As a boy growing up in Nairobi’s Eastlands, the word ghetto basically meant home for me. From the American rappers that loosely used the word, to the cool guys on the corner of the streets that referred to where we lived as a ghetto, I assumed it only didn’t define where I live but also who I am. I was resilient, strong and sometimes even cool.
As I grew up and school took me to study with other students not from areas I grew up in, I found out rather surprisingly, that the word ghetto had a stigma attached to it. Fellow students expected me to be of a certain type - more violent and less trust worthy. I wanted to prove them wrong. I performed better than most “of them” in class and participated in more co-curricular activities. Somehow, I was accepted as a peer.
High school ended and ghetto become a reality again but this time I hated it, the cool kids on the corner didn’t look cool to me anymore. They came across as jokers who played into stereotypes and got on the wrong side of the law. We made it to the news occasionally too, but never for the right reasons. The pride I had attached to my ghetto was long gone and I couldn’t wait to go to college, to work my way out of the ghetto.
After college, I now have a small job. However, I still live on the same street since I only switched the flats. But once again my thoughts have changed. I am more philosophical in my thought and approach. It is not only about me, it is about my mother too, my younger brother, my life-long friends, my neighbours and our ghetto.
My ghetto has given me so much memories and laughs and equipped me with lots of life skills that it just feels wrong to just wake up and move away. Where will I go? How will it feel? Do I want empty streets? Will I be stopped after every fifty metres for greetings by people who know me from when I was a toddler? Will there be Ayale in those streets who I have known all my life, fought with, laughed and cried with? My questions are different now but so is the ghetto too.
The famous lack of proper sanitation has brought public toilets run by youth groups trying to make ends meet. Some of these public toilets come with libraries now, run by the same youth groups. Some cool kids actually read a book now.
I see NGOs and some corporates fund amazing projects in our ghettos now. The famous Safaricom’s ghetto classics haveenabled Kenyans see kids from Mathare play the violin. We have artists from ghetto making quality music.
We have famous footballers who don’t cut ties with the hoods they grew up in. They appreciate the dusty fields where their talents were horned and try to do something to give back. I see words like “kadogo economy” now, products tailored for the ghetto market. This makes me believe weare influencing the economy too in a small way.
I see a thriving Jua kali industry run by innovations from guys I grew up with. Wematter now, and we have made ourselves matter with very little help from others, which makes it even sweeter.
Finally, I believe all of us have an opportunity to make a difference, no matter where one grew up. Still, it’s better not to forget one’s humble beginnings.
-The writer is a youth mentor in Nairobi