When ‘Mzee wa Kazi’ John Michuki was transferred to the environment ministry from the security docket after smashing Mungiki and the Sabaot Land Defence Force, many said it was a demotion for the man who, as transport minister, instilled order in the chaotic and rowdy matatu industry.
They did not expect the man nicknamed Kimendero (the crusher), to achieve another seemingly impossible feat - cleaning up Nairobi River.
For long the depository of city effluent, the once cool waters of Nairobi had turned into an oily and toxic goo, with the river’s banks jammed with all manner of detritus and polythene waste. While in other modern cities the river’s banks would have been prime land offering river frontage for posh homes, it was the exact opposite in Nairobi, where the banks were so filthy, only street urchins dared to call the place home.
Yet John Michuki not only wanted the river clean but so fresh that fish and water beetles would return to its ecosystem. That was actually part of the directive he issued to former Nairobi town clerk John Gakuo after appointing him to the ministry of environment.
“Every day, Michuki called to find out if the water beetles were back. He longed to see them dance around. He was happy to hear that mudfish was back since his desire was to see the river get its glory back,” Gakuo recalls.
Michuki wanted the river clean from Kikuyu to Ruai. He wanted the city sparkling clean. When he hired Gakuo, he assigned him the duty even before his employment was formalised.
“When I left City Hall, Michuki hunted for me. At first, I was apprehensive, but when I took the job, he deployed me to the river the following day. I miss his passion and strictness,” Gakuo says.
He spearheaded the cleaning of the river in eight months’ time from Kikuyu to Shauri Moyo, a feat that was lauded. He told The Nairobian they applied ‘crude’ means to fight back the pollutants.
“If you can’t follow the law, then keep off. That is my policy. And if a sewerage company could not control the spillage, we fought them back with every crude means,” he says.
His team blocked the spilling sewage, forcing it back to people’s homes, roads and government facilities to compel the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) to act.
“We created a mess in people’s homes. They owned the waste and if they could not manage it, then they had to live with it. We were not going to deal with their mess. Not us. We made people and the government wage war against NCWSC,” he says.
Gakuo hired street children for the clean-up exercise because they were familiar with the river. This also created awareness, meaning the street families stopped polluting the river. For their effort, they were paid Sh200 each daily.
He recalls an incident when chokoras forced a cop into the river to collect a banana peel he had dumped in it.
“They warned him that they too were enforcing the law. The police officer had to oblige,” he remembers, chuckling.
After Gakuo left, the river resorted back to its former sorry state, a mess he says pains him.
“Why do we pollute rivers? Why allow unscrupulous people to drain sewage into the river?” he wonders.