EDITOR’S NOTE: To see an audio slideshow about life in Nairobi’s “trash dump” slum, click here.
NAIROBI, Kenya (BP)–You smell it long before you see it, but you’ve got to see it to believe it.
The municipal dump at Dandora, just south of Nairobi proper, stretches 30 acres. Thirty acres of smoking, untreated garbage, snakes like a miniature mountain range through the public housing and shantytowns where some 600,000 people live.
Every day, scores of ragtag trucks arrive to dump another 2,000 tons of refuse onto the stinking pile — city trash, industrial and agricultural waste, you name it. A witch’s brew of chemicals, poison and pollution seep into the surrounding soil, air and water, spreading disease and dangers — particularly among Dandora’s children. The sicknesses include intestinal parasites, skin rashes, eye infections and tuberculosis. Recent tests on 328 children and adolescents living near the dump showed 154 of them were suffering from respiratory problems.
“This is where Nairobi throws its trash,” Kenyan Baptist leader Shem Okello says, standing on the edge of the dumpsite.
Okello watches a woman weigh plastic containers, scavenged from the pile, on a scale mounted to a makeshift wooden frame. Several thousand Dandora residents — mostly poor women — survive by selling anything of value they can find in the dump.
The city government periodically promises to close the dump, but it’s still there. The scavengers and jackleg garbage haulers who make a living off it hope it stays put.
“We pray it will not go,” the woman at the scale says, bargaining with a buyer for her plastic.
They must be the only ones who want it. It’s a curse on everyone else.
The dump symbolizes how the more affluent precincts of Nairobi deal with places like Dandora — out of sight (or smell), out of mind.
“Around here, people get a raw deal,” says Billy Oyugi, associate pastor of Dandora Baptist Church. “The main challenge we face here is poverty. A subset of that is the challenge of seeing bright young people who, because of poverty, cannot further their education.”
The typical Dandora family, Oyugi says, consists of a mother, a father (often absent) and five children living in two rooms. There’s little access to medical care; you get sick, you pray to get better. Few jobs. Bad, dangerous schools. Hunger, crime, drugs, alcoholism, prostitution.
Oyugi knows the score: He grew up in Dandora. His father was an alcoholic he rarely saw. Oyugi got into drugs, gambling and the other trouble that slum youths easily find. But his mother was a strong Christian. She enlisted him in a Christian child sponsorship program that helped him get an education — and learn that another, ever-present Father loved him.
“One day my sponsor sent me a lovely Christmas card, the first I’d ever received in my life,” Oyugi remembers. “When I opened it, I knew somebody cared about me. I knew that day there was hope in my life.”
BEACON OF LIGHT
Today, Oyugi and others at Dandora Baptist Church share hope with their neighbors — especially children and young people, who constitute more than 60 percent of Dandora’s population. The church, which sits on a dusty square in the area, is a beacon of light in the smoky miasma of Dandora.
It operates a medical clinic, helps HIV/AIDS patients, teaches job skills to young people and heads of households, sponsors a school and child development center for hundreds of needy children. “Our teachers are missionaries,” Oyugi stresses.
The congregation also sponsors home churches in each district of Dandora and runs a “Jesus Training Center” that offers a six-month course for believers.
“We have done missions all over Kenya,” Oyugi reports. “Our purpose is not just to reach the lost but to teach our members to do evangelism and discipleship. We rejoice when we see one of them discovering what God intends for them to do and just getting on with it.”
Especially young people. Like Catherine, now 20, a daughter of Dandora. She grew up on a tough street, burdened by constant violence. She was expected to follow the pattern — young, single motherhood, drugs and other self-destructive behaviors.
Instead, she broke the pattern with the help of God and Dandora Baptist Church. Now she aspires to be a lawyer. She belongs to “Groups of Hope,” a band of young Christian adults who encourage each other and reach out to youth in local schools.
“I want to be an example to other girls in the community,” she says. “How can I motivate them?”
Erich Bridges is a global correspondent with the International Mission Board.