Four members of Eastleighwood perform a Somali traditional dance to barely audible music from a smart phone held up to the stage. A blackout has plunged the studio into darkness and a small light mounted on a camera forms a spotlight on the dancers.
Two women in Burkhas face their male partners on the opposite side of the small stage as they flick their wrist and jump from side to side in step to the music. The studio is tucked in a large shopping mall, on a busy street in Eastleigh 1st Avenue, a part of Nairobi’s city area which is teaming with market stalls, shopping complexes and people in their hundreds, snaking through them.
The dancers, come from as far as the Northeastern parts of Kenya, or further still in Somalia. Like most members of Eastleighwood, their story is fraught with the difficulty of trying to belong in a community that tends to look at Somalis as outsiders, even those who are born and bred in Kenya. Iman Burhan, founder and co-director of the organization, says Eastleighwood is trying to provide a space where young people like them can feel that they truly belong. His enterprise aims to counter negative images of Somalis in mainstream media by producing films and TV shows themselves. The organization also offers free media training and an outreach program to young people living in poor neighbourhoods in Nairobi’s Eastlands-area.
Its location, Eastleigh, also known as ‘Little Mogadishu’, holds one of the largest Somali ethnic populations outside Somalia, according to a report by the Rift Valley Institute. The community consists of both Kenyan Somalis and Somali’s who have fled conflict in their home country.
“The Somali community has a very negative image in mainstream media, that is why we are now telling our own stories.”
When the organization was formed in 2011, the Kenya Defense Forces had just invaded Somalia and a series of terror attacks had rocked the country. Eastleigh was suddenly in the news more frequently as a haven for terrorists and pirates.
Burhan, who grew up in Nairobi, says he became an outsider in his own country following the events: “The politicians failed to differentiate between terrorists and normal citizens so we had a really hard time. It caused a lot of discrimination and stereotyping. If you are a Somali or sound like one, then you must be a member of Al Shabaab. Most of my friends and I were born and raised in Kenya, but suddenly we were forced to question our own identity.”
Burhan has no background in film production. Before founding Eastleighwood, he was a businessman who owned an internet café and published a magazine. After the events of 2011, he and a group of friends tried to counter the negative image of what it meant to be Somali through a magazine written in both English and Somali. The magazine, called Wabeeri (meaning new dawn in Somali), was meant to not only reach audiences in Eastleigh, but also other parts of the world.
But in order to achieve this, Burhan realized that he had to be more creative: “When I came up with the concept of Eastleighwood, my friends felt that it was a good idea but some thought it should be called Somaliwood. I did not want the organization to be just for Somalis, though. I wanted it to be a media and arts forum that could reach a wider audience.”
© Lydia Matata
Among Eastleighwood’s productions are a feature film called Mistaken and a series Arawelo. Mistaken is an action film that tells the story of a Somali woman kidnapped by a gang in Nairobi. The Arawelo-series is based on folktales about the life of Queen Arawelo who is said to have ruled over Somalia.
Burhan says that unlike Nollywood, Nigeria’s main film industry, Eastleighwood lacks sufficient funding for equipment and distribution which makes the process difficult. He adds that Nollywood films are being made in a society that is less conservative about the media and technology, unlike the Somali community. However, like Nollywood, Eastleighwood aims to produce content that shows the rich history and culture of the community it represents.
More than entertainment
Mohammed Amin Abdullahi is an actor and model who comes from Mandera County, in the Northeastern part of Kenya. He travelled to join Eastleighwood when he heard about the organization on the news network Al Jazeera. “When I came to Nairobi, I did not know anyone, but the team made me feel like this is home”, says Abdullahi.
That was in 2013. Today, Abdullahi has so far acted in the Arawelo-series and is also a youth outreach program officer helping to run a program called “Sustained Dialogue” in conjunction with an NGO, the Life and Peace Institute. The program brings youth from various parts of the Eastlands-area together to talk about unemployment, drug abuse, corruption as well as other issues affecting them.
Eastleighwood wants to give young people positive alternatives, particularly those in the community who are vulnerable to radicalization by terror groups because of unemployment. Farhiya Farah joined Eastleighwood earlier this year after travelling from Busia County in the Western Part of Kenya. She has since become one of the dancers in the Somali Traditional Dance troupe: “The organization has really done a lot to teach us about this thing called radicalization. It has also done well to bring young from different faiths together.”
Despite their efforts to provide employment and counter negative stereotypes about the community, the reaction in Eastleigh is mixed. In the eyes of a predominantly Muslim community, the business of show business which Eastleighwood is trying to promote, is viewed as haram (forbidden).
Rahma Mohamed Ileye, actress, photographer and administrator at the organization, says things are especially difficult for women working in Eastleighwood: “There is a saying in Somali that whether a woman goes to university or not, she will end up in the kitchen. The community is very conservative, so there is a negative view of women working outside the home in general – not just in show business. Every time I am seen with a camera at events, I get about ten questions simply because they have never seen a woman do this.” She adds that although Somalis think it is okay to watch a film, they do not believe it is okay to act in one.
The organization has engaged in various sensitization programs to convince the community that there is nothing harmful with what the young people are pursuing. Despite a positive reaction from many members of the community, Burhan says that he continually receives threats to close down Eastleighwood: “I have been offered money to do something else, but I have explained that I won’t. This is my passion. When that strategy of theirs did not work, they threatened to chop my head off if I did not stop what I am doing”, Burhan says. The entrepreneur is not frightened of the prospect of death, however, believing that the organization will continue to grow without him.
The studio is filled with the dreams of the young and hopeful. Despite their personal struggles, members of Eastleighwood are determined to make their tiny organization East Africa’s Hollywood. “We are trying our best to grow because we do not want the West to tell our stories”, Burhan explains. The function of Eastleighwood goes beyond entertainment, it is about creating a safe space for a community that has felt demonized and rejected in the place they call home.