When bulldozers entered the Nigerian slum of Njemanze and started tearing down hundreds of waterfront homes, Michael Uwemedimo was there to document the scene with his camera.
The residents soon began directing him, he said, making sure he did not miss any of the destruction in August 2009. “Film this, film that,” he recalled them saying.
And when the British-Nigerian documentary maker was arrested by security forces, the residents of the slum in the city of Port Harcourt hid his camera and kept it safe until he was released later that day.
“They recognized the camera as an instrument they could use to literally frame what is important to them, to tell their story, to give their perspective,” said Uwemedimo. According to housing advocates, half of Port Harcourt’s more than 1 million residents live in slums.
Many of those residents live in waterfront areas, on land with prime real-estate value, and have no official housing documentation, noted Isa Sanusi, spokesman for Amnesty International Nigeria.
That makes them especially vulnerable to evictions, he said. “Generally, Nigerian authorities use forced eviction in the course of urban renewal ... with the land they formerly occupied being developed into luxury real estate,” he explained – although the cleared area in Njemanze remains undeveloped.
Uwemedimo said his experience in Njemanze showed him how desperate the residents were to draw attention to what was happening to them, and he wanted to help.
In 2010, with former journalist Ana Bonaldo, he co-founded the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP), a collective of filmmakers, urban planners, researchers, and Port Harcourt residents who use art, music and data collection to mobilize the people impacted by forced evictions.
The group has since grown to more than 40 volunteers. One of the first things Uwemedimo did with it was take a giant, inflatable mobile cinema on a tour of low-income communities in the city to show them films about forced evictions around the world and in their own neighborhood.
“We found cinema was a good way of gathering people, of animating people, of creating debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his living room, with a computer blasting out songs about evictions.
A spokeswoman for the ministry of urban planning would not comment on specific eviction cases but said the government had an obligation to take down unsafe or unauthorized buildings.
“The state carries out demolitions when buildings do not follow the approved building plan or are built illegally or in unauthorized areas,” she said. “For example where you have high tension cables, building on top of waterways or in unapproved areas - all that can lead to demolitions.”
The collective gives residents the chance to share the impact of those evictions through its Human City Project, which is made up of a collection of art and media ventures owned and run by members of the Port Harcourt community.
On one of the city’s waterfronts, in a solar-powered building called The Media Shed, a team of volunteers runs Chicoco Studios, producing and performing songs about the evictions and other issues that affect people living in slums.
Like the other parts of the project – which is mainly funded by grants from organizations and charities - the studio gets its name from the black mud that Port Harcourt residents pull from the swamps to reclaim the land on which they build their homes.
Dickson Abibo, a musician and producer, regularly tours the area with other musicians to put on shows for residents. They also hold “Sessions in the Shed”, inviting young locals to the studio to collaborate on songs.
“We come together to build our own original, unique sounds that reflect the daily experiences of slum dwellers,” said Abibo.
Nearby, Chicoco Radio broadcasts the tracks that come out of the Shed sessions and produces a weekly drama series in which the characters face the same challenges Port Harcourt residents deal with every day – from poor infrastructure to crime.
“It shows how we live in waterfront communities, our problems, our good, and bad sides,” explained Sotonye Sekibo, a local radio actor and reporter.
Armed with information
While the project gives residents a platform to tell their stories, it also helps them have a say in what happens to them next, said Uwemedimo, who is currently a visiting fellow at King’s College, London.
The Chicoco Maps program collects geographic information about Port Harcourt that residents can use to take part in decision-making about the area.
Volunteers regularly go out into the communities to index every building and conduct household surveys, gathering details on factors such as population, topography, land use, employment, and health.
The results are fed into a database which residents can refer to when dealing with authorities, security forces and non-profits who want to bring new initiatives or development projects to their neighborhoods.
As an example, Uwemedimo pointed to a recent community survey in one neighborhood where responses from residents showed that together they were spending 18 million nairas (about $59,000) on water annually.
So, they started pooling their money to buy a shared solar-powered borehole, which they hope will reduce their energy bills. Community mapping has also been vital in the fight against the forced evictions that sparked the Human City Project in the first place, Uwemedimo said.
With every building cataloged, demolitions are easy to track and residents can use that information to support their demands for compensation, he noted.
“Now ordinary people are able to speak up and stand up to powerful forces like the government,” said Sekibo, the radio actor. Sekibo and other Port Harcourt residents said the project has made it easier for them to protect their homes.
Since the project launched, they noted, forced evictions are not as common as they used to be. “This project has changed our lives and shaped how we look at things and issues around us,” said Prince Nosa, a slum dweller who trained for four years under the project and is now a sound engineer.
“We now know and understand our rights and we are always ready to support any slum community if demolition is ever mentioned again.”