Successful measures on air pollution in low-income countries are few and far between, despite many potential solutions being available. Why such a gap between science and action? Perhaps the evidence and how it’s presented fails to connect with the lives of urban residents.

Legislative theatre was first developed in the 1970s by Augusto Boal, then a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro, to give a voice to voters. The method aims to open up a dialogue and flow of power between citizens and decision makers. It is a form of improvisation theatre, where the audience (policy-makers) are invited into the play to help to “solve” a problem, and the actors in the play (community members) demonstrate the difficulty in finding an easy answer. It offers a platform for ordinary people to speak frankly and directly to higher level policy-makers to whom they would not normally have access, and it allows policy-makers to step into the realities of the local community. In the case of Mukuru, the result was powerful.

Act 2 of the performance focused on people’s experience with fire in Mukuru. This local woman is visibly shaken as she is warned a blaze has broken out. Video: SEI / YouTube.

I had expected the theatre story lines to relate to the sources of air pollution – charcoal cooking stoves, burning rubbish in the neighbourhood, and pollution from vehicles and factory chimneys. Because these are my perceptions of where the problems are.  But the sources of pollution were not the main focus of the theatre pieces and the discussions that followed.

For the first act, the community members chose to highlight the issue of dangerous working conditions in the local factories, where workers are typically not provided with protective gear to protect them from harmful fumes. The second act (see video) focused on the frequent outbreaks of fire in the community and the poor quality of the emergency services, where fire engines often run out of water and households must fight the fires themselves with buckets of water. Though only indirectly connected to the issue of air quality, the theatre pieces dealt beautifully with the underlying reasons for air pollution in Mukuru – the lack of basic services in the community, and the difficulty many residents face in demanding their rights and protections.

As the theatre played out (all in Swahili) I watched the audience, anxiously trying to read the reactions of the stony-faced policy crowd. We had decided not to tell them that this would be a “special” kind of theatre, one which required their direct participation. That’s because this moment of engagement needs to be spontaneous, unrehearsed and honest. How was this very direct communication going to be received? Would our policy-makers walk out?

At the end of the first act local resident Kelvin, our slightly nervous facilitator, asked if anyone in the audience had a solution to the problem. Right away a hand went up – the local ward administrator had an opinion. There was an anxious moment when he refused to join the other actors on stage but in the end, with some coaxing, he was convinced (see image). And then the drama really began.

Mukuru resident and workshop facilitator Kelvin encourages policy-makers to take part in the performance. Photo: Fiona Lambe / SEI.

A policy-maker from local ward (left) plays the role of an employee negotiating his contract with the factory owner. Photo: Fiona Lambe / SEI.

“The answer is simple,” said the policy-maker, “protective clothing needs to be stipulated in the employment contract – I would never sign a contract that doesn’t provide this basic protection.” To which the factory owner (played by a community member) replied: “Don’t bring your own rules to my company, you are delaying my work.”

Policy-maker: “Well, then I will get the union involved.”

Factory owner: “There are many other people waiting for a job, why should I hire someone who will make trouble for me?”

And so it continued, back and forth: a solution proposed by the policy-maker, and the reality delivered by a community member.  In the end, the policy-maker finally put up his hands – “Ok, I give up!” – to a resounding cheer from the audience.

The second act was no less gripping – the scene opened in the home of Mama Wamboi, sitting in her living room, counting her days earnings, when suddenly panic broke out. A fire has started in the settlement. “Fire, fire, fire!” screamed a neighbor, and everyone was running. The scene didn’t end well: the fire engine ran out of water, Mama Wamboi lost her home.

This time, though, the audience was eager to provide ideas. One representative from the local ward took on the role of the resident who lost her home and showed how she would have tried harder to save her belongings. In the moment of crisis, however, when the fire alarm sounds she seems just as panic stricken as the resident was in the original scene (see clip) and just about manages to leave her home – she is visibly shaken.

And this is really the magic of legislative theatre: as well as enabling discussion of solutions and alternative realities, it forces the audience – the decision makers – to literally step into a scene from the residents’ lives and understand their reality on a different level; it allows for empathy with the community.

After the performances we gathered the audience and actors into small discussion groups to talk about solutions to the problems raised. Each group then came up with concrete ideas for tackling them, and roadmaps outlining who should do what. These ideas to improve conditions in Mukuru, as well as some pledges from the policy-makers, were carefully documented and the community will use them to follow up with their local and county representatives.

The hope is that this process has opened a new space for residents and decision makers to tackle some of the underlying problems in Mukuru, like poor infrastructure, lack of access to basic services, and the need for community empowerment – issues that are indirectly connected to air quality and which are vitally important when it comes to improved quality of life for the community.

More information

The AIR Network, an initiative funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and Medical Research Council through the Global Challenges Research Fund, is bringing together Kenyan and European researchers and members of the public from multiple disciplines to co-create innovative, robust and effective interventions to reduce air pollution and people’s exposure to it in informal settlements in Sub Saharan Africa.