Dandora slum, perched on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, is home to the biggest dumpsite in the region. But there are also other smaller garbage heaps around the informal settlement. It is, therefore, a pleasant surprise to learn that in the midst of the eyesores, a beautiful, lush garden is taking root in Dandora, one that is serving as a public recreational space for chilling out.
Behind this concept is a vibrant team of youth known as Believers Dandora, and led by co-founder Evans Otieno. By their own admission, they left the dark criminal world and walked into the gardening light, a decision that is giving the place a facelift. And they’re now creating networks with important organisations, including the UN Habitat to spread the concept farther and wider in Nairobi slums.
By recycling and reusing waste and locally available materials, the youth group is creating beautiful gardens, immensely improving the slum’s aesthetic value.
In an interview with Africa Sustainability Matters, Otieno walks us through the journey of transforming public spaces and future prospects.
Here are the excerpts:
Tell us a bit about Team Believers
We are a community-based organisation based in Dandora. Our organisation draws youths from Dandora as the biggest stakeholders, with the beneficiaries of the initiative being residents in Dandora phase II.
Our aim is to create clean, green, accessible and safe public spaces by promoting community-driven public space management as we initiate social change and empower youths.
What led you to transforming public spaces in the slum?
Born and raised in Dandora, which is infamously known for crime and an abode for garbage, I envisioned a renewed neighbourhood, one that is clean, green, safe and healthy for the slum dwellers. Often, I would look at children playing around the many heaps of garbage all over the place and my heart would sink. Then one day I decided to clean one of the spaces for them to play more comfortably. And that is how the idea to transform neglected and deplorable playgrounds to productive spaces was birthed.
I pictured safe playgrounds for the kids, serene gardens for the community to relax as well as car parking lots, as a way of earning an income for the jobless youths engaged in crime.
How do you handle waste generated in Dandora?
Dandora hosts the largest dumpsite in the region, for practically all the waste generated by the capital Nairobi and its environs. However, over the past few years, and despite the towering dumpsite, our efforts have not been hampered in ensuring that the neighbourhood is free from the choking filth and garbage. We have mobilised and created awareness among our fellow youths and residents to participate in waste management efforts and keep our environment clean. Thankfully, the community has been receptive and supported our idea. We have installed garbage bins in every courtyard managed by youths. We have also maintained the drainage systems. To make the initiative sustainable, every household contributes Sh100 monthly to support the youths and the waste management program. As a result, if you take a stroll around different courtyards around, you will experience a clean and well maintained environment.
Your team is transforming dumpsites into cool hangout spots, what alternatives are you providing for people who previously used such sites for waste disposal?
As a first step, we engaged the community and educated them on the importance of having safe spaces and living in a clean and healthy environment. Also, we sold the idea to the local authorities who bought into it and supported it, making it easy to earn people’s goodwill.
Next, we provided an alternative, by setting up garbage bins in strategic places and provided disposable waste bags to every household as well. Youths under Team Believers maintain the bins and ensure they are emptied once a week. They then transport the garbage to the dumpsite with handcarts or dispose the waste in a designated area identified by the county government.
What are some of the materials used to create these hangout courts and where do you source them?
Mostly we recycle waste materials which are locally available. We sort the garbage before it is disposed at the dumpsite and pick reusable materials – bottles, spoilt kettles, pots, gumboots and many others. Also, at the dumpsite we get spoilt electronics, especially computers (monitors and CPU), which we repurpose as art pieces. We equally buy old tyres and drums at affordable rates to make chairs and tables.
At your recreational spaces, what kinds of activities do you offer and at what charges?
We teach children on the importance of having well-maintained public spaces, clean environment and waste management for free. Equally, Dandora residents chill out, play and read books at no cost. The children also get to use the slides and swing sets we have installed for fun. We allow parties and photo and video shoots for weddings, birthdays at an affordable rate. Notice that we allow neighbourhood residents to hold their meetings here for free but for the non-residents, we charge them a small fee. We soon plan to set up a library and Wi-Fi services for the community.
Outline some of the benefits achieved by transforming these living spaces
The space was initially a dumpsite which caused health hazards to the residents and would pollute the environment through burning of waste. Also, criminals would hide behind the mini dumpsites, which made it unsafe for residents to walk safely at night. With the creation of the garden, there is fresh air coming from the trees we planted and reduced pollution. The community members now have positive mindset regarding matters to do with environment; they have a safe place where they can relax and meditate. It has also been a good source of income through social events, fruit and poultry farming.
What can other city neighbouhoods learn from your initiative?
Our city has great open and public spaces, which if communities join hands to manage them; it would make the city extremely beautiful.
What has been the greatest milestone for the Believers Team?
Influencing our fellow youths all over Nairobi to engage in public spaces transformation and having a healthy competition on who has the most creative ideas and sustainable approaches in different parts of Nairobi County, through the Public Space Network.
What changes have been recorded in the community as a result of your initiative?
Quite a number, actually. Our primary goal has been to transform people’s minds, not just open spaces. Seeing the residents embrace the initiative and become more responsible about shared open spaces has been especially encouraging. The community, which owns these spaces, has experienced first-hand and seen the impact of having a clean, green and safe environment. Nowadays, even young kids are hesitant to litter the environment and if they see one littering, they are quick to point the misbehaviour out.
What are some of the challenges faced in the journey to transform public spaces?
Rehabilitated spaces are a prime target of greedy developers working in collusion with corrupt public officials who want to grab the space for private use. This has been the main challenge faced by the city’s change makers. Also, the initiative requires a lot patience and commitment before one can start making a decent income from it; thus for the impatient jobless youths they may give up easily since they cannot make quick money as they would wish.
What are your future plans?
To venture into real estate and partner with realtors in working on the open spaces and giving them a professional and unique outlook.
What advice would you give to others seeking to create change in the sustainable world?
Never underestimate the ripple effect of your actions and always collaborate with people you can learn from to create impact in your world, however small. The world needs change agents, now more than ever.
What are your interests and hobbies outside work?
I love reading books, listening to music and hiking.