Toilets today, green living tomorrow in Keynan slum

Today Michael and I visited globalgiving project #1761, “Ablution block and Kitchen for 500 in Nairobi Slum.” Constance Hunt, the project leader, met us and took us on a brief tour of one of Nairobi’s largest slums, Kawangware.

I handed her a microphone and MP3 recorder as just listened as we walked the 2 kilometers or so from the nearest transport into the heart of the slums. Endless shacks of rusty iron and cement lined the paths through this “informal settlement,” as euphemists prefer to call it. Walkers, bikers, and mothers glut the alleys as we weave a path to the community center is helping construct.

Constance said, “Getting people to demand better sanitation isn’t so easy. When in the past we told people, ‘clean water will protect you from cholera,’ the response wasn’t great. Only when we said, ‘build a toilet in your house and impress other people’ did many make the effort.”

“I heard the same about toothpaste,” I said, “People don’t brush to fight cavities, but they will if you promise fresh breath.”

My visit was part of a larger listening tour of Kenya. We at GlobalGiving search for ways to let the people in communities like Kawangware speak to the world themselves. They are the experts on what they need. We believe everyone who uses globalgiving will answer their prayers if only there was a way for them to speak directly. I explained this to Constance. I mentioned that something as simple as twitter on a local cell phone could allow slum dwellers to begin a dialogue that will draw attention to their daily realities.

Constance looked a skeptical. “I’m just wondering does that mean that eventually it will add up to money coming into this project?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

Few believe mobile phones can fight poverty, or that local people would text what they see so that visits like mine become superfluous. Looking just above her head I saw dozens of TV attenas poking through the rooftops. A block later, the familiar “SafariCom sold here” sign jutted from a shack. Poor they may be, but not isolated.

We entered the school grounds where the future community center will stand. Despite the short notice (I requested a visit by text message only the night before) a dozen or so Kenyans were piling on cement blocks and concrete.

“Wow! They work fast!” Constance said. “I was here just last week and they had barely a foundation. This phase is ahead of schedule but we’re still short of full funding for the project.”

As Constance explained, this community center will immediately provide toilets for the thousands that live nearby. There are NO toilets in this slum, period. The current practice is a “flying toilet” where a person deficates in a plastic bag and litterally chucks it out the window of the shack without regard to the mess it leaves in the community as a whole.

Down the road, the project will provide clean water with a new bore hole. Human waste will ferment into methane biofuels that will provide sustainable cooking facilities for the people nearby. If she can attract more funding, she even hopes to add a second floor for community activities.

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“What one thing does this community need most?” I asked.
“Sewers. The whole slum grew up without any infrastructure. Now it is expensive to lay them. But I wish we could add sewers to improve the health and livelihood of these people,” Constance said.

This tour, our twittering villages in Kenya, its all an experiment. As a scientist I know that most experiments are in a sense ‘failures,’ but ‘progress’ only comes after the last failure, and only for those who persist. Our goal: give people louder voices.

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