Sweeping your front yard to clean Mathare River

As a photojournalist I tend to veer off the path of regular schedules drawn by the search for freezing memories. On this Friday while reporting on some charity work to help a school in Mathare slums, I trailed off, as usual.

That morning as I arrived at the school where the organization was making donations, I saw a group of young men in gumboots and overalls ferrying garbage from a valley across. After the day’s work was over at noon, I chose to speak with them.

There is an exciting fervor of fear that hangs over the depths of informal settlements. One needs bravado to breach it, but you wouldn’t know what cigarette trade can unlock. I know buying a cigarette from a shop and a shared half-life can trigger conversations with anyone.

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I plotted my conversation as I crossed over a section of Mathare River that had a concrete bridge crossing. Below the river danced round a heap of garbage that slid off the hands of people who walked overbridged. The rusting iron sheet houses characterizing most part of the slum stood right over the edge of the river spewing plastic packaging and Uhuru bags into the grey muck carrying Nairobi’s refuse downstream.

On the opposite side, a green oasis painted into the background of refuse and tin shelters stood out. Using green painted old car tyres, the area looked deliberately demarcated to keep the trash out. It was forming clean pathways into a play area, a green space and thriving sprouts of wood and fruit trees.

As I crossed over the valley, the spectacle they had built across the river was amazing. They were removing trash from the valley and planting trees, creating the kind of cleanliness only possible in Kigali.

Rehabilitating Mathare River

The boys there were led by a dark youth Paul Otieno aka Oti. He led an Ital self-help group that has taken upon itself to rehabilitate a 500-metre stretch along the Mathare River. Rastafarianism and its ideas are distilled in the informal sector and it is only in such spirit that you get young people commit to clean up our trash because they would rather engage in their daily activity of clean-up instead of letting the garbage pile.

Someone once said that you do not have to sweep the whole world clean, just sweep your front yard clean and if everyone does the same, the whole world will be clean.

Oti and this group of young men were taking it literally. The team of self-help groups drawn from across Mathare, called Mathare Slum Community Association or MASCA have spent the past year sweeping their front yard, or river bank in this case, clean. But without funding and motivation, Oti says, most volunteers are drifting off.

“We started as volunteers to get rid of garbage. In the beginning, we started with around a dozen of small self-help groups drawn from Mathare. However, the work is daunting and currently only five groups remain,” Oti said.

The five groups that have soldiered on with the clean-up doing the bulk of MASCA rehabilitation work dividing roles amongst themselves. Oti acts as the chairman of the Itals which is specifically in charge of this site because it lies in their collective front yard. His own group is involved in something he calls garbage eradication.

Mathare River Cleaning
Chldren play along Mathare River oblivious of the health risks posed. [Photo/ Otiato Opali]

Unsafe disposal in urban river systems

Mathare River is part of the three rivers forming the Nairobi Rivers Basin, including Ngong River and Nairobi River. About 56 percent of the city’s population live in middle-class and informal settlements along banks of Nairobi rivers.

And those homes generate about 3,207 tonnes of waste per day, 20 percent of which is plastic according to UN-Habitat. Most of this trash ends up in the city rivers. Estimates say 50 percent of waste generated daily remains uncollected translating into widespread unsafe disposal in urban river systems.

For most Nairobi residents, the idea of cleaning ends at everyone’s front yards. Lawns kept trimmed and tenements washed, then the dust, plastic packaging and left over food goes into a black polythene bag and disappears from house front yards.

Smelly trucks pick them up and we collectively turn our noses and conscience away. Once in a while, we come across the ugly sight of gushing raw sewerage on city alleyways. And we can lament about runaway pollution. The flow of murky waters in Nairobi carries with it all manner of garbage. In extreme cases, it carries away human bodies and body parts.

The City residents have not only neglected the cleaning, but religiously continue to dump more garbage. Such waste always ends up downstream at Oti and his friends’ front yard. But as the young men spend their time and efforts to clear the garbage piling along riverbank in their hood only to wake up the next morning and find that the river has dumped more garbage.

Oti’s daily toil to clean Mathare River

Looking at Oti and his group’s daily toil to clean Mathare river and rehabilitate the river bank had me thinking of this Greek guy, one who toiled so hard without achieving mush because all his work ended up undone.

I asked Oti why anyone would engage it what looked like an exercise in futility. He said that the work had to start somewhere and someone had to do it.

And they had big dreams. The original idea was to get rid of the garbage at the dumpsite that had developed along the river and plant trees in the area. This solution rather straight forward proved problematic in execution, once the work got underway, they realized that people still had nowhere to dump their refuse and garbage would end up back at the same spot.

To solve this, they set up a dumping booth near the previous garbage site. This helps residents to drop the garbage at a central place before picking by county personnel once a week.

Initially, the city county collected rubbish intermittently but eventually stopped appearing in April. This left a new pile forming up at MASCA’s collection point and the challenge became how to manage this pile as they keep the previous dumpsite rehabilitated.

At the beginning of their activities, the community was skeptical, thinking that the group was fighting a losing battle. Today, what used to be a pile of garbage is turning into a mini-park with trees taking root, children playing in the open field and residents taking walks within and across the site. Through their efforts, a dumpsite is turning into a green space.

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Income for savvy environmentalists

I have heard of cases where volunteer groups like the one led by Oti stay in the business because this attracts donors who contribute money that not only aids in the cleaning but becomes a source of income for savvy environmentalists. I put this question to Oti and his response was a bemused laugh.

“Wapi? Uliskia wapi? Huku Mathare utaambiwa hizo ni story za jaba,” Oti said.

According to him, MASCA applies for grants and aid to facilitate their rehabilitation activities by writing proposals to donors detailing their intended activities but support has been miniscule. However, groups like the Mathare Social Justice Centre try to connect them with possible donors whenever possible.

“We also work with local schools which have been supporting our efforts. So far, the only regular support we receive is from Plan International which offers milk and bread to the team that is on site doing the clean up during weekdays. Otherwise, the little stipend we give to our cleaners is gleaned from the few money-generating activities put up by MASCA,” Oti, whose group runs a car wash business beside the reclaimed dumpsite said.

I learnt that MASCA has previously expressed interest to be officially enlisted under the Nairobi Rivers Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Program by the government. They were asked to forward 60 names from their members to be co-opted. They did this but have never heard from the government ever since.

A wholesome solution for Mathare River

Ironically, the project which is funded by an aid loan from the Africa Development Bank identifies Nairobi inhabitants especially ‘people living downstream’ as the main beneficiaries.

“There was a time UN Habitat visitors came and saw our work. To support us in earning a living as we continued with our work, they offered us a brick making machine. The machine has been helpful however, the main challenge is sourcing materials like sand and cement,” Oti said.

MASCA said their commitment has been rewarded by change in behavior among locals. After around three months collecting garbage, the community saw their determination. They started cooperating by adhering to dropping garbage at the designated collection spot and supporting the group.

According to Oti, the main challenge is getting a wholesome solution for Mathare River. This is because their exercise will not bear fruit if more garbage keeps ending up in the river. In addition, he said, slums should not be seen as the city’s lavatories.

“Do you know that all the sewers emptying into Mathare river do not carry sewage from Mathare toilets because most of Mathare’s residents do not have flushing toilets. In other words, it’s not just the garbage from rich people being dumped in the slums, even their sh** is directed towards us and we are left to deal with it,” he said.

That day after meeting Oti, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that his group was doomed into a vicious cycle. They are damned if you do and equally damned if they don’t. Otis group of dung beetles were pushing up our piles of garbage out of the water. But, we were busy throwing more tonnes of more garbage into the river.

Garbage always rolled back in

Oti’s group is not the first to take up the task of cleaning up the area and plant trees. And more garbage keep rolling back in.

That evening as we sat around a bottle of Gin, I broached the subject with my brother.

“Vipi Dau, unakumbuka story ya a certain Greek mwenye kazi yake ni ku-roll stone uphill but akifikisha hiyo stone huko juu, inaroll back downhill so lazima aanze kuiroll tena uphill?” I asked my bro.

“Ehh, ati Sisyphus,” he replied

“Baas, huyo. Nimekutana na maboyz fulani leo Mathare wakichapa job fulani wakanikumbusha Sysiphus,” I replied.

Sysiphus, that’s what I had tried all day to put a finger on since I met Oti, the leader of the garbage collectors turned Mathare River environmentalists. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was doomed to a fate of rolling a stone uphill after which it would roll down back downhill, and the cyclic process would start again.

After all is said and done it looks as though in the fashion of Sisyphus, MASCA, Itals and Oti will keep pushing the boulder up the hill hoping one day it stays there.

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