Greening around Kenya's biggest landfills
It took weeks of daily digging by around 50 volunteers to reach the bottom of a one- square-kilometre landfill site in Dandora, the Kenyan town commonly referred to as Nairobi’s dumpsite, and clear it. The team of volunteers from Public Space Network (PSN) first went in with wheelbarrows and pitchforks, but eventually resorted to an industrial excavator to remove the piles of garbage. In 2007, the UN had warned that Dandora’s dumpsite, which reportedly receives more than 2,000 tonnes of waste from Nairobi every day, was “posing a serious threat to children living nearby”. These piles, though, hadn’t been sent there by the capital’s 4.4 million residents. They’d been dumped by Dandora’s own people, who’d grown used to the idea that they lived in a waste dump and grew indifferent to its harm.
“When people live in such poor places, they feel they cannot do anything to change their standard of living,” says PSN founder Robinson Esialimba. “But we are telling them the opposite: they do not have to wait for the government, they can fix their own world.”
Since 2013, Esialimba and Dandora community activist Charles Gachanga have been mobilising communities in Dandora and beyond to rehabilitate various parcels of land across the town, creating around 200 gardens that serve, according to PSN estimates, around 200,000 people.
PSN’s latest and largest project, called Leave-Way, is intended to host hundreds of people at a time. Most of PSN’s green space projects are no bigger than 200 square metres each, says Esialimba, and don’t have room for large public gatherings. “We wanted more people to be able to come together, hundreds, not the limited numbers who are used to convening,” he explains.
Those involved in Leave-Way are also different, testament to PSN’s growth. Now in its second phase, architecture and urban planning students from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology are for the first time playing a role in helping determine the shape of the renewed space.
Having met with local residents to learn of their expectations for the upcoming park, students are now working up different options, Robinson explains. “It’s also PSN’s first to bring together participants from different low-income areas to work on one big project,” he notes.
PSN was founded in 2014 to manage, train and guide the growing numbers of young people inspired by the Dandora Transformation League (DTL), which Gachanga began a year earlier. Fed up with the squalor his hometown had become reduced to over the years, the local community mobiliser invited 30 fellow residents to help him clean up a small area. The next day, just two people turned up. Undeterred and using the most rudimentary gardening tools, it took them months to remove the mounds of household waste.
While the space was finally clean and orderly, Gachanga wanted to do more, for which he needed funding. Reaching out to a group of Kenyan professionals who fund projects across the capital, he was offered US$1,000 by Esialimba, who was a member of the group. In a span of weeks, that space had become DTL’s first park.
“We created a sitting space, planted grass, flowers, put up swings, litter bins, a fence and a gate,” he says. Gachanga named it the Mustard Seed, hoping that, as in the biblical story, the initiative would lead to something bigger. And it did.
In 2014, the duo launched the Changing Faces Competition to motivate Dandora’s community to replicate the Mustard Seed. They first approached unemployed young men to form groups, each of which chose a dumpsite. The group that brought the biggest transformation to that space within three months would win a cash prize. “We did not want the teams to be motivated by money so we did not offer the money upfront,” Esialimba says. “Instead, we explained that the purpose of the competition was not to win but to create a green space from which the groups could generate an income.” Some created paid carparking spaces. Others set up meeting halls, or parks with entry fees, or collected money from residents to keep the spaces clean.
By 2017, their efforts in urban redevelopment and redesign paid off and DTL won the Best Practice Transfer Award in Local Implementation in Dubai’s International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment.
Over the nine years the competition has been running, dozens of such green spaces have sprouted across Dandora and its surrounds, reforming not only the city but its residents too.
Evans Otieno, 31, had been living a life of crime since the age of 18, when he joined one of the countless cartels that have made crime rampant in this part of Kenya. After barely escaping death by an angry mob who killed two of his colleagues, Otieno was ready to start afresh.
“When I thought I was going to die I realised I wanted my life to mean something. I did not want to die with my only achievement being that I preyed on my community,” he recalls.
When introduced to the competition, he leapt at what he felt was a calling. Together with some friends, Otieno started Believers’ Garden, one of Dandora’s most innovative gardens. Car tyres, old television sets and gumboots were turned into flowerpots; grass was planted; and a sitting space made from recycled materials set up. A fish tank, birds and rabbits, along with a children’s play area and a library, has kept younger visitors entertained.
Anne Musyoka, a Dandora resident of 11 years and a mother of 9-year-old twins, says the garden has been her sanctuary. “It helps me relax. I often go there when I am stressed and after sometime I feel a sense of peace,” she adds.
Otiena charges visitors from outside Dandora a fee to use the premises, now popular for social functions including weddings and baby showers. But more important than the money, he says, is the respect he’s earned from a community that had once tried to kill him. “Before, when people saw me walking down the street they would duck,” he recalls. “Now, kids greet me.”
Dandora’s Officer Commanding Station Mathew Ndogo told Nation in 2016 that DTL has curbed crime by more than 70% thanks to the employment created for young people. For Mark Ojal, a Kenyan urban designer and PhD researcher at King’s College London, the grassroots project has done something more: a sense of belonging and attachment. “The larger part of eastlands has been a place where if you introduce yourself as from Dandora you would be immediately branded a criminal,” he says. “But through this project, young people are proud to identify themselves with Dandora.”
The influence of DTL has spread beyond Dandora, inspiring others to do the same. Samuel Omare, who lives in the slum-sprawling district of Kayole, east of Nairobi, created Wahenga Youth Group to clean up where they live and was awarded the title of Community Champion by PSN in 2018 for his efforts. “Honestly, I never used to notice garbage dumped until I took part in the competition,” he says. “These days, whenever I see garbage, I not only notice it but I want to do something about it.”
TOP Komb Green members relaxing in their garden after a busy day
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PHOTOS Public Space Network