Eriss Khajira. Documentarian and activist

We could define her as consistent and determined because Kenyan Eriss Khajira has turned her profession into a way of being aware of what is happening and trying to bring about real social change. 

“I was born in the suburb of Dandora, a few metres from the rubbish dump of the same name, where there are always thousands of people sifting through the rubbish of Nairobi’s inhabitants. I know how difficult it is to live in a slum. I know what it means to have to choose between buying food or paying rent, or never having enough. I understand the frustration of telling journalists about your problems and having them offer you no solutions,” she said in an interview.

Her calling dates back to the age of 11. That was when she first saw a documentary and realised how important it was to tell the story of people who were suffering. She decided to volunteer for a professional who took photos and videos at weddings and funerals and became her bag handler. She started composing images by looking at them and making small videos on her mobile phone, which she then showed to people around her to see if they had the desired effect.

Self-taught and always alert to what was going on around her, she got a job at the Nairobi Community Media House as a reporter for the African Slum newspaper and went on to find a way of telling things without using the protagonists of her stories. Aware of the power that mass media can have on community issues, Khajira defines herself as a “producer of documentaries on real issues that happen in communities”.

In 2014, she premiered Dusty Bin Dreams, her first documentary, in which she uses five portraits of Dandora’s residents – some of them very close friends of hers – to tell the stories of her neighbours’ pains, sorrows and yearnings. From these stories, some dreams have come true. “My painful story has given me the dream opportunity to become a filmmaker,” she says. Her start could not have been better, as this first work won her the Parda Prize at the Cape Verde International Film Festival in 2015.

While making documentaries and filming new realities, Khajira created the Big5 Centre to contribute to social justice (helping 100 families) which is all too absent in African countries. Focusing on women and children – the most vulnerable in the community – she explains on her website that her mission is for people to live with dignity, security and tolerance. During the pandemic, this led her to set up a library and make soap to distribute free of charge to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For the Kenyan documentary filmmaker, Africa is synonymous with hope, friendship, despair and betrayal – a complex and often contradictory mix that deals with a present in which people must always be at the centre of the action. Access to education is the key to achieving something as seemingly basic as creating spaces where minors can learn around a table and in the light of a bulb instead of a candle. 

Carla Fibla García-Sala – Illustration:Tina Ramos Ekongo