Water and sanitation converging in Mathare slum, Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathare: Hope Like a Phoenix

What an inspiring first day in Kenya. We spent it entirely in Nairobi, and primarily in one of the toughest places there: Mathare slum. (Water For People’s Africa Program, while very active in Uganda, Rwanda, and Malawi, does not have a program in Kenya, so we chose to connect with another development organization in Nairobi to get a glimpse into the lives of some of its most vulnerable people, their struggles, and their water and sanitation situation.)

Home to some 1 million people, Mathare from the surface is robust with desperation. Tin shacks, barely afforded by most families, line the tiny alleyways spider-webbing the shanty. Raw sewage flows rampantly down the middle of each lane some eight inches deep, kids leaping across the morass to chase their ball or bicycle tire. Aromas of all kinds – fresh foods cooking and fresh human waste stewing – mix into a palpable fog that hangs on the settlement.

Understandably, few outsiders enter here. Mathare’s inhabitants are the invisible of the city: they are staff at the hotels, domestic servants, day laborers, beggars, and more. They disappear each night to the destitution and squalor that is their only home, and one rarely visited by anyone but them.

But, somehow, hope runs like a river through this rough and tumble corner of Nairobi. One doesn’t have to look very far to find it. It’s painted in the ear-to-ear smiles of children in the streets. It’s etched into the calloused feet and hands of the thousands working hard to build a better life for themselves and their families. It thumps from the music playing into crowded streets.

And, it’s overtly evident in our hosts for the day, two amazing women from We The Change Foundation. Founder, Soiya Gecaga, and Program Manager, Edra Mbatha, exude hope and promise, and have brought it in droves to this corner of Nairobi. They run the Mathare Early Childhood Development Center, and currently see to the educational and developmental needs of thirty children – children who, without them, would be on the street all day, every day. Edra and Soiya graciously opened up Mathare to us, and the residents in turn opened up their lives, their smiles, and their hope as well.

After a day of inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, we chugged our way back through Nairobi traffic to the Douglas-Hamilton’s home, where we had a feast of a dinner and listened to famed elephant researcher and conservationist, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, as he recounted four decades worth of stories from life on the continent…including a 1961 ascent of the North Face Standard Route on Batian (his was the fourth party ever to climb the route).

It’s now midnight, and my jet-lagged internal clock is somewhere over the Atlantic. Time for bed, as tomorrow we head north across Kenya to Nanyuki and then onwards to Mount Kenya.

About the Author : Jake NortonClimber, guide, photographer, speaker, founder of www.Challenge21.com, and - most importantly - husband and father.View all posts by Jake Norton

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