Skills Development

Making Music in Kakuma

This February, Michael Sackler-Berner together with his wife Ilana (see her post here) spent one week in Kakuma with FilmAid staff. Michael brought state-of-the-art sound equipment and conducted workshops with FilmAid staff and students. Here is his account of the week!

Flying to Kakuma can be misleading. Though the plane I took was chartered and run by the World Food Programme and headed to a massive refugee camp hours from any city, it felt much like a standard commuter plane, complete with drink cart and flight attendants. It took only a few minutes upon arrival to realize it was no usual puddle jumper.

Kakuma is in the desert and the only real road signs I noticed as we approached the camp were those pointing to NGO compounds.  The armed, gated compounds are tucked inside a surprisingly large city of small, dusty homes.  Some homes are mud brick with metal roofs, others are tarp relief tents, and none have flooring or plumbing. 

The tremendously bumpy roads and paths the NGO land cruisers use to get around led us right to FilmAid’s offices. I clutched my guitar and bag hoping the recording gear inside wouldn't be damaged in this last leg of my two-day journey from Brooklyn to Kenya.

After a warm welcome from FilmAid’s field staff, I found myself in a small community building just past the new arrivals check-in point, with a generator pumping outside.  Within a few hours, microphones were set up, software installed, and monitors blasting. I would spend the next four days in this building with refugee and host community musicians, FilmAid audio staff, and countless refugees who would hear music and wander through to see what was going on. Outside the studio window was a latrine and a road where goats would occasionally wander by, munching on garbage that lines the paths. 

Time, which has a way of moving at light speed in New York, moves mighty slowly in a refugee camp. Refugees from every corner of the region live in Kakuma, from years to decades, with no ability to work and nowhere to go. It is not unusual to see someone spend a whole day under a tree, resting, with nothing to do. So anything to do, particularly something creative that results in a final product, is much needed psychological relief. It is met with open arms, excitement and preparation. 

Every morning, I worked with 4 or 5 artists, rappers, and singers to write a song. Every afternoon, we tracked the tune. When I work in professional co-writing sessions in New York or Nashville, it often takes hours before the writers find a new way of saying something meaningful enough to consider the words "lyric." Not in Kakuma. The artists have a lot to say and it is right on the surface.

The opportunity to be heard is a rare treat for these artists. They live difficult lives in arguably some of the toughest of conditions.  No time I spent with them was ever wasted or taken for granted. Questions, ideas, titles, melodies, beats, and lyric were constantly flowing from the 8:30am car ride to the studio, until the generator ran out of gas after our final playback around 6:00pm.

I never could've anticipated the wealth of talent FilmAid’s outreach staff was able to find.  Everything I’d heard about African rhythm was true and there seemed to be a gold mine of incredible singers and rappers with something important to say. They also have fantastic stage names – Smart, Diddy Stone, Afisa, King Moses, Fire Man, etc. FilmAid’s staff audio producers, Victor K. and Abdul, have the skills and gear to make fantastic and meaningful records for years to come.  Their passion for making records was deeply refreshing.

I could go on for days about the artist’s individual talents, heartbreaking stories, hopeful dreams, and plentiful skills, but I will let their music do the talking. With the help of FilmAid, they have a microphone that has the potential to not just bring them moments of joy when it is needed, but with any luck, and a touch of musical magic, bring their stories to the world.


‘Film is what I feel, see and hear’

‘Film is what I feel, see and hear’

'‘Film is what I feel, see and hear"

This is the voice of 29yr old, Amos Lolibo from Lodwar, Turkana, a student of FilmAid’s filmmaker training program in Kakuma refugee camp. This year, Amos’ film, Never Again, was selected for the 7th edition of the Kenya International Film Festival and was screened alongside other FilmAid student films as part of the week's events.

Never Again, is a powerful documentary reflecting on those affected by the 2007/08 post-election violence. Using chilling archival footage and firsthand interviews from Kakuma refugee camp, Never Again leaves a lasting impression of Kenya's past election, where over 1,300 people lost their lives and an estimated 650,000 were displaced.

‘This is a real story,’ says Amos, ‘that needed to be made into a film so people could watch it.’ However, you don’t just watch this film. You are drawn into it, experience it and feel it too.

Screened for the first time at this year’s World Refugee Day and FilmAid Film Festival in Kakuma, Never Again stirred emotions among audience members, some even requesting repeat screenings in their villages.

When asked about the making of the film, Amos speaks about crew tension and lighting challenges. Normal production life of course, but add in incessant heat and dusty wind, and you can start to get a sense of what a huge accomplishment this film was for the crew.

In 2010, Amos met FilmAid and applied one year later for the student filmmaker training program which also runs in Dadaab. The program works both with refugees and youth from the host community. Amos is one of many students who are trained in creative and technical film skills such as scriptwriting, camera operations and post production. The training program empowers young people to tell their own stories in their own voice.

At the end of each program, these powerful student films, focusing on issues such as health, security, identity and peace, are screened back to the refugee community and posted to FilmAid’s YouTube channel for global dissemination. Some of these films are even selected for festivals. This year, Never Again was screened at the Slum Film Festival in Nairobi, winning second prize in documentary shorts.

Although Never Again was a big achievement for Amos, he is already assisting as the boom swinger, fixer and translator in a new FilmAid production about peace. The production focuses on the peaceful coexistence between the Kakuma refugees and the host community.

‘Film is what I feel, it is my force to fight poverty in my community’, he says.

Never Again and other FilmAid student films can be viewed below or on our YouTube channel, Click here.

Kakuma Design Workshop

"My students were incredibly talented with many powerful stories to tell. It was my hope to give them new tools of visual communication to add to their skill sets."

Isaiah King and Larianna Krysak, our talented Visiting Teaching Artists, have recently returned from two weeks volunteering in Kakuma and Nairobi. 

While there, Isaiah ran creative workshops for FilmAid production staff and refugee youth film makers, and Larianna ran workshops on project planning, leadership and communications.

Isaiah's creative workshops in Kakuma involved a range of creative design tools and methods including, graphic design with an eye on film making, storyboard development, typography, title design and animation.

The FilmAid crew in Kakuma reports that it was a treat to have such talented and multi-skilled artists on board. " It was great to have the workshops. You should see some of the designs that are now coming through from the kids! " 

To view some of the work that was created in the design workshop, you can enjoy Isaiah's reel here - Kakuma Design Workshop Reel

Report from the field: FilmAid’s Filmmaker Training Program for Girls in Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya

FilmAid Kenya’s Communication Intern, Sammy Olumola visited Hagadera Refugee Camp, one of six camps in the Dadaab complex. There he met with participants in FilmAid’s Filmmaker Training Program designed exclusively for women and girls.

Dadaab, Kenya – July 23, 2013 – For most Somali girls in Dadaab Refugee Camp, cultural biases are barriers to participation in public life. Women are not allowed to interact freely with men or even speak in public; their voices have been silenced by a male dominated society.

It is the month of Ramadan and I am set to meet a group of 15 Somali girls assembled in a classroom at the Information, Communications and Technology Centre in Hagadera. As I enter the room, Robert Gikunji, a FilmAid staff member and trainer, has already informed the girls of my visit to ask them about their training.

“Why did you join this class?” I asked. The girls are timid, but Halima Mohammed Ali, the class prefect, raises her hand and breaks the ice. “I want to be journalist” she says. Soon more hennaed hands shoot up to contribute to the discussion.

The training targets Somali girls who have completed secondary education to assist in building their future careers in filmmaking and other media professions. The project further seeks to empower the girls by strengthening their self-confidence and social skills.

According to John Kilungu, Manager of FilmAid in Dadaab, strong cultural beliefs have continued to limit the participation of Somali girls who wish to join the Filmmaker Training Program. Some members of the community have often ridiculed those girls who have completed work behind the camera, or engaged in public film activities. The program hopes to encourage active participation by providing a favorable and safe environment for learning.

Since October 2012, the girls have been introduced to a number of topics on cinematography. The majority of their studies focus on scriptwriting and video editing, as such skills do not necessarily require the girls to be shooting films publicly–thus reducing the risk of community backlash.

According to Hussein, member of the Filmmaker Training Program, most people consider the film industry to be dominated by men. She recounts sneaking out of her house to attend film classes because her parents did not approve of her undertaking such a career.

I listen keenly to Robert as he explains how difficult it is for him and the girls to conduct practical lessons in Hagadera. Instead he has to transport the girls, 32km distance to the nearby Girls’ Centre’ in Dagahaley refugee camp. There, Robert can comfortably teach the girls how to handle cameras and film.

"The Girls’ Centre in Dagahaley is a safer place where I can teach them various practical skills of handling a camera. And they also move around freely with the cameras within the Centre,” said Robert.

Built in 1991 to shelter 30,000 refugees fleeing Somalia, Hagadera now houses over 132,000 people, according the UN refugee agency, 60% of whom are women. Despite their huge numbers, Somali women do not have the freedom to speak openly and share their experience even amongst themselves, let alone with the rest of the world. Among others, the International Rescue Committee has been sensitizing refugees in the roles of women and the need to empower women and children. The community has begun to slowly change their perception of women in society. “Before, my parents and relatives would not allow me to leave my home to interact with other people in the community, but now they have started appreciating my contributions in the family. They are very supportive and they give me permission to go out and meet my friends and work.” Fardosa Ali, a facilitator at FilmAid in Hagadera.

“If we get more knowledge, the men in the community will listen and respect us,” said Khadro, a member of the Filmmaker Training Program.

Most of the participants in FilmAid’s training program would like to pursue full-time careers in filmmaking and journalism. The success of the program has drawn significant attention, particularly from local leaders of the surrounding host communities, who live in the vicinity of Dadaab refugee camps. As a result, some are insisting on being consulted during the recruitment process of new members.

Since its introduction in February 2009, over 60 people have been trained in the Filmmaker Training Program. Thirty-five are currently undergoing training: ten people from the host community, ten boys and 15 girls from the refugee communities. As part of the training, FilmAid has invited Visiting Training Artists to Dadaab to train participants on specialized areas of filmmaking such as lighting, script writing, editing, directing and casting. 

Meanwhile, FilmAid is in the process of forming an alumni association of all the program’s graduates. The Filmmaker Training Program alumni association will be run by the members and will offer further trainings as a form of income generation to the group.

As the program’s participant’s increase, the main challenge becomes one of limited resources. The students are forced to share a camera, an editing machine and other production equipment, which has resulted in less time dedicated to practical lessons.

Consequently, FilmAid has decentralized its activities to different camps in Dadaab complex to allow wider participation in the program’s activities. For instance, the Filmmaker Training Program is based in Hagadera; the print media project (The Refugee Newsletter) is based in Dagahaley; and the participatory video project is based at IFO refugee camp.

The Filmmaker Training Program in Hagadera has changed the lives of many refugees already. Robert and his colleagues at FilmAid in Dadaab hope that this initiative will inspire behavioral change amongst Somali communities to allow more girls to freely pursue filmmaking careers.

FilmAid thanks the many supporters who make the program possible, including contributors to Slashfilm's campaign earlier in 2013.