From the photographer: Anti-government protests in Kibera

When Raila Odinga declared 20th March 2023 a national holiday, I anticipated chaos of some sort. I have always wanted to cover a protest and I knew that this would be the best opportunity to do so. I positioned myself strategically and decided to stay with a photographer friend, who lives near Kibera, leading up to the national holiday.

I had not done any prior research on the safety one needs to observe whilst covering a riot. I did not have any protective gear such as a helmet, gas mask, or vest – just me and my camera. Had I read an article or two about covering protests, perhaps I’d have wallowed in my inadequacies and shied away from photographing the drama I anticipated. Some fellow photojournalists showed up equipped with the aforementioned protective gear. I wasn’t intimidated by the sight of this but rather, informed.

Anti-government demonstrations known as ‘Maandamano’ in Kibera on the 20th March 2023. Kesh Nthamba

Covering the protest was very physically exertive, and I truly felt this exertion hours later after the adrenaline weighed down. Whilst shooting the Maandamano demonstrations, I was constantly on the move, following the action and using different camera angles, with a lot of bending and squatting. You must have a good degree of physical fitness to do this work. I was always on the lookout for where the police were and what they were doing and I implore photographers, especially first-timers, to mimic this. A riot is no place to be mindless. I occasionally moved between the side of the protestors and the police. If you sense things are getting heated, switch to the side behind the police if you can, as it is safer there.

The protestors mostly hurled stones and rocks at the General Service Unit officers but were also spotted throwing glass bottles and house tiles. Others used slingshots for even more impact. Whilst moving to the police side, I stopped to take a photo when I was suddenly hit by one of those stones just under my ankle. The pain was so excruciating, I had to take time out before I could resume my work. Weeks later, this impact still affects my gait especially when I wear certain shoes or when my foot bends a certain way. “It could have been worse,” I say to myself thankfully.

Police spray a water cannon to disperse protesters during the anti-government demonstrations known as ‘Maandamano’ in Kibera on the 20th March 2023. Kesh Nthamba

It is during protests that I experienced teargas for the first time. This is when my scarf came in handy. I cried, I coughed, and I had a running nose for a good while. I was also hit at point-blank range by a water cannon, and it was at this moment I realised that this water I’ve previously seen on television, is in fact not water. It is liquid tear gas. I felt excess heat in my face and the more I touched my face, the more it hurt. I could barely open my eyes, so I quickly took shelter in a narrow space between kiosks. Some protestors pointed me to a good Samaritan who gave me water to drink and to wash my face. This is the only remedy for teargas – if you don’t have a gas mask, that is. Nonetheless, I advise photographers to have some water with them during a riot. I later realized my camera was mildly affected by the spray as I noticed a few lags.

Police spray a water cannon to disperse protesters during the anti-government demonstrations known as ‘Maandamano’ in Kibera on the 20th March 2023. Kesh Nthamba

As a female photographer, I advise fellow fearless women to dress comfortably, with a pair of loose trousers, no perfume, and running shoes preferably with a thick sole. You must be able to run at a moment’s notice. Visibility also matters during a riot, but the point isn’t to be oddly conspicuous. At some point, it was generally dangerous to be around protestors as they started robbing photographers, media representatives, and anyone from the press. During the Maandamano demonstrations in Kibera, besides myself, I spotted only two women, and I can confidently say I was the only woman actively covering the protests that day.

To photographers and photojournalists alike, I am not encouraging us to walk into any situation blind. Do your due diligence and research, but don’t let it paralyse you; take what you can and run with it. Photograph what is relevant and be relentless in your pursuit. Invest in a gas mask, vest, and helmet if you’re interested in covering such events, and remember to also invest in good shoes. Above all, enjoy. Because I did.