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17 - 24 May 2006 
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“Growing” Wealth in a Mega Slum

Thomas Johansson
“I like to see change. I like to boost initiative. I am always activated to see something happening. Confronted by this litter and sanitation problem, I asked myself, what I can do together with the people?” says Thomas Johansson, a former family doctor in Norway. Thomas is transforming the garbage problem in the largest slum in East and Central Africa into lucrative business for the community.


It is possible that you have never been to Kibera. Large pools of dirty greyish- brown water, sometimes green with algae surrounds the stinking mounds of garbage that litter Kibera slum. Walking along the railway line early in the morning, steaming hills of human refuse parade on the tracks. If they are not on the tracks, they are on the paths. If not on the path, you won’t miss them on top of the rickety roofs, brown with age. This combined with food remnants thrown haphazardly produce a pungent smell that makes flies regular pilgrims in the area.


Health experts have warned of the impending dangers of many people in the area contracting disease. When the slum residents are not queuing for long hours at water points in the dry season, they are fighting to save their earthly belongings from being submerged in streams that run through their houses during the rain season. Every morning Kibera residents file past Nyayo Highrise Estate, now a middle class residence that is rumored to have been earmarked for slum dwellers.


Amidst this gloom however, the residents exhibit admirable business resilience. If they are not working in the country’s industrial area, they are selling wares from secondhand clothes, foodstuffs, books to paraffin. Others have established day care centers where they take care of children whose parents have gone to work as some engage in blacksmithing. Barely two years since Thomas arrived in Kenya and opted to tap into the slum dwellers’ initiative to solve their own problems; he has witnessed his Ghetto Development Center (GDC) expand in business.


“The people of Kibera are quite welcoming. Whenever I walk within the slums, little children run out of their houses and shout: How are you? How are you? You can’t experience the same in Norway. People live lonely lives and mind their own business. In Kibera people can stop and share ideas,” Thomas says.


After interacting with various community based groups in the region, he discovered that refuse was posing a big problem to them. The Ghetto Development Center (GDC) with a motto: Make the Slums Beautiful is out to support development in the slums by improving sanitation through enhanced garbage collection, supply of clan drinking water and finding creative ecological and economic solutions to slum problems.  “When I tried to register this organization with the help of a lawyer, he swindled me of Ksh. 60 000 and never did anything. Nevertheless, it is now registered,” adds Thomas.


Its recent activity was a clean up competition that involved ten CBOs from Silanga, Lindi, Makina, Soweto, Mashimoni and Laini Saba. It entailed identifying very dirty “villages” and allocating them to competing groups to have them cleaned over a specified time period. The GDC board that comprises of five women and four men made several impromptu inspections in the villages at different times to measure the progress. The groups then gathered in Glory Worship Center to give an account of what they did, the problems they encountered and how they solved them. The winners were awarded assorted prizes that cost Ksh. 20,000.


Already several groups have bought the vision and are doing cleaning activities. The Lindi group for instance collects garbage from households who in turn pay Ksh 20 per week for the services. While some groups recycle plastic bottles, hard plastic and metal, another one is already working on converting the waste into manure for sale. Papers and plastic bags today are a large part of the visible garbage in Kibera. Due to lack of rooms to deposit, they are thrown everywhere causing problems to Nairobi dam.


“There is need for creation of space for recycling activities. This could be solved by buying some houses and replacing them with better two storey temporary buildings thus creating free space between them given the fact that nobody owns title in Kibera. This will enable roads to be constructed within the slums hence making movement of goods and help easier in cases of emergency,” says Bishop Sammy, GDC’s Vice chairperson. GDC is working towards ensuring that the rusted iron sheets in the slums are replaced with new ones to facilitate cheap water catchment.


For the past few months, residents have watched with great surprise as groups within the slum organize themselves to contribute to activities that enhance cleanliness and development. The greatest test for their initiative is the necessary support required to ensure sustainability of the project. While this will call for involvement of various stakeholders like AMREF, it is clear that unpleasant conditions surrounding them can be changed by themselves.


“Many organizations have imposed projects on people. This makes the people not to own the initiatives hence leading to the collapse of the projects. It is good to involve people in the initiation and growth of a venture. In that manner, they will nurture it as their own,” advises Thomas. Encouraging still, GDC intends to promote the planting of trees in the slum. During the cleaning competition, Laini Saba area chief planted a tree to mark what she called “a new era of hygiene in Kibera”, thanks to the GDC..


“I think that if all people who have been involved in corruption in the government would pledge to offer a substantial amount of the money towards the development of marginalized areas, they should be forgiven. I look forward to a day when Kibera shall be a Garden of Eden in Nairobi’, quips Thomas.


By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer

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