CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When Emily Verellen sees television coverage of poverty in Africa, she sees more than hopelessness and misery.
Having worked with young women in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, she also sees a ray of hope.
“There’s so much more strength and vitality that these girls have that we can learn from,” says Verellen, a graduate student at the London School of Economics and program manager with Carolina for Kibera, which has support offices at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That’s why she spent the last year working to edit, publish and promote “Lightbox,” a collection of photographs and essays composed entirely by the young women of Kibera and compiled to showcase of the hope and exuberance of the girls there.
Proceeds from Lightbox fund scholarships for secondary school for the girls, and Verellen says the recommended total donation of $135 for three books is enough to finance a full year of school for one girl.
Verellen has donated her time as editor and publisher, and the book’s publication was financed by a $23,000 grant from the Fledgling Fund, an organization that reaches out to underserved communities by providing grants to projects using multimedia to shed light on social problems.
That has allowed Verellen to funnel all revenue from book sales, totaling $60,000 so far, directly back to Kibera.
The book was inspired by Verellen’s work with the young women of Kibera through an organization she helped form called Binti Pamoja, which in Swahili means “daughters united.”
A 2002 graduate of American University, Verellen started the organization as an undergraduate in 2002 with Karen Austrian, a Columbia University alum.
They moved the organization under the umbrella of Carolina for Kibera, a nonprofit based in Kibera with support services housed at the University Center for International Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Carolina for Kibera also supports a youth sports program, a medical clinic and a waste management program.
Verellen says the photographs and essays were not initially intended for use outside of Kibera, but rather as an assignment for the 60 or so young women in Binti Pamoja.
“The photographs were an inspiration for discussion,” Verellen says. “And as it progressed, we realized that so few people actually knew the things the girls were saying.”
She says the writings and discussion that followed the young women’s photography sessions allowed them to develop the vocabulary to discuss everything from rape to disease and contraception.
When the program began almost five years ago, the girls were not accustomed to talking about their lives, Verellen says.
“They’d just giggle and laugh when we tried to ask how their day was,” she says.
In time, she and Austrian began to realize what a unique body of work the girls of Binti Pamoja had created.
“You hear it from a journalist, you hear it from a politician in a country if you’re lucky, but you never hear from a young woman living in poverty what her life is like,” Verellen says.
The girls took the photographs with simple point-and-shoot cameras and wrote the essays in English, which they learn in school.
Since the first 2,800 copies of the book were printed in April 2006, about half have sold, and Verellen says profits from the first printing will sustain the scholarship fund for several years.
While she and Austrian handed over formal leadership of Binti Pamoja to a woman from Nairobi in 2004, Verellen says, the girls of Binti Pamoja are the true owners.
“They’re known as leaders now,” she says. “They wear their Binti Pamoja t-shirts through the community, and I’m not kidding when I say they walk a foot taller.”