Five years ago I was invited to visit a primary school in a Nairobi slum called Korogocho, which offered a special three-year course to its pupils, to teach them some English, Swahili, Mathematics and religious knowledge. Only three years because the children couldn’t be expected to stay longer; in fact, the school considered itself lucky to have the children there at all.
Why? It was because they were aged between 13 and 20 years, and had been enticed there from the shacks and alleyways of the slum. Korogocho had a bad name. I was warned not to go there; I’m glad I did.
The school had three classrooms made of mud and wattle. The class of the oldest group was half empty and the students were all girls; we were told it was NAS (Nairobi Airport Services) day, and the boys had gone to the nearby Dandora dump-site with knives to fight over food left there, unconsumed on flights entering Nairobi’s international airport.
When the dump began fifty years ago Dandora was comfortably outside Nairobi, a waste ground. Now it is completely surrounded by slum settlements, an eyesore, and a disgrace to the city and a health hazard to one million people. It is still the only dump serving the whole of Nairobi, and receives more than 2,000 tonnes of fresh rubbish each day.
The dump itself is a horrendous sight, a huge mountain of unprocessed chemical, hospital, industrial, agricultural and domestic waste. It smokes constantly like an active volcano, or a scene from Dante’s Inferno. From quite close we could see emaciated figures of young men groping around in the acrid mist, rummaging for food, or anything of use. That is their life, shortened by exposure to pollution, drugs, glue-sniffing, sexual abuse, and illnesses like typhoid, cholera, HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria to which they eventually succumb. Most of them are children of single mothers. Wasted man-power reduced to the life of a wild animal.
In recent years several local NGOs have sprung up to provide basic humanitarian assistance to people like this, instruct them in their rights and help them campaign for them. The central government has effectively forgotten them.
KUTOKA Network is such a group, consisting of clergy and lay-people from four local Catholic parishes. The call for the relocation of the dump began in earnest in 2001; since then the city authorities have done nothing but make promises. Nairobi has a government ministry to look after the beautification of the city, and in the past two years has dome wonders in the better areas, widening and repairing roads, building pedestrian pavements, planting trees and flowers, and making public places safe. But officially the slums don’t exist; they are referred to as “informal settlements”, which means they don’t enjoy services such as running water, sewage, electricity, proper roads, police stations, recreational facilities, and permanent buildings such as schools and hospitals. In other words, probably at least two and a half million of Nairobi’s more than four million residents “do not exist”. Geographically this is almost true, since they live on only 5 per cent of the total land.
KUTOKA (Swahili for Exodus) and other groups are campaigning for basic demands on 10th December, World Human Rights Day. These are: an immediate closure of the dump and its relocation to a non-residential area; a definite policy for waste management; recycling infrastructures; formal employment for the people working around the dump-site, and reclamation and de-contamination of the Dandora area. That would be a good start.
Martyn Drakard is a freelance writer based in Uganda and Kenya.