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Can a Slumchella Music Fest Empower Kenya's Poor?

Kenyan activists are riffing off the popular music festival to protest Ethiopia’s largest infrastructure project to date.

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.”

Vandenberg says there are too many fleeting projects that swoop down to Africa for a couple months or a few weeks without really enacting change. “But art changes through lending ideas. Not pushing or forcing change, but offering another reality or perspective. Rather than attempting to clean up problems, what if we offered deeper understanding instead, to empower Africans themselves to do what they see works for them, and then the outside world can lend a hand?”

Huffing glue wasn’t the only pressing issue the pair came across in Kenya. They soon discovered the plans for the Gibe III dam, and couldn't believe how little international dialogue there was about its potentially catastrophic effects. Slated to become Africa’s second largest hydroelectric dam, the $2.1 billion Gibe III, in construction since 2006, has the potential to help solve Ethiopia’s national energy crisis and turn its poverty-stricken economy around. Once completed, it will more than double the country’s electricity generation capacity, bring in revenue from power exports, and reduce the impact of the droughts and floods that have devastated the country over the years.

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.”

Enter Slumchella. Village Beat has already booked a host of acts for the politically charged festival: Seattle rapper-producer Shabazz Palaces, the new project of Ishmael Butler of Grammy-winning 90s jazz-rap fusionists Digable Planets, South African rapper-singer Spoek Mathambo, and Malawian-born, London-based singer Esau Mwamwaya, along with some of Kenya’s biggest hip-hop acts, including the Calif Records crew Peck and Vandenberg recorded on one of their trips. The concerts will be recorded and broadcasted online, and will take place on two different dates at two different sites: one in a rural village and one in an urban slum.

“The two locations of this event symbolize that bond of common circumstance and the urgent need to fight now for representation within their country,” Peck says. Video of the audience from the first event will be projected behind the stage at the second to bring two marginalized communities face to face. “Most people living in the slums of Nairobi have never seen a member of Kenya’s indigenous tribes with their own eyes. That’s the basis for the visual component of the show—letting the urban audience see the faces of the people in the north whose way of life will soon disappear as a consequence of inequitable development.”

Peck and Vandenberg are well aware that naming their event after Goldenvoice’s massive moneymaker Coachella—and adding the loaded word “slum” to it—is controversial. “We wanted the event to provoke a reaction,” Peck explains. “The word ‘slum’ all by itself starts a conversation. People ask, ‘Is that a derogatory word? Can I say that?’” Peck says the majority of urban Africans live live in self-described slums. “Tiptoeing in denial around a massive problem is worse than being totally ignorant and doing nothing.”

Though originally scheduled for February 2012, the festival has been delayed at least a year. Fundraising for the project has been a challenge—their “Three Dollar Holler” Indiegogo campaign only brought in about 10 percent of their $36,000 goal, and it’s proved tough to find corporate sponsors willing to publicly align themselves with such a controversial cause. “The potential is large for African companies and even governments—not so dissimilar from each other—to set an example in prioritizing diversity and ethnic equality in development as well as defining a bold new energy strategy,” Peck posits. “All of the incentives are there. We just need to find the right heavyweight partners.”

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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