Tacky Tourists and Trash


Photo via Carolina for Kibera.

Something immediately noticeable when you enter Kibera: trash is a dominant component of the landscape. The informal settlement, which does not have any paved roads or public services reaching the people living in its depths, is littered with scraps of food, plastic bags, crumpled water bottles, torn clothes, and washed-out pieces of paper. Along the streets, deep ditches in the reddish-brown dirt carry waste and water downhill towards huge trash piles, where stray cats, dogs, and chickens can be found scavenging for snacks. Trash is absolutely everywhere, and in some areas, the smell of rotting food and wet garbage is almost overwhelming.

But Carolina for Kibera is doing something about it.

On Monday, I sat down with Moses, a smart-dressed, bespectacled man who heads the Economic department at CFK. The idea behind the Taka ni Pato, or “Trash is Cash” program is twofold, he explained: cleaning up the community, and creating economic opportunity for youth. The program consists of a trash collection program, through which young people provide houses with garbage bags and then come collect the bags for a small fee each week. Then, the trash is sorted, and different items are recycled and repurposed in order to turn a further profit. The meeting itself was brief, as Moses was adamant about me actually seeing the program in action. Our sit-down chat quickly turned into a foray into Soweto West, one of the 12 villages in Kibera.

As we rounded the corner out of CFK, we passed by some of the only foreigners I had seen so far in the slum. They were dressed in tacky tourist attire, complete with big green safari hats, colourful shirts with city names emblazoned across the chest, cargo shorts, and the quintessential camera around the neck. They were looking around in pity and horror at the scene unfolding around them. This, I deduced, was one of the “slum tours” I had heard about online – for a fee, tourists can take a detour from their expensive safari and come marvel at the lives of people in poverty. To me, the notion of these tours is partially ridiculous, partially unethical; the people of Kibera are not a tourist attraction. I deliberately avoided making eye contact with any of the participants as they passed.

The tour was quickly forgotten as my focus turned to staying upright on a steep, dusty road leading towards the Kenya-Ugandan railway that bisects Kibera. Overlooking the tracks and blocking a view of the houses below was a huge, ten-foot-tall garbage pile. We did our best to gingerly step around the mounds of trash, eventually taking a running leap in order to scale a particularly wet area, and then crossed back into the mass of tin-roofed houses. Just beyond the tracks lay our destination: Victorious Bones Craft.

Outside of the building, a man named Jack lay hunched over a basket of white heart-shaped carvings, delicately painting their points a sparkling gold. He looked up and greeted us with the traditional warm Kenyan handshake, and welcomed us to the workshop. As we were led inside, my eyes immediately started to water from the white dust floating around in the air. The workshop was filled with six or seven men, working at rotating saws, whittling down bones into various shapes. Small piles of bones littered the floor. Jack explained the operation over the overwhelmingly loud roar of the saws: the bones, which are collected from both community garbage pickups and local shops, are cleaned and whittled down into various shapes. They treat the bones with a chemical solution that keeps them white, or apply paint to dye them various colours. After that, the products are polished, and sometimes holes are drilled to make them into earrings or beads. “Don’t worry,” he joked, “We don’t use human bones here!” He then led us into the little shop that lay under the same roof as the workshop, where the finished bone products are sold. The gorgeous jewellery and keychains in front of us were unrecognizable from the motley pile of cow bones that were stacked in the other room. We left kicking ourselves for not bringing any Kenyan shillings along.

Our next stop was the Taka ni Pato Recycling Centre, hidden away in a bright blue building resembling an oversized storage crate. Outside, the manager of the recycling centre, Wilson, greeted us. Wilson is also an entrepreneur, Moses explained. Thanks to a Kiva loan he received through CFK, he has started a transportation business out of his home. His employees use huge, wooden carts to deliver goods across various villages in Kibera.

Inside the dark room, piles of various items were stacked in different corners: one for bottles, one for plastic bags, and one for large plastic crates. Wilson showed us a huge metal machine that chews up the plastic products and spits out smaller pieces at the bottom. The pieces are then bagged and sent off to various factories in Narobi. Business had been a little slow lately, Wilson explained, since the factories are still trying to use up their own stock from the previous year. “But things will pick up soon!” he grinned.

The Taka ni Pato program is an amazing example of the entrepreneurial spirit that lives within the heart of Kibera – a spirit that the tourists snapping photos of run-down homes undoubtedly missed. It’s all too easy to take a quick look around and pity all the poor people living in filth. However, it takes much more effort to really understand the place – I have been here for almost two weeks and Kibera is still finding ways to surprise me. While it isn’t easy, the effort is worth it in the end, as it shows all the amazing things the people of this community are doing to make Kibera a better place. And that reveals more about the life of those living in poverty than any tour ever could.


Photo via Carolina for Kibera

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