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Kenyans use film to confront ethnic tensions

Armed with clubs, machetes and axes, the mob of young men marched yelling and chanting down the narrow red mud streets of Kibera, a bustling Nairobi slum of tin shack homes and lingering ethnic resentment.

"ODM 4 change and economic empowerment," read the shirt of one Luo man, brandishing a crude wooden club and looking particularly intent on trying it out on some Kikuyus.

But it all came to a halt with one word from among a crowd of onlookers.

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"Cut!" yelled Nathan Colette, 32, director of Togetherness Supreme , a feature-length film set in Kibera amid the recent post-election violence. The actors needed to express "more urgency," he instructed.

More than a year after a wave of violence swept across Kenya in December, 2007, leaving some 1,500 people dead, the ethnic tensions at the root of it are still simmering beneath the surface.

With the country's fragile coalition government all but paralyzed by increasingly strained relations between the parties, the people in Africa's largest slum say they are the ones who end up paying the price.

"When our leaders up there collide, then the people down here in the slum, they solve it by rising against each other," said Wilson Maina, 22, lead actor in the film.

Kibera became the site of intense violence when President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner amid suspicions that he had rigged the election. The political conflict quickly degenerated along ethnic lines. Luo supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement took to the streets in organized mobs, looting and burning the houses of their Kikuyu neighbours, and in some cases killing them.

"It was so hurting, it was so painful," said Mr. Maina, a Kikuyu who was chased out of Kibera along with his grandmother. "To see that the people I've grown up with for more than 20 years are the same guys who are coming to chase you and maybe loot your properties. I felt so much hatred."

Like other cast members drawn from the slum with little or no acting experience, working on the film has meant confronting some of the ethnic wounds left by the violence.

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"At first, what was running through my mind was revenge," said Evans Kamau, 31, a Kikuyu who escaped a rampaging mob and spent six months in a displacement camp before returning to the slum and taking a job as story adviser on the movie. "It was difficult at first. Seeing my enemies along the street, meeting them. Even saying hi was difficult."

"Basically trust is what was broken," said 22-year-old Martha Kisaka, a Kibera resident who plays the love interest in the movie. "If you've known someone for almost all your life, then one night they just wake up and start burning your property and chasing you away, who are you going to trust?"

These days the answer for most is not Kenya's politicians. With the post-election violence still a fresh stain on Kenyans' memory, the country's leaders have acquired an unnerving habit of hurling vitriolic statements at each other in public, wrangling over appointments and salaries, storming out of meetings and even threatening fresh elections.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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