Mathare residents enjoy fruits of Mathare Roots
When George Gachie was growing up in Nairobi’s Mathare slums, he never imagined that one day, he will be the voice of change and the face hope.
In the slums, many have lost hope while change is unheard of given the struggles that inhabitants of these places go through.
George grew up in his grandmother’s house and the struggle was real, having to do menial jobs at a young age to make ends meet. He witnessed all forms of injustices meted on members of his community but instead of losing hope, the negatives fueled his desire to make a positive mark.
At 15, he joined a youth organisation as a volunteer for various causes in Mathare and later secured a scholarship to study Development Studies.
He would later land a job as a Programme Assistant at the UN Habitat (Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme), putting him in a position to serve and speak for the slum community in Mathare and beyond. This was evident during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic where George coordinated the Community Led Covid-19 Response activities funded by the UN-Habitat in Mathare, Kibera and Mtwapa in Kilifi County. The activities included setting up of handwashing stations, food and masks distribution.
“I represent hope that you can come from the slum and represent the world,” George said at the two-day World Communities Forum, held virtually last month, bringing together global leaders who are driving community-based solutions.
But instead of just enjoying the trappings that came with his new-found status, he decided to be an agent of change for his community and together with like-minded friends, founded Mathare Roots Initiative.
Christened ‘From Roots to Fruits’, Mathare Roots Initiative is a grassroots youth led organisation operating in Mathare Valley, aimed at linking the community with opportunities that will enhance people’s lives and bring “good fruits” from the slum, which would paint a better picture of the area.
The initiative has members from various fields offering support on a number of causes such as arts, media, sports, environmental conservation, women and girls empowerment, children education and many more.
I meet George on a sunny Wednesday, a day the team is receiving water purifiers from one of their partners to be donated to the community.
Like all informal settlements in Kenya, Mathare has no piped water system and residents rely on water vendors to access this precious commodity. Due to poor handling and lack of proper sanitation, the water is contaminated, leading to water-borne diseases such as a diarrhea and typhoid.
The purifiers will, therefore, make drinking water safe for thousands of families here.
I watch, and even help out, as George and team unload the packs from the track into a store after which, through the help of community volunteers, needy families will be identified for distribution.
On this April afternoon, 750 packs are offloaded. It’s the second batch of a similar consignment already distributed and a third one will later arrive since 2,250 families are targeted.
“We don’t buy bottled drinking water here, thanks to these purifiers,” says George of the consignment delivered by Assist Africa, one of their partners.
“We decided to come to Mathare after doing an assessment and discovered that there are people on the ground who know the area well and whom the community trust so that when we donate this, it will reach the intended recipients. In other areas, there is a lot of bureaucracy and favouritism which means those in need do not get them,” Allan Miranda, Head of Programmes at Assist Africa, told this writer after coordinating the exercise.
The water purifiers are just one of the many initiatives the community has benefited from Mathare Roots over the years.
At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, 2,000 families benefited from food donations while 47 women received Sh10,000 each to start or boost their business. These initiatives are ongoing given most of the slum population, who are casual labourers, suffered the most as a result of Covid-19.
Covid-19 also fell heavily on women, many bearing the brunt of Gender-Based Violence, some forced to trade sex for food while young girls were forced into early marriages as others suffered unwanted pregnancies.
Through their menstrual hygiene project, where girls from poor families access sanitary pads twice a month, the Mathare Roots gender department gets to see and listen to some of these stories and provide solutions.
“Girls here are afraid and ashamed to open up about these challenges, so when we meet them during sanitary pads distribution, we engage and counsel them because there is some level of trust between us,” says 24-year-old, Joshine Achieng, serving as the current chairperson of Mathare Roots Initiative.
She added: “With the help of several partners, we would like to have a pad bank here so that they can come regularly and pick when they are in their menstrual cycle. As a result, we are reducing teen pregnancies and sexual abuse.”
The Mathare Roots headquarters act as safe space for the counselling session while also providing a conducive environment for the many talented youths in the area to craft their art away from the crowds and noise of the ghettos. Trainings and workshops, targeting different groups are also conducted here.
It is here that concepts such as the ‘talking walls’ are drawn. These are graffiti with messages sensitising the community on different issues.
“We realised a lot of misinformation about Covid-19 and started using graffiti and art murals through youth talents and painted over 20 walls in different locations on the importance of things like handwashing and mask wearing. We went on to win awards,” added George, whose group has now started graffiti with peace messages ahead of next year’s General Election, christened ‘Amani Mtaani.’
The office is also home to Sauti TV which gives the community a platform to tell their own story without bias while offering training to those with ambitions to become journalists. Mathare Roots have also embraced social media as a great tool to disseminate information on their different causes and they have a huge presence on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Sports is another area the group has used effectively to give talented youth opportunities while keeping them away from vices.
They started Real Mathare FC, currently playing in the Football Kenya Federation third tier, which has produced star names such as Ulinzi Stars goalkeeper James Saruni and Kaizer Chiefs midfield dynamo Anthony ‘Teddy’ Akumu, who both play for national team Harambee Stars. These two act as great inspiration to other members of Real Mathare and the upcoming footballers from the area.
Mindful that their time to exit the stage will come, George and co are also nurturing the next generation through the Mathare community kids’ festivals held three times every year.
These festivals are aligned with the school calendar and things like tree planting, exhibitions, sports, arts and kids feeding programmes are showcased.
“We invite different partners to the festivals so that in between the sessions, there is education, counselling for kids and youth on various issues such as Covid-19, peace and the vices,” said George.
Through friends, Mathare Roots was also able to raise funds to renovate a hall in the area, which acts as a multi-purpose community space for things like nursery school, gym, boxing bouts, church and meetings.
Indeed, the people of this community are enjoying the good fruits of Mathare Roots, thanks to the sons and daughters of the area.