My first week in Nairobi was a blur of traffic, exhaust, and crowded streets. My first thoughts were on how much more developed Nairobi was than Bamako, Mali (I spent a little over two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali.). Everyone seemed to be driving a car and wearing a suit. While looking for a secure apartment Christy (my fiancé and colleague) and I found that the rent was as much as where we live in the U.S.
We met with the Hakijamii; the organization we would be interning for. They help connect grassroots human rights organizations so that they can come together and clearly articulate their problems to the government. During our first week we visited two people’s settlements (slums). They were a stark contrast to downtown Nairobi. While downtown Nairobi has high rise buildings and clean wide streets and sidewalks, the people’s settlements have tiny mud houses and sewage running down narrow dirt paths (See pictures above and below). I had always heard about the inequality in Kenya, but you need to see it in person to truly appreciate the injustice.
On a visit to Korogocho people’s settlement we saw the Dandora dump (located inside Korogocho). The government is currently trying to clean up and move the dump to a new location. The 30-acre dump takes garbage that includes industrial and medical waste. A U.N. study found high levels of lead, mercury and cadmium at the site and surrounding slums in eastern Nairobi.
Another study was done to see if these high levels of toxins were affecting the local population. 328 children had their blood tested to evaluate the level of toxins. The results showed that half of the children tested exceeded the internationally accepted level of lead concentrations in their blood. Most of them suffer respiratory problems.
Cleaning up and moving the dump sounds great until you realize many people in Korogocho earn a living by selling things they find in the dump. We met one woman who was washing used plastic bags, collected from the dump, in the polluted Nairobi River to resell (See pic below). She explained that she would rather earn a living selling used plastic bags than become a prostitute like many women in her situation do. While the dump is unsanitary and leads to many problems in the settlement it also provides income for many of the residents. If the dump moves many of these people will lose their means of income.
Proponents of the move and clean up said that they would employ the people already working in the dumps to clean it up and will build a modern recycling facility which will later employ these same people working to clean up the site. The problem is that many of the promises made are not kept. We talked to some young men who were helping with the clean-up. They told us that they started the cleanup, but they had stopped because they were not being paid.
On Friday we went out to a bar with a Kenyan friend to celebrate the start of the world cup. After being in the people’s settlement earlier that day it was shocking to be in a bar watching a game on a large flat screen TV while drinking a beer. The beer cost two dollars, more than the woman washing trash bags could earn in a whole day. The bar was packed full of working Kenyan’s drinking and enjoying the night. I wondered how this could be? How can these two different worlds exist so close to one another?
Posted By Louis Rezac
Posted Jun 14th, 2010