Touched by Africa, Hollywood gives a little back
The success of films shot on the continent has led actors and studios to donate money and needed services.
NAIROBI, KENYA — The new toilets and showers are not much to look at.
But to those living in the squalor of Kibera – subSaharan Africa's largest slum, located in Kenya's capital, Nairobi – the basic cubicles are a welcome relief.
"This is so much better," says Benjamin Agunda, emerging from one of the showers. "Before this block was here, I used to wash only at night, when no one was around to see, using a bucket that I would fill with water."
The simple sanitation facility – six toilets and two showers – has been built with money raised by a trust fund started by the makers the 2005 hit film "The Constant Gardener." It may seem like a small humanitarian gesture from a group awash in show-business cash, but it stands as a symbol of Tinseltown's newfound interest, not just in churning out films set in Africa, but in transforming box-office success into tangible help for Africans in need.
Stars and directors of newer films such as "The Last King of Scotland" and "Blood Diamond" are following suit.
Parts of "The Constant Gardener" were filmed in Kibera, where almost a million people live in an area the size of Manhattan's Central Park.
Since filming ended a little over two years ago, the trust – which can boast having the stars Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz along with director Fernando Meirelles among its patrons – has quietly plowed some $200,000 into projects in Kibera and Loiyangalani, a rural location in the north of Kenya.
The donation comes at a time when Africa is all the rage in Hollywood.
"The Last King of Scotland," telling the story of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's brutal and bizarre reign, won plaudits for star Forest Whitaker when it went on limited release in September.
And "Blood Diamond," featuring heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, opened earlier this month. Filmed partly in Mozambique, it is about Africa's illegal "conflict diamond" trade.
Its producers found themselves accused of exploiting locals as extras, but cast and crew members have set up and contributed to the "Blood Diamond Charity Fund," which has goals that include digging wells, building roads and schools, delivering food, and providing medical assistance.
Accusations of exploitation are just one of the potential pitfalls of filming in Africa.
Simon Channing-Williams, producer of "The Constant Gardener," had been advised not to risk filming in Kenya's volatile and disease-ridden slums but to film in South Africa instead.
He refused, preferring authenticity to convenience, and said he was moved by the friendship and support the cast and crew found in Kibera.
"It was also that in this extraordinary adversity, they were amazingly happy, positive people. The day wasn't going to get them down," he said by telephone from England.
Determined to make a difference, Mr. Channing-Williams sought advice from the then British High Commissioner, Sir Edward Clay, and high-profile Kenyans.
"With extreme poverty the sad thing is that despite however honorable chiefs and elders consider themselves to be, the sad truth is that there will almost inevitably be a sad drift of some of the money into individual pockets," he said.
The idea of a trust was born to avoid misuse of charitable donations.
So far the trust has built a school in Loiyangalani, sanitation facilities amid the squalor of Kibera, and is looking to beginning work in Turkana, a remote northern province that was also used as a setting for the film.
Channing-Williams has been approached by the team behind "The Last King of Scotland" for advice on dealing with charities in Uganda and is considering setting up a network for like-minded filmmakers.
Hemal Shah, of Nairobi-based Blue Sky Films which worked on "The Constant Gardener," says many foreign production crews see offering money to a community as a form of payment.
" 'The Constant Gardener' is very different in that they have not just dumped a load of money and then left. This is continuous," he says.
Which is good, because Kibera needs all the help it can get.
The unplanned settlement has almost nothing in the way of infrastructure.
Foul-smelling mud clogs a network of open sewers.
Women and girls risk rape if they step outside their mud-brick homes after dark.
And alcohol and glue provide ready escape routes for anyone who wants one.
Last weekend, a political demonstration ended in riots. Police shot dead four rioters and much of the slum remains off limits to outsiders.
Neto Agostinho, Kenya coordinator for The Constant Gardener Trust, points out a garbage heap next-door to a school where he has built three new sanitation facilities to replace an old, filth-encrusted lavatory.
Much of the dump is probably crammed with plastic bags filled with human waste, says Mr. Agostinho, wrinkling his nose. "It's filthy, disgusting," he says, adding that health problems are common.
So far the trust has built seven facilities throughout the slum. Kibera residents pay three shillings (about four cents) to use the toilet or shower. The money is used to keep the facilities clean, and any profit goes to a local management committee to use for the good of the community.
The trust also plans to start working with a women's group that collects discarded plastic bags and turns them into woven mats.
Not only will it help clean up the slum, but it also provides an income for 47 women struggling to care for their families.
But the work is only just starting, says Agostinho, as he outlines plans to support mobile clinics that will help doctors and nurses reach the very heart of this impoverished community.
Everywhere there are signs of the work still to be done.
A small boy squats on a rare piece of grass on the edge of the slum, his trousers around his ankles – a reminder that seven sanitation facilities are only a start to addressing Kibera's myriad needs.