The bright tones of Katanga

A visit to the Katanga slum will leave any visitor in shock. Like any slum anywhere, Katanga is infested with dingy settlements which are compacted alongside each other. Not to mention the highly populated drainage channels, which sometimes act as playgrounds for the malnourished but happy children.

Written by Dominic Muwanguzi

The children are the most interesting feature of Katanga. They carry on with their life, oblivious of the hunger, disease and poverty that surround them.

(c) Photo by Canon Rumanzi 2011.

And for the adults, they‘re modest human beings looking for a day’s meal for their families. Many of them, especially the women, wash the laundry for the many University students who inhabit the nearby hostels.  Others are running makeshift restaurants, vending food to motor mechanics and boda boda cyclists.

The men do different menial jobs, from bricklaying – they use mould of soil dumped here to make the bricks – to offloading heavy trucks. There are also those who spend their days in gaming binges, sipping alcohol.

A slum area amid medicine and academia

Katanga is a slum located between Mulago Hospital and Makerere University. Over the years, this stretch of land has been a source of dispute between Mengo government and Central government. Each of the two parties claims that this huge swampy chunk of land is theirs.

Because of this dispute of ownership, many people have found it convenient to settle on it as it is “a no man’s land”.

The origin of the Mu Katanga-project

Arthur Conrad Kisitu. Photo from his website.

Enter Arthur Kisitu. He holds a Bachelor degree in Business administration, but calls himself “a self-taught artist with an emphasis on storytelling through documentary photography”. Arthur initiated the project in 2010.

Here he explains how he wanted to tell the story about Katanga with out any distortion:

“The trend had always been by many people to sit somewhere and forge stories about such a place like Katanga, without really interacting with the people who live there.” Interestingly, the photographer had been coming to this place for the last two years “to get an experience of this place”, he says.

The result of this expedition led him to conceive an idea of shooting a documentary that would create a new image about Katanga. Not necessary as a place riddled with malnourished children, shanty structure and crime. But as a home of happy souls with no pretence or hypocrisy. The storyline was ‘Presenting Katanga in the positive way; breaking away with the routine.’

(c) Photo by Douglas Aaron Musunga, 2011.

“Katanga and other slums have always been portrayed as a haven of crime. Yet there is a lot of positive living going on here. People here are simple and very frank with their lifestyle. They are not the hypocritical type.  All they need is someone who can understand them, and not judge them,” Arthur continues.

Adding images from a Bayimba workshop

To add credibility and artistic meaning to this project, the artist together with French photographer Irene Sinou suggested that Katanga became the subject material of a photo workshop. Hosted by Bayimba Cultura Foundation and facilitated by Dutch photographer Andrea Stultiens, they took on the task of training ten local photographers.

L-R: Andrea Stultiens, Marvis Jamie, Frank, Bwette Daniel Gilbert, Ibrahim Mudathir, Akunkunda Verone, Paul Lumala, Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce, Canon Rumanzi, Irene Sinou, Thomas Bjørnskau, Arthur Kisitu. In front: Douglas Aaron Musunga.

Like the original idea of the documentary, the task of these artists was to use their skill to tell the story of the Katanga people using their camera lens for two weeks.

The result of this experience was a photo exhibition which was first held in Katanga and the locals were invited to come and see their life story portrayed on photo paper.

From the exhibition at the rooftop in Katanga. Photo by Andrea Stultiens

Relate to you subject matter

“Photography is not like robbery. You do not sneak on people and take their pictures and enhance them for your own benefit. It is important to create an intimate relationship with this community if you are going to tell their story properly. You get to see how they live on a daily basis and hear their stories of failure and triumph,” Arthur note passionately.

Of the notable experiences he shares from that artistic expedition, he says that people in Katanga are fond of lighting fires in the night and converge around them; with children playing in the background.

(c) Photo by Arthur Conrad Kisitu, 2011.

“Unlike out there, people here in Katanga find no harm getting close to fire. They use it as a source of light since many homesteads can’t afford electricity and also many individuals converge to talk about their day’s experience,” he reveals as he shows me pictures of children and adults gathering or playing near fire.

But this fire could also be symbolic when it comes to the lifestyle of people in slums; in this context Katanga.  The fire represents the happiness and hope these people carry beneath their hearts albeit their poverty stricken lifestyle. The bright tones in the pictures will also attest to this.

But they are not alone in the quest for a brighter future. Kisitu believes that the life of these people can change if only people stop treating them as objects.

“The subject is not an object but an active participant in the project,” he says.

Exhibiting as Visual Art at the Bayimba

The artistic and social meaning of these forty photos conspired into them being exhibited at the Bayimba Festival this year.

Photo by Bwette Daniels Gilbert.

According to companion Irene Sinou, she says that it was important to have such an exhibition at the festival: “In Uganda photography is largely perceived as a journalistic venture, not as an art.”

The associate director of this project also believes that the exhibition was important to promote a new image about Africa.

“In Europe, where I come from, it is a cliché to think that Africa is full of poverty and disease. This exhibition shows there are interesting things about Africa,” she said.

Will these images matter?

But according to two guests at the exhibition, Hans and Serina from Germany, they said that the exhibition was a good idea, but wondered how these photos would have an impact on the guests.

“The idea is nice, but at the end of the day they are only pictures which somebody just looks at and walks away,” said Hans.

Irene thinks contrary: “This is only the beginning of the project. At least we have been able to tell the life of the Katanga people through photography. And I believe the response has not been bad so far.

As evidence to her word, the exhibition was reinforced by a tea and snack bazaar, where guests bought tea and pancakes made by people from Katanga. And the money was used to supplement their income.

Setting a precedent for Ugandan photography

The Mu Katanga project beefed up with a photo exhibition was a brilliant idea. It did set a precedent for photography in this country. Rarely do photographers engage with their subject matter. Often times, they present to us doctored images; influencing us to see things the way they want us to see or appreciate them.

The contrary of that false representation is the real strength of the Mu Katanga project because it was able to tell a good story without any concoction or stage management of the images. The images were creatively taken and presented to the people to draw their own conclusions.

(c) Photo by Akunkunda Verone, 2011.

However, like Irene said, the journey is yet to be over. It’s now the task of NGOs and the government to join the crusade of fighting for the rights of these modest people by truthfully highlighting their social and economic wellbeing.

Dominic Muwanguzi is a freelance art journalist with a strong dedication to uplifting the visual arts in Uganda.

Editor Thomas Bjørnskau was one of the ten participants in the photography workshop hosted by Bayimba Cultural Foundation.

Read more about the Photography workshop in Katanga at Another Africa’s website:

6 thoughts on “The bright tones of Katanga

  1. It was purely my honour to sit down with Arthur and Irene and hear them share their experience while doing this project. As a journalist, i was moved by the passion and objectivity with which this team told their story.
    I believe that this project is going to re paint the image of Slums like Katanga. Formerly they were known to be havens of crime and poverty, but with this story told through photography, we know that people in slums can be poor but happy anyway.

  2. Great to read more about the project and to hear/read about the dialogue being spawned from these photo narratives. It is a significant start that stories of people as individuals not framed 100% by their socio-economic situations are being told. After all people are not 2-dimensional. Congratulations to Arthur and Irene for taking this initiative. At Another Africa we have both enjoyed and appreciated being able to publish the articles contributed by the workshop participants as well as Andrea Stultiens’ projects in Uganda.

    Kind regards,
    Another Africa

  3. Thank you, Margaret, good thing you reminded me of that. Have included the names of the photographers in the caption of the group photo. Thomas

  4. Thanks for the article. It would be wonderful to know the names of the different photographers. Also to hear the ‘voices’ of the Katanga people themselves, otherwise, we are still listening to the outside ‘voices’.

    Thank you
    Margaret Nagawa

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