Making a Shanty Town More Livable

Nairobi (WFS) The ledge above Mathare looks down on a staggering beehive of rusted and crumbling corrugated iron roofs, held down by stones. As one descends the precarious footholds and enters the slum by way of a creaky bridge over a stream whose colour suggests pollution, it seems that hell has claimed a new outpost.

Mathare is less than a 30-minute drive from Nairobi's dazzling architectural wonders, well-laid neighbourhoods, clipped hedges and splendid gardens. It is an abject slum settlement wrenched out of a disused quarry on government-owned land. Its sardine-packed, makeshift houses are reportedly home to at least 20,000 marginalized people. "I had nowhere else to go when I came to the city," says one.

However, the story of Mathare is not just one of dirt, squalor, disease and hopelessness. It is also the story of resilience, and the indomitable spirit of a group of people who are trying desperately to brighten their corner of the world. The group is Wapenda Afya Bidi Women/Community Self Help Group (WAB). They are assisted by a Nairobi-based NGO, the Development Alternatives Network (DAN).

WAB's chairperson is Lydiah Nyambura Kinyua, 32, a mother of six. She trained as a nursery school teacher after completing her primary education, and now runs her own nursery in Mathare. Five years ago she and a few other women decided to do something about their dismal situation. They started the self-help group. "If we don't help ourselves nobody else will," Kinyua says simply.

Barefoot children line the narrow, wet tracks separating the hovels of what Kinyua calls "the village." Structures exist wherever there is space, with no thought of access for vehicles or even a breeze. Most of the time a visitor either has to duck or walk sideways.

The only evidence that city authorities have noticed the community's plight are two public toilets whose systems collapsed long ago. The refuse everywhere, the excreta by the stream and the flies hovering over uncovered food items on sale give an indication of the problem at hand. There is no electricity, and the source of clean water is a tap owned by individuals who open it to those who have money. Prices depend on the supply.

With DAN's help, a programme has been put into place to improve sanitation and reduce the incidence of disease. First on the agenda was waste management: every morning women from the self-help group manually clean the two broken toilets. Thanks to the daily clearing, barefoot children have less risk of picking up diseases. The incidence of dysentery, diarrhoea and worms has been reduced by at least 30 per cent in recent months, says Pontianus M. Nthuli who oversees DAN's training wing. A child health monitoring project has improved the chances of survival of children in Mathare. Mothers have learned to weigh their children regularly as a way of monitoring their health.

Among DAN's priorities are a training programme to enable the self- help group to organize itself properly, teach it survival skills, and set its own agenda: water and sanitation; child health, family planning and drug-abuse control.

The NGO's intervention has brought the WAB crucial recognition, Nthuli notes."They feel recognized, people now know about them." One result is that the traditional chief of the Mathare area has allocated land to the settlement for a community pharmacy, and the City Council has agreed to provide 15 water pumps to be operated by the women.

Copyright 1995, Women's Feature Service