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The Garbage and the Flowers *

keith harmon snow | Nairobi, Kenya

People of color trapped by policies and systematic injustice suffer the crushing poverty of Mathare slum in Nairobi Kenya and have few to no opportunities for work, education, health care, mobility, entertainment, recreation or food. Conditions of life and death here are some of the worst found on earth. A boy vents the high pressure steam from a fermenting toxic moonshine (changaa) concocted in giant drums that sit next to the polluted river in Mathare Valley. For this boy and the men he is working with the fermented brew offers a chance to do something with his time, and the hope of turning idleness, apathy, frustration and despair into .... well, into something.

Mathare is one of Africa's oldest and largest "slums," with crushing poverty and destitution, with patchwork "homes", patchwork doors, fences, planks over open sewers, mud or wood plank walls, and flimsy rusted roofs.  Forced or born into poverty here, people have few choices or opportunities.  

Amidst the garbage can be found hope, joy, beauty and love -- art and resourcefulness -- bespeaking the resilience of the human spirit.

Under colonialism Nairobi became an Apartheid city segregating whites and people of color (Indians and Africans).  The racial disparities in Kenya and the "Quality of Life in Mathare" are stark: colonial policies maintained the spatial and racial segregation. Structural inequalities increased after independence (1963).

This exhibit offers scenes of daily life and struggle, while attempting to capture the apathy and the joy, the dullnes and fullness, the hopelessness and the creativity of the people -- whose human rights have been egregiously and systematically denied.  As a visitor to Mathare I was made witness to the people's struggle, something for which I now feel some responsibility.

*  "The Garbage and the Flowers" is a line from the Leonard Cohen song SUZANNE, which is also about going down to a river, and about love.

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