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Speeding Up…

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 22nd, 2011 | Africa

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Meetings are picking up around Nairobi for me, and posts are in the works to explain all of them.  Yesterday, I met with Ngazi ya Chini and was able to speak to some people who will be affected by the relocation (unfortunately they were a bit camera-shy, but I snapped some photos after the interviews - with permission of course!).  Today, I met with a group called Soweto Forum, dedicated to righting the injustices of the government’s slum upgrading program.  After that, I met with the Executive Director of Pamoja Trust and gained a bit of perspective on the entire project, including the Relocation Action Plan and how the railroad expansion is actually going to unfold.

Additionally, my director, Iain Guest, will be on his way to Kenya in ten short days, and I have been getting to know this beautiful country better - including a short safari in the Maasai Mara last week and a day trip into the Rift Valley tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to sharing all of the above.  But in a little bit of time.

Also of note, Pamoja Trust released a progress report on the relocation, which included a timeline for the remainder of the project.  The construction phase (that would be demolition) is set to begin in November OF THIS YEAR.  That’s pretty soon for my scale, but considering the first eviction notices were handed out in 2004, it must feel like the end of the longest waiting game ever to all the railway dwellers.

I leave you with these interesting and related stories.  My flatmate this summer has listened to my railroad jabber all along, and she kindly sent me these two about life along the tracks:

People in Indonesia using the railroad for its healing powers.

This market in Thailand:

And a project I have been obsessed with before Kenya was even a possibility in my mind.  Little did I know this area, Kisumu Ndogo, would become my most familiar area in Kibera, and the remnants of the photo project are still around.  See more here.

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Kristen Maryn | Posted July 20th, 2011 | Africa

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The railroad expansion will affect an area much broader than just Kibera.  Kibera gets a lot of attention for various reasons, but it is important to remember the other populations, which will also be displaced.  This includes communities in Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, and Mukuru, a settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi.

On July 14th, the secretary of Ngazi ya Chini picked Sally, the Hakijamii intern, and me up from the office, and we started the drive to Mukuru.  Mukuru is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside of Nairobi.  The population estimates for the entire area range, but normally fall around the half million mark.  From what I can gather, Mukuru is Kiswahili for “dumping site,” and that is exactly what Mukuru started as – and to a large extent, still remains.  The area started as a quarry; as Nairobi developed faster than its means, due to the mining, the site was deemed as unfit for development, so instead it became a garbage dump.

The trip back to the car
The trip back to the car

As abandoned resources grew, people scavenged the dump more and more and began building their homes in the area.  The Mukuru settlement was born.  The area is still heavily industrial, and the buildings now center on the railroad, the old quarry, and manufacturing sites.  Large lorries carrying dirt and rocks, apparently for a purpose, frequent the roads, though that purpose remains unseen for the casual visitor.

Land of Industry
Land of Industry

The settlement faces the same issues as the others; tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS are common, life expectancy hovers around 40 years, the population density is something like 50,000 per square mile, and the average income is around $1 a day.

The Walk
The Walk


We were dropped off at a roundabout near the settlement in an industrial area, and there we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Waited long enough for this mzungu to sunburn under a winter sun (granted, that is not new to me).  We eventually realized we had been plopped down on the opposite end of the settlement from the community meeting, so we began to walk.

I followed the lead of the community, using the railroad as a path.  The other options were to walk through standing wastewater or on dirt frequently used as a makeshift toilet, so the threat of moving for a rumbling train was worth it (only two come through a day – a figure the government wants to increase).  The further into Mukuru we walked, the closer the structures crept toward the railroad.  Especially once we made it to one of the market sections of the settlement, the railroad and the market became inextricable.

Market Central
Market Central

More Vendors
More Vendors

I was not as comfortable in Mukuru as I have been in other areas (can you really be comfortable in the settlements, as an outsider?).  Maybe it was because my community liaison is not a member of the community (he is from Kibera), or maybe it was because the slum was so far out of Nairobi, it didn’t seem to be frequented by visitors.  I normally use children as a benchmark, and the children of Mukuru tended to either hide from my gaze or glare at me suspiciously.  It also didn’t help that adults yelled things at me more than I had encountered anywhere else in Kenya, and one woman conveniently tossed her trash into the sewage at my feet.  The community, though, was thriving and lively, and it was easy to see how entrenched the railroad has become as an everyday part of life.

Children of Mukuru
Children of Mukuru

The meeting took place in a community of Mukuru called Sinai, an area where the buildings relax their grip on the railroad.  Within the first ten minutes of the meeting, a bare engine rumbled by, shaking the corrugated metal siding and drowning out the voices of the facilitators.  Just part of the reality of life here.  The participants in the meeting were impassioned and emphatic, and it was obvious this would be one of the livelier meetings I had attended; few people were able to speak uninterrupted.  I received brief translations, and it became apparent that Mukuru had not mobilized behind a single leader, and there was discontent about the current status of organization.

Pamoja Trust plays a murky role in the relocation, as it was a key contributor to the writing of the Relocation Action Plan (read as: they were hired by Kenya Railways), but they also play a key role as rights protectors in the settlements.  Things get even more complicated because certain members of Pamoja have shifted around and created a new organization, charging themselves with responsibilities too cannily similar to be pure coincidence.  Opiata, the ED of Hakijamii, told me afterwards that it would take months to catch up on the intricacies of these organizations’ interplays and roles.  Needless to say, the community seems divided, and my experience at the meeting was cut short as the two groups came to a head and fighting broke out.  Sally was quick to react when the tension started rising and ushered me out of the building.

My overall impression was simply that the community does not seem ready to move at the pace that is necessary to respond to the RAP.  Implementation is imminent, yet they cannot rally behind a figurehead, or even yet, an organization.  Kibera faces similar issues, but not nearly so polarized.  From what I have read on successful inspections on World Bank programs, unity is necessary, and a lot of the settlements’ strength rests in their sheer numbers.  Thousands of people are hard to ignore, especially when they speak with one voice.


**Also of note, due to government cutbacks, Hakijamii is losing a long-time and committed international donor.  They have to restructure and reevaluate programs for the next three years, which could have a terrible ripple effect in the settlements.  If anyone knows any organizations active in securing economic, social, and cultural rights in developing nations, send them our way!

2 Responses to “Mukuru”

  1. Kristen Maryn says:

    Hi Christy! A woman who used to work for Pamoja started her own organization (the name escapes me…and I can’t find any info online), and now both are lobbying for control, influence and support. It seems the main argument is about who gets to be the “voice” for Mukuru; they were calling for an election right then and there to settle it.

    I suppose we can just hope they get it settled soon, so they don’t offer contradicting responses to KRC.

  2. Christy Gillmore says:

    I’d like to hear more about which groups of people were fighting when you were in Mukuru. Were you able to pick up on any reasons why? What you say is so true about the need to unite in order to overcome the injustices of big infrastructure projects like these that are serving big interests. I feel that Kenya Railways is sort of counting on the divisions among the railway dwellers to continue uninterrupted with the project.

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Kibera Paper Continued

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 15th, 2011 | Africa

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As a quick addendum to the blog I wrote a few days ago, I was able to compile the videos I took of the card-making process.  So here are the women of Kibera Paper showing me how it’s done.

All I know is my sister and I never made anything out of recycled paper quite as nice as they do (no offense, Ash.).

Photos of my trip to Mukuru and an introduction to Beatrice to come soon!

One Response to “Kibera Paper Continued”

  1. [...] Excerpt from: Advocacy Project Blogs – Kibera Paper Continued « Kristen Maryn … [...]

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Entrepreneurship and Craft in Kibera

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 13th, 2011 | Africa

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This blog is more than just a travelogue, as my goal is to attempt to delve into the complexities of housing rights…the fight to fix them, the Kenyan Government, IGOs, development plans, indigenous populations, and diminishing resources…but still to present Kenya through my eyes.

This is a great opportunity to explore a beautiful and diverse country (and people), whose image has been marred by unfortunate events and nicknames like “Nairobbery.”  Kenya is more than safaris (though what an amazing experience, right??) and Obama, just as the settlements are more than human suffering and bleak conditions.  I had told myself before getting to Kenya that I want to show what life is like here.  So in addition to showing the inequality and despair of the settlements, I was going to make a concerted effort to show more of the culture and hope that comes out of them, too.  Because, let’s face it, you don’t find a lack of culture and personality anywhere in Kenya – in Mombasa, Turkana, the Mara, or the settlements.

So then there is Kibera.  Kibera takes on many faces, depending on who you talk to.  To government officials, it is an eyesore and a problem (but also votes).  To people from other areas, it is a place filled with trouble-makers and whiners (“Just look at how they rip up the railroad at the slightest instigation!  They are babied by the government,” they say).  To the people of Kibera, it is home.  One look at the Kibera News Network site gives a glimpse of all the community-building, encouraging, and cultural things to come out of Nairobi’s biggest settlement.  Fashion shows, picnics, and artisans all abound in the area.

People just seem not to look for these aspects of life, or maybe they are overshadowed by the extreme poverty.  We have a tendency to be fascinated with human suffering – the train-wreck effect.  We can’t look away.  Life in these settlements is so hard for us to comprehend – “us” being the typical Westerner,  we focus on those aspects that make us feel pity, even make us feel compelled to act, to pressure for change, or just to give thanks for our own status in life.  Isn’t this the main compulsion behind the slum tours mentioned before (here and here)?  I am not saying that this is bad, necessarily; actually, it is amazing that despite thousands of miles, differences in culture and language, we can still feel connected to each other through the human aspect.  True, life in these settlements is hard.  It is dangerous.  It is inequitable, and there can be a sad complacency for their “lot in life,” but there is also that resiliency.  These are still people, and they are beautiful and diverse and active.  They don’t lose that because they live in a slum.


My first week in Kenya, while perusing an ex-pat haven of a market, I came across a group of women selling cards.  Their tent was bare, not filled with the marketing ploys and gimmicks of the other more savvy artisans.  They simply had two boxes of cards and a sign.  The cards were beautiful, hand-painted on recycled paper, each signed by the woman who put the time into its creation, each artist a woman of Kibera.  After doing some research on Kibera Paper, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it calls my own base of Kenyatta Market home.  And then I was even more pleasantly surprised to find that Hakijamii’s resident part-time office assistant, Beatrice, also used to work at Kibera Paper.

St. Luke's Kenyatta Parish
St. Luke's Kenyatta Parish

On two separate days, Beatrice clasped my hand in hers and marched me across the street to St. Luke’s Kenyatta Parish to introduce me to her other “family.”  The women of Kibera Paper are sweet, welcoming, and humble.  The operation, started in 2001, is tiny and shares space with the church and with a school, but it employs 24 women, single mothers and widows, and allows them the flexibility of a steady wage – to pay for rent, dinner, and school fees.  Most of these women have worked for Kibera Paper for 7+ years.

Office at Kibera Paper
Office at Kibera Paper

Spreading out the Paper
Spreading out the Paper

Recycled Paper
Recycled Paper

The idea is simple, but resourceful – take scraps of office paper off of business’ hands.  Turn it into a pulp, dye it, turn it back into paper, and personalize it as a Kenyan piece of art.  And for 100 shillings each (around $1.20), they are cheaper than any greeting card I’ve seen in Target.




Like Kazuri Beads, Kibera Paper saw an opportunity to help a marginalized and vulnerable group, single mothers, empowered them to learn a skill, and improved, at least slightly, the monthly income they bring home.  They are not receiving hand-outs.  No one I have met from Kibera has ever asked for a hand-out.  They are making an honest living and are happy for that.

3 Responses to “Entrepreneurship and Craft in Kibera”

  1. Kristen Maryn says:

    Pegah! You have a resident courier, who will be back in DC in 4 weeks…just let me know. :)

  2. Pegah says:

    What a lovely idea! I just took a look at the website and found a few I really like. I’m just curious as to what shipping would be like from Kenya to the US! Nonetheless it’s a fantastic idea thanks for sharing!

  3. Pegah says:

    What a lovely idea! Do you know if they have any interest in selling these outside of Kenya? I know I would love to purchase these and use them as unique one of a kind postcards or on my wall.

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There is no such thing as too many baby elephants. Or AP Fellows.

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 5th, 2011 | Africa

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A quick diversion from work, in honor of 4th of July.  This weekend, Charlotte and Cleia took a break from Enoosean to relax in the city.  Relaxing in Nairobi sounds counter-intuitive, but when you are coming from the Maasai bush, hot showers and grocery stores are welcome.  So finally, the Kenya branch of AP was united.

Kenya AP Fellows
Kenya AP Fellows

On Sunday, after convincing Cleia to join us, we made the trek down to Nairobi National Park near Karen and tried to make friends with the baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.  The orphanage takes in and rehabilitates orphaned elephants until they can be released into the wild – typically in Tsavo National Park.  For most, this takes over ten years, and there are different levels of care and human interaction the elephants receive, depending on their age.

The orphanage opens its doors to the public every morning (and evening if you decide to “foster” an elephant) and presents its babies to everyone (you can see profiles of the babies on the website!).  It is informal and comfortable (minus the jostling of wzungu), and the trainers encourage the elephants to interact with the crowd.  By the end of the hour, even Cleia had joined Team Baby Elephant.  There were quite a few squeals of joy among us.  And hundreds of photos.

The first group was the babiest of the babies (the Nursery Herd), including 9-month old Naipoki (wearing the blanket – meant to reduce the risk of pneumonia).

The Nursery Herd
The Nursery Herd


The second group was older, around 2 to 3 years old.  This is right when they start developing tusks and about the age they get weened off the milk.

The Elder Herd
The Elder Herd

Feeding Time
Feeding Time

The bond between the elephants and the keepers was incredible and enviable (at least for me).

Follow the Leader
Follow the Leader

Handy Arm Rest
Handy Arm Rest

A highlight was definitely the dog-pile that ensued right before the babies were led out.  What hams!

The Dog-pile Begins
The Dog-pile Begins

The orphanage does not discriminate and has rescued countless other animals, including a baby black rhino, which due to its blindness, was abandoned by its mother.

Baby Black Rhino
Baby Black Rhino

Mama Baboon
Mama Baboon

We also discovered this baboon family, complete with a baby hanging onto the mom’s belly (Dad had already run into the trees).  The mom was none too interested in us, which was probably for the better.  As the center is situated in Nairobi National Park, getting there requires driving through land still controlled by animals…including lions.  So we were quickly ushered back into the car.

I really enjoyed getting to know Cleia and Charlotte; it was great to hear about their experiences with the Kakenya Center.  I am looking forward to eventually getting to see Enoosean to get a feel for Maasai life, but it was also nice to share mine with them.

As always, more photos are available on Flickr.

2 Responses to “There is no such thing as too many baby elephants. Or AP Fellows.”

  1. iain says:

    Let’s hear it for the animals! You’re just a big softy. (But we all feel so sorry for the blind baby rhino…) As for those three girls in the top photo: give them a banana! Glad that you could relax: you need the break.

  2. Pegah says:

    What a lovely post, Kristen! I’m very glad to hear that all of the AP Kenya girls were able to take a day off to get to know one another and to share such a wonderful experience together.

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A (Brief) History of the Railroad Expansion and Its Woes

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 4th, 2011 | Africa

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The history of the railroad expansion really starts with the history of Nairobi.  It was founded in 1899 in the middle of a swamp.  Breaking the distance between Mombasa (on the coast) and Kampala, Uganda, it was established because of the railroad, founded as a depot.  Six years after its founding, it became the capital of the British protectorate and then the capital of newly independent Kenya in 1963.

Independence increased the boom of urbanization, and the city centers began to swell.  Nairobi’s population more than doubled ten years after independence, and now its population sits at over three million.  The slum creation can be traced back to urbanization; the infrastructure of the city could not handle such a rapid influx of people; the people could not handle the high cost of living.  The general consensus is that there are 183 informal settlements or slums in Nairobi, which hold anywhere from 40 to 60% of the city’s population.  A Shack/Slum Dweller International (SDI) report estimates that 63% of the land dedicated to the settlements sits on public land that has been privatized since the particular slum came into existence.  The rest of the land is public land, either contested or uncontested.  The 60 meters of railway corridor in Kibera and Mukuru count as contested public land.

And that’s what the disputed land is, just a corridor of 60 meters – that’s 100 feet on either side of the railway – that stretch along 11km of track.  But the track has become an everyday part of life for these people; some traders literally sell their wares on the track, simply moving off when a train goes by.  It is a road, a community hub.  And while 60 meters doesn’t sound like a lot, the Relocation Action Plan (RAP) counts that there are over 4,600 homes, 4,300 businesses, 280 institutions (including churches, medical clinics, and schools), and 790 public facilities situated in those 60 meters.  And it seems to treat these figures as trivial.  The people of Ngazi Ya Chini, on the other hand, think those estimates are low.  It seems like not much has changed in a year…

The story behind Ngazi Ya Chini can be found on Christy’s and Louis’ blogs.

Here are the basics of the issues.  The expansion is going to happen, and it is scheduled to conclude in 2012.  The community is now trying to form a resettlement plan that is fair.   Or at least respond to the inaccuracies of the most recent RAP.  The World Bank’s Operating Policy 4.12 governs this. Hands down, no questions…it must be followed.

Ngazi Ya Chini
Ngazi Ya Chini

They want to be consulted.

OP 4.12 requires that those affected by the resettlement are consulted and participate in the planning and implementation.  As far as Ngazi Ya Chini is concerned, this has not happened.

They want equitable resettlement.

OP 4.12 also requires that the people who are involuntarily resettled be returned to a standard of living equal to that of their pre-displacement levels.  This includes their businesses, homes, communities, facilities, etc.  The RAP is vague on a lot of the actual plans, but the community wants the same amount of space for their homes and businesses.  If they had 6 meters for their home previously, it does not seem equitable to cram them into 3 meters.

The resettlement will disrupt markets.

Many of the venders along the routes have been there for years.  And the track is a prime location; it provides easy access, it is easy to find, it is established as a market area with captive consumers.  The traders who will be displaced will have a hard time rebuilding such a market.

The resettlement will disrupt community structures.

This plan will separate families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.  With two large walls planned, as well, it will also effectively sever the neighborhood, making one into two.  Compensation for this sort of loss is hard to measure.

The RAP has holes.

There are many issues left up in the air, such as the actual plan, the amount of space, the available retained land for resettlement, the school issues…the list goes on.  The methodology alone is murky.  And as mentioned, Ngazi Ya Chini questions the actual data.

The government does have some valid reasons for the resettlement.  The trains are dangerous.  At least three derailments have occurred in the past two years.  The tracks are over a hundred years old and easily uprooted, which has turned into a protest tool for some residents.  The trains are running inefficiently, as they can only go around 12 mph through the crowded slums.  The uprooting stops the trains entirely, and capacity is decreasing, rather than increasing.  Maintenance crews have a tough lot, falling sick regularly, as many times the tracks become waste heaps for everything from scraps to human excrement.

That being said, the process needs to adhere to the stated guidelines.  A few solid bargaining points for the government does not excuse a shirking of accountability.  Especially when it comes to the Relocation Action Plan.  Because at a certain point, isn’t this all the Bank is going off of?

5 Responses to “A (Brief) History of the Railroad Expansion and Its Woes”

  1. Karin says:

    Hi Kristen, thank you for the context on this issue. I hope you can talk to some of those who will be affected by this and share their stories with us. Also, loved the elephants, felt like I could reach out and touch them.

  2. Kristen Maryn says:

    Thanks Christy and Iain! I am also looking forward to getting to know the community better. It is one thing to read about them, and an entirely different thing to talk to them and get to see their everyday realities.

    And Christy, a lot of work was done by dedicated fellows before me (ahem, you and your husband!). So thank you for all your hard work in building the foundation with Hakijamii and Ngazi Ya Chini!

  3. iain says:

    I agree with Christy – this is a really good summary of the problem. Now, how do the railway people build this onto a strong program of action? Look forward to hearing more, and meeting some of the railway people, through your blogs and camera.

  4. Christy Gillmore says:

    Thanks for posting this Kristen. You really have a good handle on the railway expansion and the issues that the slum residents are facing because of it. This is what the public needs from your blogs- research like this so we can understand!

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Streets of Nairobi

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 21st, 2011 | Africa

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A large part of my time in Nairobi has been spent driving to and from work and my host-home.  The drive spans the length of Nairobi, and in the morning can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.  In the evening, we are lucky to make it back in an hour; typically it takes around two.

Needless to say, I finally remembered to start bringing a book.  But every once in a while, the ridiculous drive, traffic and sights inspired me to document the trip.  So, welcome to Nairobi (as seen from a car)!

If you get motion-sick easily, I recommend skipping this one.  Roads are not kept in the best shape.

5 Responses to “Streets of Nairobi”

  1. Kristen Maryn says:

    Thanks Karin and Iain!

    I wish the traffic was moving that quickly…the video was definitely sped up as fast as iMovie would allow!

  2. iain says:

    Love this video! Actually the traffic is moving quite fast, which is unusual for Nairobi. Really skillful. Let’s see some more..!

  3. Karin says:

    I think I did get a little unsettled watching that trip to and fro the office, especially at the thought of that being a daily occurrence for you! Definitely one of the unforeseen challenges in these fellowships. Thanks for sharing Kristen, we felt like we were in the backseat right next to you.

  4. Kristen Maryn says:

    Thanks, Pegah! It was fun to make…made the drive go by faster and helped me find the humor in it. :)

    The rainy season is “over,” so they say…I don’t buy it. It is overcast most days and probably rains an average of three days a week. Could be worse, I suppose! It also rains more in the hilly part of Nairobi where I am living.

  5. Pegah says:

    Kristen this video was fantastic! Thanks for sharing your ride to work.

    P.S how often does it rain? Hopefully not too often!

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Welcome to Mathare, would you like a drink?

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 17th, 2011 | Africa

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(I apologize in advance for the length of this blog…I know I promised brevity.  I lied, just this once.  I’ll make it up to you with lots of photos?)

This past week, I have attended three meetings and am still attempting to get a grasp on the multiple issues facing slum-dwellers and the solutions.  A meeting on June 15th was the launch of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights’ report on the state of human rights in Kenya.  I haven’t read the full report yet, and it isn’t available online as of now, but I will report back on this one.

The other two meetings were community workshops on water tariffs.

Welcome to the Workshop!
Welcome to the Workshop!

Hakijamii, in collaboration with NPSN, plans different workshops in neighborhoods around Nairobi to educate people on the importance of clean water, their rights (there is a lot of buzz around the new constitution), and the costs associated.  Water in Nairobi is controlled by Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, which like many utilities companies, seemingly runs a monopoly.  Needless to say, people in the settlements have not seen much progress by the government nor actualized provisions, so trusting and paying NCWSC is not the instinct.

Teaching the Community
Teaching the Community

There are so many issues facing Kenya’s water, it is kind of difficult to find a starting point.  First of all, a lot of natural sources are contaminated.  Sewage drains directly into the rivers.  Clean-up efforts are in place, and there are treatment facilities capable of creating potable water, but costs are prohibitive.  NCWSC has committed to installing more water lines in the settlements, and they have plans to install proper sewage lines, but convincing the people to pay the high start-up costs is a challenge.  This is particularly so when they are paying a monthly fee for a sewage line that does not exist yet.

Additionally, water costs up-front seem unaffordable.  The cost to purchase a water meter for one’s home (in order to tap water directly into the home) is 5,000 shillings (around $57).  For many people, that is more than their monthly salaries.  After the start-up cost, the fees get more reasonable.  Monthly, they will pay a fee for water, depending on usage, but typically around 19 shillings for 10 m3 and another 14 shillings for sewage (for a total around 30 cents).  Problems arise because the promises of additional pipes are not fulfilled yet, and those that are are easily tapped.  NCWSC is also setting up water kiosks around the settlements for people to pay to access, but the cost of these are more expensive over longer periods of time, and many do not have water in them yet.

Water Projects on Hold
Water Projects on Hold

That is a really primitive explanation.  But hopefully, the idea comes across.  The goal is to make water affordable and accessible to the majority of urban homes.  So in a nutshell, that is how I was introduced to the Mathare settlement.

Mathare Far
Mathare Far

Mathare is a collection of settlements, and it is largely believed to be the second largest in Nairobi (after Kibera).  Population estimates range anywhere from 500,000 to one million.  And while Mathare is not famous like Kibera (which has roles on tv shows and was the filming location for The Constant Gardener), it is no less striking.  It was one of the hardest hit areas during the post election violence, but despite only three years time, it seems to have collected itself from the ashes.

(Photo from NYT Online)


I had been told I was going to a community workshop.  So dressed in a skirt and sandals (so inappropriate for a walking tour of a settlement!), we drove to Mathare Worship Centre.  What I was not told was that the regional NPSN director for the area, Christopher Maina, planned to take us around Mathare.  Besides the wardrobe miscommunication, I was thrilled.  As I mentioned in my blog about slum tourism, I am very mixed about the attributes of leading Westerners around settlements, but then again, this is what I am here to do…to learn about the actuality of life here and to try to impact changes, to advocate for these people.

We began with a tour of Kiboro Primary School, a government-sponsored school for kindergarten through 8th grade.  After touring the grounds and the water/sanitation facilities, the Head Teacher, Dorcus Mutinda, welcomed us into her office.  Of the 891 students, 30% are orphans.  Food is supplied by the World Food Programme and textbooks by the government.  Healthy habits are a large focus of the school, but water constraints make it difficult to follow everyday.  She told us, for example, that the smaller children tend to be pushed out of the way in the hand-washing line.  She spoke of the school’s challenges and needs, but also seemed very hopeful.

Dorcus Mutinda
Dorcus Mutinda

A Sea of Blue
A Sea of Blue

The children were excited and friendly and swarmed me, as usual.  Children are always a joy.  They don’t see me and think of what they do and don’t have.  They don’t see their socio-economic status, or feel bitter about my presence.  They see me and see a novelty.  A mzungu in their midst, willing to talk to them and interact with them.  For me, that unabashed curiosity and joy is the best way to temper the overwhelming feelings of sadness.  And unlike my time in the Nigerian Delta, the sight of me didn’t make any of them cry!  Already this visit was going smoothly.

"Clean" Water
"Clean" Water

Christopher then led us deeper into Mathare, in order to really grasp the water issues.  He showed us where the sewage runs into the river and the water lines that get tapped.  After about an hour, we headed back to the Centre to start the meeting.

I will save the descriptions of the disparaging conditions for another blog, especially since everyone always writes about how sad/dirty/poor/fill-in-your-word-of-choice the settlements are; I will have plenty of time for that with Kibera.  I will leave you with the positive attributes of Mathare.  These people are living.  Yes, the conditions are bad and the government needs to step up efforts to confront these issues.  Yes, more could be done by the people of Mathare to improve such issues like waste disposal, but these people are making the best of what they have.  I didn’t hear one complaint; I didn’t have a single person ask me for anything.  I was welcomed, by adults and children alike, into their lives.  I saw people working, relaxing, doing chores, laughing, getting on with life.  Three years ago, this settlement was torn apart by factionalism and violence.  I have been so impressed with the resiliency of the Kenyan people.  They are educated on the issues; they know the reality of the situation, and they are working for change.  But do they whine about it?  No.  A ray of hope that community efforts, spearheaded by groups like Hakijamii and NPSN, are giving them an outlet to try to actualize change.  And that is beautiful.

I have droned on enough now.  As always, my Flickr set has more photos and information accompanying each photo.

3 Responses to “Welcome to Mathare, would you like a drink?”

  1. Molly says:


    You are so insightful and articulate. I love learning about the issues Kenyans are facing through your perspective and posts.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Kristen Maryn says:

    Thanks for your support, Iain!

    Water rights are an extremely interesting issue to me, especially coming from Arizona. It seems for a lot of people in Kenya, it is hard to justify paying for the right to use a natural resource, especially because for hundreds of years, they had unhampered access. We see the same debate in Arizona, where a lot of the Native Americans claim original rights to riparian water, and also have spiritual connections to the land…mountains, rivers, etc.

    I think the regulation of it is important though…for ensuring proper allocation, reducing waste, reducing pollution, etc. The Nairobi River is the perfect example. It has been abused for years, and the clean-up process will take a long time. It is the classic “tragedy of the commons,” in action. I think the key is to make the water available and affordable, but responsibly, something the government needs to work harder on.

    As for life in the settlements, I, too, hope to report back on more soon!

  3. iain says:

    Good piece of writing, and great pix. Question: do we believe in the right to water (an emerging right)? If so, who is the duty-bearer here? In other words, who or what is held accountable for denying/violating this right? Hope to read more from you on life in these settlements…

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Finding My Feet

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 16th, 2011 | Africa

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I am still getting settled into Hakijamii, which is easy and hard at the same time.  As I’ve said before, the staff is great, so growing comfortable with them has been easy.  They have been so welcoming and even let me follow them around like a lost puppy (especially when we venture out of the office).  The bustle of Kenyatta Market has become nice background noise; there is definitely a rhythm to life here.  I still haven’t found my way around the maze of narrow corridors, though, and I’m not sure I ever will.  The market is quite the thriving exchange, even on rainy days.

What has been the most difficult is finalizing my work product goal and figuring out the “system.”  I knew coming into this experience that NGO work can be frustrating on its own; add in a new culture and the challenge is bigger.  Hakijamii is shockingly organized.  Their filing system is all online and is so structured, the day-to-day operation is seamless…what is less apparent is the way Hakijamii operates in the larger system, or I suppose how I can function with them in the larger system.  There are so many active organizations in Kenya, and while the NGO community here is really inclusive, I am having trouble seeing where I can be operational.

I’ve had a continuing dialogue with AP about this and what would be the best takeaway from this fellowship for everyone: Hakijamii, AP, Kenyans, and me.  I will be contacting Ngazi Ya Chini to see what the status is of the railroad expansion and how I can assist, hopefully with their legal team.  Luckily, there aren’t too many railroads cutting through the largest settlement in Nairobi, so I know where they live.  If I can’t get a hold of anyone soon, I can march down to Kibera to talk to some people (that sounds gallant, but really what I mean is, “I will closely follow on the heels of one or two Hakijamii staffers,” like that lost puppy again).

I need to write about my experiences at the past few meetings I’ve attended, but for the sake of brevity, I will save that for another blog.  In the meantime, here are just a few photos of lovely Kenya.  You can click on the photos to be taken to my Flickr album, which has more explanations for each photo.


What is she doing?
What is she doing?

Hair Salon
Hair Salon

Angel Trumpet
Angel Trumpet

Kenyan Mud
Kenyan Mud


One Response to “Finding My Feet”

  1. iain says:

    Great pix! Look forward to your profiles and descriptions of the settlements. As you point out in your previous blog, Hakijamii has a key role to play as a mouthpiece for these communities. Good luck!

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Funding a Country

Kristen Maryn | Posted June 13th, 2011 | Africa

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It is an interesting time to be in Kenya.  The “mastermind” of the 1998 US Embassy bombing was shot at a checkpoint.  Squatters are petitioning the government for title to their land.  An Olympic gold medalist has died at age 24.  The country is gearing up for elections in 2012, which would mean the end of the coalition government that many feel is ineffective.  The new constitution is (supposedly) being implemented, and the largest budget in Kenyan history was just determined.

The budget is set at 1.15 trillion Kenyan shillings.  That is about $13.2 billion.  15% of that is to be divided up between the 47 counties of Kenya.  The constitution states that the budgeting at the county and national level must be participatory, transparent, and accountable.  This article explains the budget a bit better.

Hakijamii has been working on government accountability and proper allocation for the past four years.  Louis blogged about the People’s Budget last year, and this year it has grown.  With the changing constitution, groups like Hakijamii and NPSN wanted to involve the community more.   This year, more than 15 groups met multiple times to make suggestions to help the government prioritize the real needs of the people in the settlements.

One final meeting occurred on June 7, 2011.  As the budget determination occurred the next day, the meeting served as a last chance to air suggestions and proposals to take to the Minister of Finance, Uhuru Kenyatta.  There was a good amount of entertainment throughout the meeting, but my favorite was this group in the video.  They were a crowd-pleaser, inciting laughter, cheering and singing.  They are calling out to the leaders, Raila and Kibaki, asking for help.  It was roughly translated for me, so I will try to pass along the translation.

**Fast facts: Mwai Kibaki is the President, and Raila Odinga is the Prime Minister.  The details of the tragic and disputed presidential election of 2007 are too complex to address here, but in short, a power sharing agreement was reached in 2008, creating the post of PM and a coalition government.

In the song, they are asking Odinga (Raila) to throw them up so they can fly, because they can’t afford the price of fuel.  They will fly, so long as they get to work.  They are asking Kibaki to give them a constitution; even just one chapter, so long as they have a constitution.  They are also asking Kibaki to give them land, even a plot sized 10x10, as long as they get the title.

You can also view my photo set on Flickr, which includes some of the stills from the meeting, plus other photos!

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Fellow: Kristen Maryn



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