A miraculous sanitation project that improved the lives of 6,000 people.
Location: Kitui Ndogo Slum, Nairobi, Kenya
URBAN SLUMS, by nature, are makeshift.
They are glorified encampments built by people who, generally speaking, have migrated from rural areas to cities in search of economic opportunity.
By in large, slum dwellers are poor, uneducated, and possess little modern sensibility and know how. Being unable to secure office jobs or other higher level forms of employment, they must resort to unskilled casual labor in the form of construction work, washing, hawking, and other small-time goods peddling to earn a living.
In the Kitui Ndogo slum in Nairobi, as an example, through such modes of employment the average take home pay is around $1/day, which qualifies as "extreme poverty," as defined by the World Bank.
Unable to afford regular housing and in the absence of welfare and government lifelines, these people create their own improvised living setups by illegally squatting on unused land. Quite literally, they pick an area and build their own homes on it—homes which are typically fashioned out of the most inexpensive, least durable materials there are, like mud, tree trunks, and corrugated iron sheets.
Not being connected to any city services, basic amenities such as clean drinking water, toilets, and solid waste disposal systems are lacking in slums. This gives rise to a plethora of dangerous health risks, most notably water born illnesses like Cholera, since it becomes virtually impossible to keep clean of infectious bacteria.
Sanitation Issues in Kitui
The Kitui Ndogo slum, located in the notorious Eastleigh district, is one of the city's harshest and most underserved, where less than a handful of NGOs work due to the lack of security. It is home to an estimated 50,000 residents who live in some of the most environmentally appalling conditions you could imagine.
Kitui is largely devoid of toilets, rainwater drainage, and waste disposal programs, which has created prolific and hazardous sanitation issues. Portions of the community resemble landfills and stagnating streams of raw sewage, where human waste and stagnant water meet, are common in the maze-like alleyways.
I visited Kitui for the first time in 2012 and was informed by the community's leadership that they had a crisis situation with three major slum alleyways, totaling approximately 1/3 of a mile, being completely overrun with sewage. The lives of an estimated 6,000 residents were at risk.
Not only would you have to carefully navigate sewage upon entering and exiting your home — with one misstep resulting in getting your foot dirty with fecal matter — but also, during the rainy season, it was reported that the sewage would leak into homes where family members sleep on the floor and cook.
Obviously, it's a recipe for illness and even death. Cholera and other infections easily result when you live in such close proximity to harmful pathogens.
If you are a child eating only once in a day, as many children of Kitui do, you don't have a strong enough immune system to fight off such a serious disease and, for most families, money is not readily available for medical treatment.
For these reasons, the polluted alleyways were given priority over all the other challenges because of the grave risk to health they posed.
For $6,500, we would be able to construct a drainage system, as in the above photo, in the three alleyways in question, which would funnel waste into the nearby Nairobi river that flows through the entirety of slum. In a true sign of collaboration, 15 workers from the community volunteered to perform the labor (involving an extensive hazardous waste removal process), which enabled us to keep the costs to a bare minimum.
Where to Find the Money?
Something really remarkable happened. You might even call it a miracle. We created a video proposal, posted it online, and within a week — seemingly randomly — it caught the attention of three women from the US and Germany who became inspired by the project and, without being asked formally to do so, got behind the fundraising campaign and raised all of the funds (with the assistance of 40 donors) in just over three weeks.
All then traveled to Nairobi to volunteer and be present for the launch of the first of three completed trenches constructed by the local team.
The last donation we received was made after the project was fully funded (with a clear note to that effect on the landing page) and came with the following note, "The donation is made today in honor of my brother-in-law who is undergoing 18 hours of surgery to save his life. So, maybe today, we will save 6000 [amount of residents affected by project] plus 1."
Unfortunately, he, Marcus, did not survive the surgery but, hopefully, this gives you an idea of the degree of care and goodwill — magic, even — that went into this project which, though it can't be physically measured, absolutely had an impact on the outcome.
Building the trenches was a major feat and win for the community. Within a matter of weeks, years old sewage had been cleared out and a drainage system installed to prevent such a build up from happening again. However, there was still the issue of the need for regular cleaning of the trenches on the part of the residents with homes adjacent to them.
Building something like a toilet or a school is relatively easy but inspiring people to take responsibility for the intervention on their own, is an entirely different and arguably more challenging task. In this case, many residents had adapted to the problem of navigating around the sewage and now, they were being asked to watch for trash piling up and sweep any towards the river on a daily basis. How would they respond?
A community meeting lead by Chairman Kilonso Abraham, the appointed leader of Kitui Ndogo and Chryspin Afifu, from a local NGO, was held with the directly affected residents where both emphasized the need for daily care and maintenance of the trenches.
It was a productive meeting. The residents seemed to gauge how necessary it was to keep the trenches clean and how all of the work — especially that of the volunteers and donors — could be lost if waste were allowed to pile up again.
Every four weeks or so the trenches were inspected by Chryspin and his colleague, Jared, as well as Teacher Grace Kavoi, director of the Malezi Centre, to see how they were being cared for. Thankfully, they found that the residents were indeed keeping the trenches clean, foresaw that there would be no problem in the future, and eventually ceased with the inspections.
This project was a 100% sustainable intervention made possible through a respectful hand-in-hand partnership with the leaders of Kitui Ndogo. It improved the lives of 6,000 people, will improve lives in the future, and made a meaningful impact on everybody involved, especially the three international volunteers (Eli, Sonali, and Sehba) who made it all possible.
This project was also studied by a Master's Global Health student at New York University and highlighted as an example of holistic and sustainable development.