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Life Under Lockdown: Youth Video Diaries from Informal Urban Settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa

Frances Crowley, Politics and International Studies Department, January 2021

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on inequalities at local, national and international scales. It has become painfully clear that whilst we might all be faced with the same deadly virus, a number of factors, particularly the conditions we live in, will vastly shape our experience of both a global pandemic and the consequent disease control policies that go with it.

Working with Slum Dwellers International (SDI)’s youth federation network and with seed funding from Connecting Cultures GRP, we were able to start exploring some of these ethical dimensions of Covid-19, in informal urban settlements across six cities in Sub-Saharan Africa. People living in settlements like these face particular challenges from the pandemic and its associated responses (e.g. lockdown, physical distancing etc.), due to density, poor infrastructure, and the necessity of mobility and social connections to secure livelihoods on a daily basis. Communities live in close inter- and intra-household proximity and often from hand-to-mouth with poor access to water, sanitation, food, and health care. Existing injustices such as these can interact with disease control policies to create new forms of injustice.

Using mobile phones to capture video and audio interviews with people in their communities, young people have been able to create candid insights into the new realities of their neighbours, both old and young. Although the direct health effects of COVID-19 have generally been less deadly for younger age groups, poor urban youth nevertheless face a disproportionately large threat to their lives and livelihoods arising from the disease control policies, with young people particularly likely to be hit by unemployment and the loss of social contacts arising from COVID-19 responses.

In Kiberia, Kenya, one interviewee Caroline shares how the impacts of pandemic safety measures were felt acutely on her small business as a fish vendor, following the introduction of a 7pm-5am curfew.

“Business is really low, there aren’t enough buyers…Previously we would close up at 10pm but now we have to close up by 6:30pm. Yet it is at that time when I receive more customers.”

The Kenyan youth team Muungano wa Wanavijiji also captured the impacts of the curfew on Yussuf, a boda boda rider (motorcycle taxi). He used to be able to support both himself and send money home, but there have been no profits since the pandemic began and the demand for evening taxi services fell off due to curfew:

“It now takes 3-4 hours before getting a customer.”

In Nigeria, SDI youth network partner Just Empower, carried out dozens of audio interviews with informal settlement dwellers, in a series called the Corona Diaries, touching on issues such as the plight of the disabled, enforcement of new laws such as wearing a face mask and predicaments such as the “Hunger Virus”, that saw many families in informal settlements going hungry, as Covid-19 measures shut down food markets.

Using these timely insights as examples of how important this type of youth mobilisation can be in capturing people’s perspectives and realities, we were then able to pave the way for a year-long grant from AHRC to invest in youth to create more video diaries, with the aim of using their content to influence policy and advocacy in real time. Obtaining and analysing information is a time critical task, so that research can inform policy before the detrimental effects of disease control policies cause significant irreversible damage to the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable groups.

As this project gets underway, we are exploring and examining how the format of video and audio diaries meets the need of communicating injustice and ethical issues, all the while raising new dilemmas around the safeguarding of interviewers and interviewees, as they take on this research approach during a particular stage of the pandemic. An exciting element of the project is linking together youth from informal settlements in six different cities and six different countries. This pan-African approach opens up numerous opportunities for collaboration in learning new creative skills, exchanging information on the spread of the virus, the effects of different disease control measures, and for amplifying advocacy messaging on particular justice and ethics themes.

The research, entitled Supporting Just Response and Recovery to COVID-19 in Informal Urban Settlements: Perspectives from Youth Groups in Sub-Saharan Africa, is lead by PI Keith Hyams, with Co-Is Lola Oyebode, Morten Byskov and Research Fellow Frances Crowley at Warwick, along with Co-I Arabella Fraser at the University of Nottingham and James Tayler and Arianna MacPherson at Slum Dwellers International.

Photo Credits: Just Empower,