Slum boy shot his way to fame

Sunday October 7 2007

By JOHN MAKENI

In 1997, American photographer Ms Lana Wong descended on Nairobi’s Mathare Valley looking for children and youth on

Julius Mwelu third right in black jumper with

Julius Mwelu third right in black jumper with his trainees. Photo/CORRESPONDENT
photography. Ms Wong began by looking for any organised groups from which she could draw trainees for her Shootback Youth Project. 

That is how she found Mr Francis Kimanzi, a football coach with Mathare Youth. She asked him if his boys would be interested in her course and most of the boys, keen on shooting goals rather than pictures, were not enthusiastic about it. 

Julius Mwelu, one of the young players, was one of the most resistant boys to the project.

“I didn’t want to be a photographer, I wanted to become a footballer. Kimanzi explained to me about the Shootback project and after some time I was convinced it was a good idea and I joined it,” he recalls. He started to take photographs but he did not like the results.

“I didn’t like the photos from my first film. I was annoyed that my colleagues had better pictures,” he says.

That is perhaps the reason he took a keener interest in the course and went ahead to become a professional photographer. And he has a well paying job to show for it. 

Mwelu, 23, is an employee of the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), which is part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He says he learnt about IRIN from a friend who encouraged him to apply for a photography job. He applied and was hired in January this year.

“I joined IRIN when I didn’t know a lot about photography, but I have matured now,” he says.

Interestingly, with all the good perks that come with his job, Mwelu still lives in his old neighbourhood at Bondeni near the infamous Kosovo village in Mathare.

“I was born here and I can’t run away,” he says. Photography has taken Mwelu places and opened doors for him. He has held five exhibitions in the past six years in The Netherlands. Last year, he showcased his work in an exhibition in The Netherlands during Prince Claus’ 10th anniversary celebrations.

Mwelu, who dropped out of St John’s High School at Pumwani while in Form Three for lack of fees, is more famous in The Netherlands than in Kenya. This popularity stems from a documentary, Shootback, done on him by a Dutch television station in 1998. The film was centred on his life in the ghetto. When it was aired in The Netherlands, the viewers wanted him to go on a visit there.

“Everybody in The Netherlands seemed to have known me,” he says about his experiences on a tour of the country.

Invitation

The exposure earned Mwelu an invitation the Festival Mundial in The Netherlands in 1999. While there, he met Mr Jasper Groen, a journalist with the Groep Limburg, a Dutch media house. 

Mr Groen told Mwelu that they had heard he was a good photographer and the firm wanted him to do some work for them. Mr Groen asked the youth to take photographs of places that he thought were unique in Amsterdam and they published four. He was paid the equivalent of Sh35,000.

“Jasper told me that they would like me to go back to school and pay fees with the money,” he says. He did not go back to school though. Later in 2001, Mr Groen travelled to Kenya to invite Mwelu to a series of photography exhibitions in The Netherlands. 

He and his friend Frederick Otieno, who co-starred in Shootback, were nominated for the Africalia Awards in Belgium, and won the Best Documentary Film from East Africa category in June 2006. 

They were each awarded a certificate, a trophy and a cash prize.

Some of his pictures together with some of his colleagues’ have been compiled into a book called Shootback

The photojournalist has written a book, Julius, about his life. The book, written in Dutch, was launched in 2004 at Maastrich in The Netherlands. 

Mwelu has set up the Mwelu Foundation to train 45 children and youth in Mathare on photography. He launched it after three children in his Mathare neighbourhood asked him to teach them photography in 2003.

“I thought it was better to start a foundation that would address the children’s interest in photography,” he says. 

“Many are orphaned and have nowhere to go. I would like to help them,” he says.

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