A Trip into Mathare Slum

Tushinde, Mathare
Tushinde Social Worker, Beth, talks to Mama Vivian and her son in their home in Mathare.

We began our Trip into Mathare Slum by taking a a short drive from our comfortable guest house in a leafy suburb of Nairobi to visit the work of “Tushinde” in the slum of Mathare. The contrast could not have been greater as we drove along a new four lane highway built by the Chinese taking buses spewing with smoke and laden with people in and out of town every day.

We turned off into a busy dusty road leading to Tushinde’s modest offices. Here we were met by Marie, dedicated Director working hard to get Tushinde on a good and sustainable development path and by Beth and Rose, two social workers who form the backbone of Tushinde’s work in this enormous sprawling slum.

Later Marie gave us the following information about Mathare:

“One of the largest informal settlements (slums) in East Africa and the oldest in Kenya. -On a former rock quarry that resembles a shallow bowl, 600,000 people live without running water, sewage systems, electricity, roads, or adequate housing.”

Imagine the population of boston squeezed into a space 1/30 its size. There are just 3 government schools. 1 in 3 people are HIV+ and just 1 in 10 have stable employment. They took us to visit the day care centre, a pilot project established by Tushinde which is now run independently by four women who look after around 20-25 six month to three year olds a day, six days a week.

The mothers leave their children as early as 6.30 in the morning to make the journey on foot to the nearby neighbourhood of Eastleigh to try to find a day’s work… cleaning houses or washing laundry. If lucky they might earn 100 Kenyan Shillings (less than one pound) per day. Of that they pay Ksh30 (£0.30/US$0.45) to the day care centre for taking care of their children, providing them with some breakfast porridge and a good lunch (which is provided free by Tushinde).

We arrived at nap time and as a mother of two I was impressed that the ladies actually managed to get all 22 children to sleep at the same time …lying like sardines, one next to the other on thin mats on the floor of a room not bigger than 4m by 2m, covered by thin kangas and sheets.

The children had had a good lunch, the only remaining financial support Tushinde provides to the day care centre, and so with full tummies were able to sleep well for about 1.5 hours. They have few toys or materials for the children but are lucky to have a big, safe open space outside where they can play next to a plot cultivated mainly with Sukuma, the local green veg ubiquitous in every meal. The land is provided for free by the local community women’s organisation, but the rest of the costs (salaries, utencils, water and electricity) have to be covered by the daily fee the mothers pay. To be able to cover its costs the day care centre needs to be able to attract 30 children a day, although the space seems small for the 22 they already have.

Thereafter we drove further into the narrow, litter strewn streets of Mathare, lined with small shacks made of corrugated iron sheets housing all manner of small businesses selling fruits, vegetables, second hand clothes, small utencils and electrical appliances and mobile phones. On every street corner you find an MPesa agent, providing the mobile money services which so many of Kenya’s population depend upon to do their business and through which Tushinde’s beneficiaries receive their weekly cash transfer.

We left the car and walked into a muddy back alley behind the German run Hospital, stepping over open sewers, followed by giggling kids shouting “Hallo Mzungu” (white man). We stepped inside a small compound of rooms constructed of bricks with high roofs held up by wooden beams, an important step above the hot and precarious metal shacks we saw elsewhere.

Here we visited Margaret*, a 23 year old girl who lost both her parents and at 15 years of age was turned out of home by the aunt that was looking after her and her sister, having sold their family’s land. She came to Nairobi having only finished grade 6 at school to try to find work. Eight years later she has fallen prey to the ills of any urban slum, is HIV positive and already has three children, two of whom also have HIV.

A year ago Tushinde was made aware of her case and found her emaciated, very sick with the effects of Aids and living in appalling conditions. Now, according to Marie, Tushinde’s Director she is unrecognisable. She is a new person. Tushinde managed to find her this safer and more stable housing where she and her 3 children occupy one of the brick rooms. Tushinde pays her rent of Ksh1500 (£11) per month, pay for her older boy to attend school, have got her enrolled in the local nutrition programme and ensure she and her children access the Anti Retroviral Drugs they need to deal with the HIV virus.

“Now”, says Margaret, “All I need is to find a job. I have no-one in the world. My parents died, my sister has died, I am all alone. So all I have is these three children, and I must work for them.”

Without Tushinde, we may not have had the pleasure of meeting Margaret, she may not have survived her 22nd year!

Our final stop was the local community school, ambitiously named “Excellence” which does an astounding job to educate more than 500 children every day, from primary up to secondary level. A steep narrow earthen alley led us into a maze of cramped metal shacks in which sat 30-40 children at a time, dressed in red chequered uniforms, five or six to a bench, five or six to a text book being taught the curriculum in English that will allow them to attain their national educational certificates and provide them with the hope of a future.

This is one of the partner schools at which Tushinde is able to sponsor children to gain an education, thanks to its generous donors in the United Kingdom. So we make our way back up the winding street, Shakira’s “This is Africa” blaring out of a little shop, a far cry from South Africa’s shining football stadiums!

We meet an older lady selling charcoal, grandmother to three or four children, their mother bedridden with the infections that accompany advanced stages of Aids. Tushinde is doing tremendous work here, for every one of the families they support. The social workers, who are recognised and appreciated by the community, do regular follow ups on all the families supported by Tushinde, providing a lifeline to women like Margaret, who would otherwise be on the streets. But it is a drop in the ocean. The needs are so great and so many and the capacity of the government services simply overwhelmed.

Tushinde is working to bring about change in this slum area, one life at a time, one family at a time and is making linkages with other services and organisations and forming safety nets for these very vulnerable families, to allow them to regain some dignity and some hope for them and their children …Kenya’s future.

February 11th 2014 Fiona and Gustavo Trigo, Volunteer supporters of Tushinde, Nairobi, Kenya * (not her real name)

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