Saturday September 29
Today I went to see the members of Jamii Bora in the Mathare slum. Nairobi 041

This is one of the most notorious slums in the world, although it is not even the largest in Nairobi. It’s infamous for its deplorable condiitons and violent crime. Most recently, it was the scene of clashes between the Mungiki gang and the police only three months ago. It is also the home of a great deal of Jamii Bora members. JB has commendably focused on the very poorest of the poor, those for whom access to microcredit is the most crucial and beneficial.

To summarize the situation, the Mungiki are a ruthless gang that was running the slum like a mafia. When people started to resist, the was a spate of killings and beheadings. When the police tried to enter the slum to crackdown on the violence, several of them were killed by armed men. Some of those killed had their heads left on a bridge in the center of the slum as a warning. The police were enraged and started a massive sweep of the slum. Unfortunately, as usually happens with these things, the Mungiki gang members fled and many innocent people took the brunt of the hard-arm tactics of the police. Apparently, the police were quite rough in trying to get the slumdwellers to identify Mungiki members; beating people and burning down houses. This eruption of violence was a very hard blow for the people who make their living with these small businesses. They are still in the process of recovery.

I don’t know what can be said about the slums that hasn’t been said before. I will try to simply share this experience in the hope that your connection to me, and reading these words, will reaify the idea of a slum and put a human face on the problem. Current estimates are that there are over one billion people living in slums around the world.1 There are almost 100,000 children, men and women in Mathare alone.

My first stop was the Mathare branch of Jamii Bora. Nairobi 037 This was the second branch that they opened. The staff greeted me warmly. I was waiting there for Wilson Maina, a Jamii Bora member, promoter and my guide for today. The staff were busy working on processing loan applications and membership requests.

Wilson showed up flashing his gleaming smile, as always. Wilson lives in the Mathare slum and he was once one of the most feared and sought-after criminal there. He became a thief when faced with no other options besides starving to death or stealing to live. He says, “I would rather die by a policeman’s bullet, than starve to death from poverty.” You see, being shot dead is quicker and more certain than the slow crush of grinding poverty. Jamii Bora was the only organization that had faith in him. When they took him in as a member, it changed his life.

Today, Wilson has three businesses and he is an important promoter of Jamii Bora. He takes visitors around the slums where he was formerly feared and is now respected. He is very personable and a gifted storyteller, despite the fact that he only learned English through classes at Jamii Bora.

Walking through the slums makes it obvious why everyone wants to leave. We ducked off the main road between corrugated tin shanties and arrived at this outlook of sorts. Nairobi 040Mathare slum is built in a small valley and from this vantage point one sees the ramshackle collection of roofs, too close together, in greys and browns. The ground is hard packed dirt with bits of plastic bags mixed throughout like fallen leaves. There are places where refuse is piled up. Goats scavenge through and children nearby are relieving themselves. There are toilets in the slum, but one has to pay to use them. They are nothing more than a hole in the ground through which you do your business. The waste flows directly into the Mathare river, but people still have to use that water for other things.

If one doesn’t have the money (2 KES) to pay for the use of the loo, or if it is night and the loo is too far away, the other option is called the flying toilet. Basically, one defecates into a plastic bag, ties it up and, when no one is looking, throws it as far away as possible. Where it lands is someone else’s problem.

I know that there was a pilot program to install a toilet that generated methane in a slum. (see here and pics here) The methane was to be used for heating. It was a great idea, but what apparently happened was that a local gang took over the facilities and extorted people who wanted to use it. Still, something like that, or a composting toilet, seems to me like it would be a great solution in places like Mathare. The problem with that reaction though is that you start trying to solve one problem in a place that is rife with them. Would that tiny bit of improvement of the quality of life really helpful? Or are we putting a band-aid on the gaping wound that is the slums?

While at this viewpoint, I met a Dr. Joseph Matano Osoo who runs a clinic in Mathare. He is a member of Jamii Bora and he is actually running for public office to represent the slum. He is positive about the future for Mathare, and he sees Jamii Bora as an important component in that growth.

Nairobi 044We went down the slope to a road and the home/shop of Beatrice Ndung’u. She runs a small shop and sells sodas wholesale to other smaller shops in the slums. She was one of the original 50 beggars that started Jamii Bora with Ingrid Munro. She started with a small green grocery, then graduated to bringing crates of sodas to sell to other shops. Now, she is successful enough that she no longer has to carry the crates on her own back. Her husband, who worked as a porter before, now helps her with the shop. Behind her shop is the one room that she calls home. She shares it with her husband, and younger children. She owns the house, but she says that she can be kicked out at a moment’s notice. Before she was living with her family in a rented house that was only 10′ x 10′. We sat in her “living room” and had a soda while she told me of her life before and after Jamii Bora.

Beatrice has worked hard and seen the rewards. Now, she dreams of moving out of the slum to the town that Jamii Bora is building in Kaputei. Her only concern about leaving is the disruption to her business. She is already thinking of changing her business entirely to adapt to the new environment. I think whatever she does, it will work out. She is pretty savvy.

We walked to the other side of the slum to see Beatrice Ng’endo . Along the way we passed some other JB members. We also crossed the bridge where those policemen’s heads had been left. An interesting touristic note.

The Mathare river is clogged with trash. Along the banks there are some guys who have set up stills to make a moonshine called chaana. Nairobi 051The stuff is very strong and potentially lethal. In addition to methanol poisoning (which can only cause blindness, psychosis and death, after all) they also sometimes mix in other chemicals sometimes with their own dangers. These guys are not too fond of being photographed since it is illegal to brew this stuff. Later, while I was photographing these kids playing by the river, the chaana brewers nearby called out something to the effect of “what the hell are you doing?” Thankfully, Wilson responded for me and effectively defused the situation.

Beatrice Ng’endo invited us to take some chai when we arrived at her house. She is an amazing woman, I think. She has 12 grandchildren whose parents have all died from AIDS. She is the only one left to look after them all. Since joining Jamii Bora she has built up several diverse businesses, a salon, a shop, and a stone building with apartments in it that she rents. Her current situation is not an entirely happy one though and it illustrates one of the problems of microfinance. While microfinance can be a powerful tool, it is also based on the ever-changing conditions of the market. Beatrice’s stone complex (that she has built and rebuilt over years) recently had the electricity cut off from it. Not because she didn’t pay the bill, it just stopped working. That meant that she couldn’t rent out any of the rooms that she has there. The salon is also out of commission because of this. To top it all off, her shop was robbed by force recently and now remains closed. So, she has gone from three businesses to none – well she owns a little shop that sells french fries (they’re good!) and she has just started raising chickens, so “none” isn’t accurate. Still, it is quite a shock for her to overcome. Microcredit depends on business and business depends on the vagaries of the market and, in some way, the whole world. So acts of god and utility companies come into play.

Still, Beatrice has definitely seen a drastic improvement in her quality of life since starting with Jamii Bora. Her resiliency in the face of these challenges is a testament not only to her resolute character, but also to her entrepreneurial acumen. Wouldn’t you say?

Beatrice Ng'endo (far right) with her workers in the chip shopWe sat down for some french fries in her shop. The fryer oil is heated using charcoal or wood. They call them “chips” in the British style. I had some of this tomato sauce that they have for customers. One bowl is the spicy stuff and one bowl is nothing more than crushed tomatoes, I think. I took the hot stuff with the thought that chilies can probably kill any bacteria that might disagree with me. I’m of the school that drops the grenade into the foxhole to clear it out rather than being really careful about what goes in in the first place. And it was really good. (The lunches served in the office come with some of this stuff, called kachumbari, on the side. It’s very similar to Mexican salsa and tasty.)

They thought it was really funny when I started using the words for “no” and “small” that I had picked up through Wilson’s translating. And I guess it was sort of funny too, because these words that I was repeating were not Swahili, but Kikuyu. The Kikuyu are the most numerous tribe in Kenya and I have run into my fair share of them. So, sometimes I’m straining to catch on of the few words I know in Swahili from a conversation and then I find out that it’s in Kikuyu. I actually know about three words in Kikuyu now. (which are taking up Swahili vocab slots, thank you very much) So, when I saw Beatrice’s old house and remarked that it was “kirini” – small, the same word used to describe how much of the hot sauce I wanted on my chips – my little entourage broke out laughing. Then they asked me where I learned Kikuyu.

We saw a few more Jamii Bora members afterwards, including Wilson’s mother who livesWilson Maina and his family near his house. Wilson himself still lives in a one-room house despite all the successes he has had. He shares the small space with his wife and his son, seen in the picture. He is dreaming of the new houses being built in the Kaputei project. It is an infintely better place to have a family and raise children.

We made our way back to the branch office. On one slope of the valley there were some pipes drizzling a constant stream of muck as we climbed the other side. I don’t even know where the influx for them was, but the effluent was rather nasty. Little kids got very excited about the mzungu in their midst as we walked through. They started in with their HOWareYOU, HOWareYOU chants. That and the cries of “Yesu!” i.e. Jesus.

When we got back to the Jamii Bora branch, the guard was very friendly and wanted me to join him and his family for lunch. But I had to leave. I had actually meant to take my hosts out for lunch. But the timing wasn’t right and they were thinking that they had to get me back to the city, so it didn’t work out. Another missed opportunity to be magnanimous.

Oddly, I went out that night for my first taste of Nairobi nightlife. It was essentially the same as a night out anywhere else. Bars with loud music. One place had a pool table, but neither had a real dance floor. People just danced between the tables. I had a good time out with some of “the boys,” but it made for a strange contrast with the events of the morning. It left me very tired, spiritually, by the end of the day.

Whew. So, that was the Saturday before last. As I said, it was a doozy. There is a lot of stuff that I haven’t put in here. I’ve gone on too long as it is. I hope that you’ve gotten a sense of what I’ve seen.