Phill in KenyaPhill in Kenya

Phill Prendeville and Tom Markham-Short spent two weeks in Kenya filming a television commercial for ChildFund New Zealand’s Africa Orphan Rescue.  This blog follows their journey from the slums of Nairobi to the rural town of Emali.

Filming orphans of Mathare Slum

By Phill Prendeville

Day 1, Mathare slum, one of the oldest slums in Nairobi. Around half a million people live here, many are third or fourth generation residents.  I have filmed here before and know that it is a good location to find true suffering and orphaned children living in desperate conditions.

Mathare Slum, Nairobi, KenyaMathare Slum, Nairobi, Kenya

This is my ninth filming trip to Africa, I am no longer shocked by what I see, on the streets here, sewage spills out, only blocked temporarily by rubbish or people walking through it. The stench is what hits you first and then whatever you’re stepping in second… The slums are hugely overcrowded and hundreds of children run wild – the children and the poverty are the reasons we’re here.

Local ChildFund staff have let people know that we are coming to film orphans. Caregivers bring the children to meet us. We watch them play and interact, and talk to them. We ask about their personal stories from the local staff and then we talk to the children’s caregivers. We find out what illnesses they suffer from (such as malnutrition, malaria), how their parents died, how old they are, and whether they go to school.

We aren’t working to a script; we’re looking for stories in front of us. It’s difficult to choose a single child for the commercial to focus on as every single kid has a different unique story. All the children we see are orphans who live in varying degrees of poverty. One child suffers often from malaria, her grandmother is riddled with cancer, and another child’s grandparents are fit but very elderly and without them she will have to fend for herself on the streets. Within a couple of hours we have chosen the kids we will work with.


One of the little girls we film is Molly who is looked after by her grandmother Freda.  Freda is crippled and dying…Freda worries what will happen to Molly when she dies and tells me: “Orphans die here. The kind of life they live is terrible… I feel sad that they get food from the dustbins from the floor or they have to beg.  I don’t want her (Molly) to end up like that.”  Freda finds it difficult to think of Molly left on her own but is no stranger to the grim realities of life here. Freda tells me more of her daily struggle looking after Molly whose parents are dead: “If I don’t have enough money for water or to eat – we will just sleep… we will not have water or eat, we will sleep and wait for the next day.”

At first Molly is a little shy of the camera, but when she smiles her face lights up. Dealing with young children and getting them to walk and stand and smile when you need them to is not easy in any environment. We’ve only met Molly and the other children that day, we can’t speak their language and we want them to act naturally for us, strangers pointing a camera at them.

The day’s filming is long, frustrating but strangely exhilarating. Two white men with cameras in the slum attract attention. It’s like a travelling circus with no crowd control and a cast of thousands whose languages I can’t speak. I learn one word “Endelea” which means keep moving. I shout this out at the crowds gathered staring at us, many of the bystanders laugh and shout it back at me… fair enough. We rope in Alice, one of the local staff, and the security guys to help. Out of 10 takes, we get one or two shots we can use. It’s Tom’s first trip out of New Zealand, he seems to be taking it all in his stride… we’ll see.

Phill shooting in Mathare SlumPhill shooting in Mathare Slum

Filming in the slums definitely isn’t a walk in the park… we have all the usual hurdles of filming to get over… time, light conditions, crowd control, getting the kids to be natural, coupled with the intensity and slight edge of jeopardy that filming here creates… we have three armed guards with us as a precaution, but generally once people know what we are doing they are supportive. People here love a laugh and even in bad times have a real smile to share. 

At the end of the day we end up covered in mud and filth, filming has been sucessful and as we leave surrounded by a running escort of 100 laughing, shouting kids, waving like the Queen,  I know I can leave it behind, have a hot shower and a cold beer. I can drive out out of here. Half a million people can’t.

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