Can a Slumchella Music Fest Empower Kenya's Poor? Can a Slumchella Music Fest Empower Kenya's Poor?

Can a Slumchella Music Fest Empower Kenya's Poor?

by Lainna Fader

April 17, 2012

Over the next two weekends, hundreds of thousands of music fans will flock to the palm tree-lined fields of the California desert for Coachella, one of the most popular music festivals in the world. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Kenya, a California-based nonprofit collective of artists-activists known as Village Beat is working to produce their own large-scale musical fest—one that borrows Coachella’s framework of unity through music—to protest Ethiopia’s largest infrastructure project to date, the Gilgel Gibe III dam. Dubbed Slumchella, the festival will debut in the next couple years—if its organizers can raise the funds.

Since 2009, filmmakers and VB founders Austin Peck and Anneliese Vandenberg have made several long trips to Kenya, volunteering with clinics and aid organizations and working under the credo of “art as action.” For three years, they’ve documented the story of Kenya’s forgotten street kids who spend their days wandering through town looking for enough food and money to survive with plastic bottles of glue attached to their lips to stave off hunger and numb their pain.

“There are really few images that are as compelling and as offensive as a child huffing glue,” Peck says, describing their documentary Tough Bond, which just wrapped filming. “We thought we could expose [the issue] and create a call for action with one swift blow.”


But evidence is mounting that the dam could be a development disaster for the region—it might destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who weren’t even consulted about its construction. Gibe III will disrupt the annual flood cycle of the Omo River, a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of people in southwest Ethiopia and northern Kenya, and reduce its flow into Lake Turkana, which will dramatically affect the lake’s ecosystem and displace the 300,000 people who depend on it. The lake’s salinity will rise, which will render the water supply undrinkable, harm the lake’s biodiversity, decrease food security, shrink the local fishing industry, and depress the economy in Kenya.                                            

There’s been little transparency around the project, and the construction contract was awarded without competitive bidding to Italian contractors Salini Costruttori S.p.A. The UN has expressed concern over the lack of independent environmental and social impact assessments, and Terri Hathaway, former director of International Rivers' Africa program, has called Gibe III "the most destructive dam under construction in Africa” because it would condemn "half a million of the region's most vulnerable people to hunger and conflict." Despite objections from hundreds of local and international NGOs and thousands of concerned citizens worldwide, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi vowed to complete the dam at any cost. "[Critics] don’t want to see developed Africa,” he said. “They want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as a museum.”


Peck and Vandenberg recently met with the head of a major event production company who showed some interested in Slumchella, but when he asked how many portable toilets they planned on bringing in for the festival, the conversation ended quickly. “We could only laugh thinking about what people would do with port-a-potties in a slum that has an estimated one actual toilet per 10,000 people,” Peck says. “After a long, awkward silence, we realized he wasn’t joking…[I]t became clear that we need some partners who understand Africa and the way we do things a little better.”

Tribal conflict has also forced Village Beat to rework their Slumchella plans. The promise of rapid development has ushered in a wave of violence born of desperation in northern Kenya, a variable Village Beat was not prepared to deal with. “Former nomad-pastoralist communities are scrambling to formally ‘own’ the land the government intends to develop, in the belief that significant compensation will come their way,” Peck says. “Some tribes are adapting better than others, but what used to be a natural check and balance system of frequent, small-scale cattle raiding has turned into pure, cold, systematic killing on a large scale, creating a constant flow of displaced people, as each tribe arms itself heavily either directly from police, the army, or dealers in the area supplying both sides of the conflict in Somalia.” The day the Village Beat crew left Isiolo, the proposed location for one of the Slumchella events and primary location for Tough Bond, thousands of Turkanas relocated to displacement camps as their villages burned to the ground.

But Peck and Vandenberg haven’t given up on Slumchella—they just need more time and money to make the project happen. As of February 2012, 52 percent of the overall Gibe III project had been completed. It’s not too late to halt construction, or at least come up with a comprehensive, long-term strategy to minimize its potentially disastrous consequences.

“Our stance is not anti-development—we’re simply asking for democracy and responsibility,” Peck says. “We either deal with this now, in a preventative manner, or we will deal with a crisis in a few years whose consequences are hard to even imagine.”

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Can a Slumchella Music Fest Empower Kenya's Poor?