Interview with the Uweza Foundation’s Founder, Jen Sapitro
Kibera resident, Jen Sapitro, talks to us about why she started the Uweza Foundation, how the Uweza Art Gallery came about and what her plans and hopes for the future are.
When and why did you found the Uweza Foundation?
I first came to Kenya in 2006 for a six-week volunteer experience following the completion of my undergrad degree. I was placed at a children's home in Kibera. Although life in Kibera can be very difficult and residents face significant challenges, I was inspired by the innovation, creativity, resilience, and genuine desire by the people I interacted with to find solutions to make their lives better. The children and youth here have big goals and dreams but sometimes lack the opportunity or resources to really pursue them. I started Uweza, which is Kiswahili for ability, in 2008 in order to work alongside Kibera residents to empower the children and youth in the community to find a path to a better future through their own inherent talents and abilities.
When was the Art Program and Uweza Art Gallery conceived and how did you get it started?
In 2011, we opened the Uweza Community Centre, which provides a safe space for children and youth to meet and participate in various activities. One of the first programs we started at the newly opened centre was an art program. While we were originally focused on the benefits of exploring creative expression as well as the therapeutic aspects of being able to create art, we were astounded by the work that the young artists, all of whom had never painted before, were doing at such a young age.
We decided one day to sell one of their paintings, an acrylic painting on embossed paper, on Facebook. After it sold, we gave the artist, then a primary school student, half of the proceeds to pay his school fees and used the other half to buy supplies for the art classes. After two years, we found a small space in a shipping container near the centre, and as the artists moved to painting on canvas, we found new opportunities to market and sell their work.
Today, the gallery is self-sustaining through the sales of artwork and most of the artists are able to support themselves through their art. Three of the artists who attended the very first art class we ever held are now attending university and paying their university expenses through the sales of their artwork.
What do you love most about your job?
I moved to Kibera in early 2011 and have lived here for the past almost eight years. I love being able to directly interact with our program participants, have discussions about their goals and plans, and work together to find ways to make those goals happen. Uweza is always growing and evolving in response to feedback from our program participants and the community and I feel fortunate to be able to be on the ground and in the community every day to be a part of that growth.
How will funds from the art exhibition contribute to the Uweza Foundation’s work?
Right now, our gallery is really small. Only two or three artists can paint at a time. It is also in a really noisy and high traffic area of Kibera, which can make it hard for the artists to concentrate. We are looking for a bigger space, which will be more costly to maintain, but will also help the artists grow and explore and experiment in a conducive environment. So the funds will help with that. The artists’ percentage will help them meet their basic needs and for those in school, will ensure they can continue their education.
For further information about Wall Works forthcoming exhibition, please see the “Current Exhibition” page and for more information about the Uweza Foundation, please see www.uwezakenya.org