The Immediate and the Imagined: Youth and Social Transformation in Nairobi's Mathare Slum
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Since independence Kenya has witnessed rapid urbanisation, with the majority of the population living in cities being young people. This work is based on youth-led research exploring how youth from Mathare “slum” in Nairobi navigate their social and economic marginality. The architects of the research are from the Mwelu Foundation, a youth group from the “slum” that uses photography and filmmaking to document the realities of everyday life in the community. Accordingly, filmed focus group discussions, documentary filming and photo-elicitation are the primary means of data collection. The work departs from the dominant perspectives of youth as problems and a stage of transition. Rather, it presents “youthhood” as relational, revealing how ethnicity, gender, intergenerational tension, corruption and connection/disconnection, coupled with broader structural transformations, shape and are shaped by youth. The research shows how the youth are using newly created and extended spaces to form identities and realise aspirations, and uncovers the vast array of informal networks, collaborations and connections through which youth are remaking the “slum”. The youth have also built connections and opened up spaces that transcend both local and national boundaries. Significantly, for the youth of Mathare, dependency is not seen as a complete burden that must be off-loaded. On the contrary, it is being strengthened and embraced in different ways. Thus, dependency does not necessarily equate to a lack of ‘modernity’ or a heightened sense of marginality; instead the ability to constructively tap into one’s established dependencies signifies greater ‘modernity’. This is the key to positively remaking the notion of youth as becomings and providing a deeper understanding of youth agency in urban Africa.