The young boy cradles his head, emitting a low moan as blood drips through his fingers and soaks the soil beneath him. His friend, wearing a bright yellow “Pediatric Dental Group of Colorado” t-shirt, uneasily makes his way through the shrub to examine the injury he has caused. Upon seeing the blood, he gasps theatrically and stumbles backwards. Frightened, he tucks a slingshot into his trousers and runs away.
Throwing his arms in the air in exasperation, a lanky 20-year-old yells out, and everything stops. Fidele is directing this film, and he isn’t happy. He wants more emotion from his cast, more feeling.
Regan, the 12-year-old boy with the bleeding head, gets up from the floor and wipes some of the sticky red liquid from his cheek, a smile spreading across his face. The kid in the yellow t-shirt, Pasyan, 11, saunters back into the shade beneath the trees. They watch as Fidele re-enacts the scene, crouching down, holding his head, moaning dramatically, showing them how it’s done. The boys nod, concentrating intently on their director’s instructions.
All of the kids in the film’s cast and crew live in a remote refugee camp in Northern Kenya. They are waiting, along with 185,000 others, to be resettled in the U.S., Australia, Canada or Europe, or for peace and security to return to their respective counties so that they can go home.
Kakuma Refugee Camp has been here since 1991. That year, thousands of youngsters who later came to be known as the Lost Boys of Sudan escaped over the border from South Sudan, leaving behind years of brutal civil war. The ones who survived built what they thought would be temporary shelters. Twenty-five years later, some of them are still here, joined by legions of others fleeing violence, unrest and repression in countries around the region.
The camp, a sprawling collection of tents and crumbling mud and corrugated iron huts, is not an easy place to live. During the day, temperatures soar. Gusts of wind kick up the fine dust which billows in the air and deposits itself on everything. There is little to do. In the morning, most kids cram into airless classrooms with up to 200 other children. After school, some help their families by going to fetch water or firewood. Mostly, children idle away their time, hanging out in the narrow alleyways between huts, finding creative ways to play with whatever they get their hands on. Some have never known life outside the camp; many will wait years or even decades to be resettled.
In 2011, a 19-year-old Congolese refugee named Jean Michelle Batakane returned to the camp after studying at the East African Media Institute in Nairobi. Batakane was determined to put his new skills to use, and provide something for the kids living in the camp.
“I moved back after realizing that a multitude of people like myself were anxious to learn,” says Batakane, “and that I could do my part by sharing my knowledge.”
He also saw an opportunity to “bring together refugee brothers and sisters from different parts of the camp,” ensuring his program included kids from different countries — Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda — and religious backgrounds.
Using his pocket money, a small camcorder and a laptop he was given as a gift, Batakane started Season of the Times Media Productions, running yearlong courses for children who wanted to learn about film production.
Tucked behind a small Congolese café inside the camp, STMP’s office is a tiny, unassuming room. A piece of paper hanging on the outside wall reads: “Notice! Notice! Notice! STMP Studio. Kick out boredom, idleness and cluelessness. Get busy and know more on what’s popping in the outside world.”
Inside, kids take turns using a computer with a broken screen, teaching themselves how to use programs like Photoshop and music production software Fruity Loops. The power cuts out frequently, but when it does they sit and wait, knowing that sooner or later it will start up again. Then, they go out around the camp and make their own films and music videos.
As STMP’s assistant cameraman, 15-year-old Kito is no stranger to the stop-and-start pace of film production. He has been with STMP since 2013, when a friend connected him to Batakane. Kito arrived in Kakuma five years ago, after his family fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Taking minibus after minibus, they made their way through the green, rolling hills of Uganda, over the Kenyan border, and towards the sweltering landscape here in northern Kenya.
“When I first arrived I used to stay at home from morning until evening,” recalls Kito. “I was so bored.” But then Kito heard about STMP and started developing his skills as a camera operator.
In addition to making movies and music videos, Kito and the other children earn a little money by filming weddings, birthday parties and other celebrations for camp residents who have no other way to immortalize previous memories. They charge around $10 an hour, and shoots can go on for about six or seven hours. Fifty percent of the proceeds are put aside to fund STMP’s productions, while the remaining half is shared among the crewmembers.
“At the end, the amount of money we get is very small for the work we do. It is just pocket money to buy basic things,” says Fidele. “But we do it to help the communities.”
In December, children sign up for the yearlong course led by Fidele. Three times a week, under the shade of acacia trees, the older kids — Fidele, Kito and 17-year-old cameraman Olivier — take turns teaching film and music skills to younger children. For them, it is a way of giving back what they were taught by Batakane, who after eight years in the camp resettled in Australia last year.
“He showed me that I can do whatever I want in my life,” explains Olivier, who says he always wanted to be a filmmaker. “Now I try to help some other kids so they can be even better than me.”
Throughout the year, the kids learn to use a computer, shoot and edit short movies, and produce music. At the end of the course children pair off and produce their own movies, and the older kids name one as the best of the year.
Most of the children have never held a camera in their hand or used a computer before joining STMP, but many now dream of becoming editors, scriptwriters and producers.
“My new goal when I grow up is to be a music producer,” says Kito, who is now trying his hand at making beats. “Wherever I go — if I go to America, Australia — I know I will be a music producer. I will do it.”
When Batakane moved to Australia, the skills he learned in Kenya helped him quickly build a new life: he now runs his own photography company, works in local radio, and continues to support STMP by organizing fundraisers. He says that once he’s able to land a higher paying job, he plans to help the kids at STMP get a better camera.
Back on set, Fidele and Paluku, a 14-year-old scriptwriter, carry a bag full of clothes — old shirts, hats and frilly dresses — to use as costumes. Ten-year-old Angelina, in a blue-and-white gingham dress, gets out her tools: a little mirror, a powder and eye shadow palette, a stick of lipstick and an eye pencil. She diligently lays them out on the floor, as her fellow makeup artist Leticia, also 14, preps beside her. Olivier and Kito check that batteries are charged and the camcorder is working. It stops a few times, but a little knock brings it back to life.
Followed by several curious children, STMP’s cast and crew of ten walk through the narrow, dusty alleyways between huts, and into a small wooded area by the usually dry riverbed, which overnight had filled up with rain water. They set up their tripod, the actors change into costume, and Fidele gives last-minute advice.
Linelle, a five-year-old actress and the youngest STMP member, guards the area around set, stopping curious children from getting too close, and shouting at them when they got too loud.
There is no time for playing around. STMP is at work.