Drawing in Nairobi

22 May

The following drawings are from a recent trip to Nairobi to work on a research project called Tupumue which explores lung health in 5-18 year olds living in the Mukuru slum and in a neighbouring precinct. Mukuru is a vast informal settlement of over 500,000 residents that was established in the 1970’s with rural to urban migration. It is surrounded by heavy polluting industries and residents cook with Kerosene, coal, wood and gas within small dwellings that are often without proper ventilation. A myriad of other problems plague the slum such as limited access to clean water, overcrowding, poor sanitation and waste removal and soil erosion to name a few. These are some of the world’s poorest people and their children are highly vulnerable.


It was impossible to prepare for the sights that I saw and my eyes and heart quickly filled up. This is a tragedy. A visceral onslaught of humanity in a second to second struggle for survival. It was also uplifting. We met many wonderful people and Mukuru has its charms. It has a rhythm and deep textures that are lively. It was exhausting in every sense but it was also vital. It was vital to see with western eyes how others in this ruthless world live. It made the inane realities of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America seem like a privileged concern. It also brings one closer to the larger struggle of our brothers and sisters in this world. It is impossible to be unmoved and it is impossible to be the same person you were hours before, having wine with your dinner on a plane thinking that you had a firm understanding of the world. It only now feels like arrogance.


The drawings came fast. For some I was surrounded by curious kids who called out mzungu! (white person) and took a joyous interest in my work. I was an object of fascination. Some gave a startled look at us as we walked through the slum. On one day, we covered 7 miles on the way to a football match, dodging rough terrain and grey spectral water. These drawings reflect what I have seen. They capture the human textures of experience as I witnessed them. They came whole. They were probably the easiest drawings that I have done because they emerged from such vivid experiences. They assembled themselves from clear visions, like a photograph developing and with similar unity, wholly emerging.


I was aware of the total inappropriateness of photography and also of its inherent limitations. Fixing this reality was not possible. It could not be contained in the photograph. The drawing however, as evocative and subjective as it is, is a container. It doesn’t fix reality, it extends it. It doesn’t declare or attest, it reaches out. It invites the viewer to share in a vision. To trace the vision of the artist, to commune with the act of looking. Looking at drawing is a participatory act. Unlike photography, we connect to the idiosyncrasies of the artist’s hand and the limitations of vision. Its imperfections make it the best approximation of an imperfect world.

The first three drawings are from my balcony in a walled complex. These are not from the slums.






4 Responses to “Drawing in Nairobi”

  1. Michael Booth May 23, 2019 at 3:20 pm #

    You and I are so lucky, Lou. And you have the talent to deserve it.

  2. Michael Booth May 23, 2019 at 3:31 pm #

    These are really beautiful drawings, capturing your feelings and the moment. Would make a wonderful artist book, Also find your comments very moving. Abrazos, Maureen

  3. Mary Noll March 14, 2020 at 9:21 pm #

    Lou, amazing, ever more amazing.


  1. Drawing in Nairobi – The AIR Network - July 1, 2019

    […] Many of the AIR Network team have been back in Nairobi recently, as part of a new project which arose out of the AIR Network: Tupumue. This project explores lung health in young people in Mukuru and neighbouring Buruburu. Louis Netter, University of Portsmouth, was one of the team and he did some drawings and has written about his trip here https://lifestooshortfornuance.com/2019/05/22/drawing-in-nairobi/ […]

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