Keeping the River Clean May 5, 2014 by Nick Johnson
By: Suzanne Thomson, CFK Organizational Consultant
No matter where you go in Kibera, you are guaranteed to see lots of trash. Trash piles high alongside the road, clogs roadside ditches, and gets tossed in the street. It also flows into the Nairobi River, which runs through the urban valley of Kibera. Community members of Kibera not only see trash as an environmental issue but also as an economic resource—and many groups are using trash to make money.
That’s how CFK’s Trash Is Cash (Taka ni Pato) program got started. As part of the program’s activities, many youth groups with innovative ideas about how to clean up their community receive training and mentorship to make their missions more effective. One such group, named the Young Challengers Self Help Group, decided to tackle the river.
When the group first formed, they focused on planting trees, but quickly discovered they needed to become financially sustainable. After learning new techniques through training programs, the group began collecting garbage to earn money for tree saplings and seeds. Two years later, when the Nairobi River Rehabilitation Project announced a clean-up for Kibera’s part of the Nairobi River, the group bid on it and won the paid contract! Working with 35 Kiberans, 15 women and 20 men, the group is now helping themselves earn a living by collecting garbage from the river while also providing a public service.
I had been invited by CFK’s Economic and Entrepreneurship Department (EED) to meet members of the group to see the work they had been doing. We hopped our way down the narrow alleys of Kibera to where the dense, makeshift buildings finally stop and meet the riverbed. When I arrived, Collins, the group’s chairman, was standing next to the river watching his colleagues in the water raking up trash for proper disposal. He pointed to the work being done and explained that they would be planting hundreds of trees after clearing trash from the riverbanks.
When I asked the team how they will ensure that the trees will live and that the river will stay clean, it was obvious that I had asked a tricky question. Eventually, one of the members of the group responded, “We have guys who are hired to guard the trees, but the hope is that once they get large enough they’ll be okay and people won’t move onto the land. If there’s something already on the land, people won’t build there.” It was a hopeful statement that will take a lot of community education and support to make viable.
Ultimately, the responsibility of keeping the river clean can’t fall to one group of people. Rather, it will depend on the entire community of Kibera. Work organized by groups like the Young Challengers, along with environmental education and community clean-ups organized by CFK, inspire others to also push for a cleaner Kibera. By helping to lead the change, more groups will follow suit and participate in the change as well. It’s a constant process, but one group making the first strides encourages others to follow in their footsteps.