Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Not the ideal city but hopeful

I went today on a programme visit to a Nairobi slum.

They are tight packed, of corrugated iron houses, often owned by slum landlords with deep pockets and political connections. Narrow lanes wind between blocks of houses with dirt packed walkways now dry, later to be flowing mud. Rubbish is strewn everywhere including human waste, collected in 'flying toilets' - plastic bags with ties, dispensed with by hurling onto nearest designated (or customary) dump, hopefully.

They are violence wracked - both domestic that is amplified by the stresses of living in such uncertain and difficult circumstances, criminal as gangs proliferate; and, political as the tensions between political blocks remain, co-habiting uncomfortably in government.

Yet it is a place where hope emerges.

A cluster of youth groups who have come together to recycle plastic, navigating the perceptions of city government and the general  populace as idling sources of threat, to produce a credible source of income generation and a potential enterprise. They were full of dreams: realistic, robust and considered. They pressed the NGO facilitator hard on representation on the organizing committee (something we urged upon them) and for recognition that formal educational qualifications were not the only criteria for recruitment for NGO jobs. In this latter context, I said that though education was important (and on this I have multiple reservations) capabilities and informal skills could be equally so. (I think I scandalized some of the Oxfam African staff on this, many of whom have made significant sacrifices to secure their schooling)!

A group of women who have used $20 a month cash transfers to start small scale enterprises, often food related, outside their homes, weaning them off dependency on cash transfers and enabling them to go to bed, as a family, with full stomachs. They too dreamed dreams: one wished to be a singer, and demonstrated a beautiful voice, haunting sound, wracked by surrounding bustle and industry; another wanted to see her children and grandchildren through school. One or two had gone beyond simple trading and cooking to simple manufacturing, and I have a jar of peanut butter as evidence of her work, and hope.

Finally, a youth group who were setting up a bio-digester, providing toilet and washroom facilities and consuming human waste to make gas. At full utilization it could produce cooking gas (replacing damaging charcoal) for 600 homes. Toilets would fly no more and the waste product would be fertilizer. Above the washroom was a meeting room, where installing a satellite television and charging per match was to be a second source of income. I asked one of the elders of the group what happened if a 'bad person' joined the group. 'They become good,' he replied, 'by example'! I could believe him!

But outside this particular work, sponsored by us, the other sign of hope that strikes me again and again in these contexts is the children returning from school - in uniform - a defiance of order and hope in a grim setting. It is an affirmation of humanity, time may unwind it, but many will navigate their way through to lives honourably lived, and some dreams fulfilled.

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