’t going to school because his mum couldn’t raise the 800 shilling ($10) fee.

Despite having had no breakfast, he refused to come and eat lunch. He was shy and awkward, maybe also a little angry, preferring to loiter outside with others queuing at the water point.

I wondered what his future would be. Would he be carjacking me at gunpoint in a few years’ time out of desperation?

Part of me felt like I should help Anne and her family. But another part of me feared I would be sliding into a situation I couldn’t handle.

Where do you draw the line between being a reporter and a fellow human?


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//Where do you draw the line between being a reporter and a fellow human?//


Posted by maGiK | Report as abusive

Compelling! What do you tell Anne as you leave? I am a photographer and a fellow human. I often wonder what it would be like to be a reporter with obligations and restrictions. Thank you for shedding some light.

Posted by EllieGraham | Report as abusive