Nairobi: The African Social Enterprise Fund In Action

My name is Fulufhelo Mobadi. I am a South African photographer and women’s activist. I am also a big sister, a little sister and a mother.

In July 2017 I was awarded the African Social Enterprise Fund Visual Arts Award and I have been asked to share my thoughts about who I am, and what I am doing during the six-week artist in residency that I am currently undertaking as part of the award. I feel a little uncomfortable talking about myself. I prefer to speak about my work. But I am, as I have been asked to, sharing my story here in the hope that it will inspire others.

I became interested in art as a little girl. My older sister studied fine art at the National School of Arts in Johannesburg. Although I was still very young at the time, whenever she came home from school I sat next to her and watched her practice her skill. I spent many days copying her brush strokes and learning how to hold a pencil to sketch. I became the top art student in my class.

But as I grew, I was told that art was a hobby not a job, so I got a corporate job. In 2009 I realized that this was not my calling. I decided to leave my job and focus on building my artistic career.

I combine street photography and also staged self -portraits to put across the idea of myself going through this transition from being a girl to a young woman.

In my work, I want to challenge conventional expectations of what women must do to be acceptable. I want to help women to express what they can be. To fulfill their potential.

When I Iearned about the African Social Enterprise Fund Visual arts Award it seemed like an incredible opportunity to strengthen my work. Words cannot express how happy I was. At the time, I was going through so much, and was not sure about pursuing my artistic career because it was not helping me financially. I applied for the ASEF award with a lot of doubt in myself, but a part of me still wanted to believe in miracles.

Now, 6 weeks later, I am in Nairobi, Kenya running confidence-building workshops for women between the ages of 15-21, using photography as a tool for social change. I am living in South C and working in Kiambiu one of the largest slums in Nairobi with a population of over 100,000. I am being hosted here by Acess AFYA, a social enterprise that provides sustainable, health care solutions in Nairobi’s urban slums.

As well as running workshops, I will be building up a portfolio of my own work to show at an exhibition at the end of the residency.

It is the first time I have been to Kenya. I am very excited about this opportunity and also a litle nervous. I didn’t know what to expect but the reception I have received from the people I work and live with has been so amazing. Everybody is so eager to share a little bit of Kenya with me. From roaming in the streets of Nairobi to catching a boda boda to the other end of town. I have found being in Nairobi so enriching and so important in expanding my thoughts on what it means to be an African in Africa.

I am running 2, 2-hour workshops a week working with about 20 young mothers between the ages of 15-21. These are young mothers who live in Kiambiu where the living conditions don’t provide them with many opportunities.

My project is called “Roses and Poses”, a title inspired by my favourite quote, “A flower does not compete with the flower next to it. It just Blooms”.

With the theme of flowers in bloom, the workshops aim to teach these young mothers how to develop their self confidence, love themselves, and to appreciate, rather than to compete, with all the women in their lives. If women all got along and loved each other the female species would flourish at a faster rate. The only way we can love each other as women, is if we love ourselves first.

Each workshop participant will be given a camera with 27 exposures. Weekly assignments will be given to women to help build their portfolios for the duration of the workshops and photographs will be shown at a special exhibition in Nairobi in mid September. The workshops are set up to help them understand the basics of photography and to teach them how to make great images.

These young women struggle to make empowering decisions for themselves due to their environment, circumstances and the influences. With a rise in drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and teenage pregnancy, more young girls are falling prey to these social ills. Some of them have had to drop out of school to stay home and take care of their babies. Some have had more than one child. The classes are usually taken up by mother and child as they have no one to look after their children while they are attending the workshops. A lot of them are raising the children as single mothers. It is important that while giving the workshops we speak about future plans, protecting themselves from more pregnancy and advising them on the need for family planning. They are all just looking for the opportunity to better their lives and by participating in my workshops I can see in their eyes just how much they value the little escape I have given them.

I held my first day of workshops, last Tuesday. Many of the young mothers, came to the workshops with their babies.It was such a humbling experience. Seeing how young some of them are brought tears in my eyes.

The purpose of the introductoryworkshop was to familiarize the women with the theme of the sessions and to explain to them the importance of having a skill like photography.

I began by introducing myself, showing them my work as a photographer, and explaining to them what will happen over the next few weeks.

I could tell that they were uncomfortable at first because they had no idea what to expect. Initially it was quiet intimidating, not knowing how best to deal with the young women who entered the room with babies in their arms, but as the session went on, we became more related. To break the ice,I spoke to them with love and appreciation, complimenting them and referring to them as my sisters. They really loved it and were soon so comfortable that they were calling each other“girlfriend”. Their insecurities seemed to lift, and we were all soon laughing through the workshop.

Not being able to speak Swahili also made it challenging for the sessions to run smoothly, but I quickly found someone to translate for me when the girls went off into small Swahili conversations.

I let them take it in turns to use the digital cameras and to take portraits of each other in different poses. They loved it! As soon as they became comfortable with the camera, I introduced the disposable cameras.

It was a first for all of them, and the expressions on their faces were of both excitement and confusion. Soon though, they understood how to work the cameras and each of them took one image to practice.

I then introduced their assignment theme, “To the women I have never met”. The theme is designed to help participants to photograph a new woman every day, and to capture these women’s stories and backgrounds.

Participants will take six photographs a week, and during workshops, we will discuss their process, any challenges they have faced in completing the assignment, and how to address them.

By the end of the workshops, we will have created a portfolio of over 400 portraits and stories. These will provide a kaleidoscopic portfolio of women’s lives in Nairobi’s slums and will culminate with a final exhibition in a public space/Gallery in Nairobi. We are hoping the public display of works will encourage more young girls to participate in such projects in their communities, to learn to express themselves fully, and to re-imagine a positive future for themselves and their families.

My hope is that the workshops will empower the girls not only to learn a new skill, but to engage with their environment, and to build their confidence by working both with their community, and with one another.

My aim is to share my learning as an artist with them. Art has taught me not to judge people, to understand where other’s are coming from and to show compassion to the less fortunate. Art allows you to look at the world differently, to look at society with a broader understanding, and to start conversation and dialogue around what is happening in the world we live in, and the people we live with.

I look forward to next week where will move out of the workshop meeting space and into the community itself.

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