In Nairobi, the width of a road is often enough to divide affluence from poverty. Ngong Road leaves the city centre to reach the famous hills west of Nairobi. For a few miles, one sees only government buildings, neat houses, and commercial centres. At the crossing with Kilimani Ring Road, one can turn left. In a few hundred yards he would reach the manicured fields of the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, on the other side of the road is Kibera: East Africa largest slum, with more than 800,000 inhabitants.
“It is not advisable to enter the slum if you are alone or do not know the place”, says Father John Webootsa, a Comboni Missionary who I am following in some errands. John is here to visit a civic society group and give them some new awareness material. They will later contact the many associations and parish groups that belong to the Kutoka Network – exodus in Swahili – of which Father John is the coordinator.
“The network – he explains – was born in 2002 when a few pastoral agents working in the eleven major slums of Nairobi decided to join forces to face the daily problems their encountered. For exodus we mean the coming out of the poverty of these slums, the leaving behind a life devoid of dignity forced upon most of these people. There are millions of people who want a different life, but do not find the way out of the circle of poverty. Only here in Nairobi there are more than 200 slums. Half of the population of this city lives in slums, but occupy only 5% of the city area! We live like slaves, exactly as the Jews in Egypt”. To be close to these people, the Comboni Missionaries opened a community in Korogocho, the second larger slum of Nairobi, home to 120,000 people.
The house where the missionaries live in Korogocho is a shanty like those of the neighbours. “We need to live here, stay close to the people to understand them and work with them. If we were to live outside the slum and come here to work only, it would be a different experience”, say John. His room is a small affair, barely enough for the bed and a small table, a tiny locker complete the furnishing. The only difference with the other houses is the line of murals with evangelical scenes. It is the only touch of colour in a grey and sad location.
I ask him to speak about the Kutoka Network. “This network is not one of the too many ONGs you find around – he says. It is a place to meet and coordinate what happens on the ground to fight for justice, peace, the care of the territory. A local proverb says that to kill a flee a finger is not enough. You need two fingers! We also say that a person cannot lift a large mortar by himself. Yes, when people work together, they can achieve much”.
The network works on many fronts. They tackle the questions of safety and housing, of children’s right to education and HIV related issues. They also analyze the questions of safety, violence, the management of garbage and the impact landfills have on people’s health. Among the many activities, there is that of reporting wrongdoings to the people responsible for the health and safety of the population. A large painting on the walls of the church depict Saint John the Baptist. “We chose him as our patron saint because he was not afraid to tell Herod off”, says John.
This particular ministry counts on the work of all the groups participating in the Kutoka Networks. “Each group is in charge of a specific area, John explains. Members must be attentive observers of daily events. We also offer seminaries to prepare them to recognize injustice and report it. Our youth are also naturally good in communication, but need support. We put them in touch with New People Media Centre, a multimedia outfit of the Comboni Missionaries here in Nairobi. They were able to learn new techniques and started a website. They also produce a bulletin which is in high demand in the slums. Some learnt how to prepare radio programs for local broadcasting stations, others are learning about video”.
The Dandora landfill borders with Korogocho. The air is acrid. Many people who live here suffer from pulmonary diseases, and lung cancer cases are above normal among the people of the area. The area has been declared a health hazard by the government over ten years ago and it should have been moved away from the city. Yet, it still functions and the 3000 people working here to dump garbage and recycle what can still be of use, work in a very unsafe environment. Working here and tackling social problems is another way to evangelize society. People in the slum realize that the Gospel touches every aspect of their lives, and being able to recognize the lack of human rights they are afforded is the first step towards improving their lives.
Luis E. Larra Lomas