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From ‘scavengers’ to cleaners

By | November 22nd 2009

By Lillian Aluanga

Ordinarily, at about this time of year, a foul stench envelops several parts of Nairobi.

The stench would be confined to areas where a murky Nairobi River would flow with its cargo of rotting garbage. Along the banks of the murky flow, Ahmed Ndemiso would rummage through piles of garbage. With a gunny bag in hand and tattered overalls, Ndemiso would join bands of street boys scavenging for paper and other scrap material from the mountain of garbage on Kijabe Street.

Often the piece of rag tied around his nose and mouth did little to ward off the stench, but Ndemiso had no alternative.

"I had to earn a living from selling the scrap. With time I got used to the stench," he says.

While the environmental impact of transforming what was once the city’s greatest mobile filth cannot be ignored, for many like Ndemiso, the clean up of Nairobi River has literally changed their lives.

Mr Salessio Kaini, head of security on Nairobi River, on patrol on Saturday. Photo: jenipher wachie/standard

Today, Ndemiso, a Liverpool and Barcelona fan, sports a new T-shirt emblazoned with mascots of his favourite football clubs.

In place of the gunny bag and tattered overalls, Ndemiso, who now patrols the river, dons a white dustcoat, sneakers and a jean cap. His hands, though dusty from tending tree seedlings, are free of the soot and slime they were once covered in. Something is changing fast around the river.

In place of garbage heaps strewn along the river now stand saplings sprouting in the midst of older, shadier trees. Save for herons calling out to each other across the banks, and water lapping its way along the river’s course, all Ndemiso has for company are trees. ‘Islands’ that once dotted a river chocking with filth have disappeared, as is the nauseating stench that made lives for those living or working close to the river unbearable. At the Globe Cinema Roundabout some weary commuters wait on the green benches overlooking the river. Others lie sprawled onto the grass close to the stench-free river bank, while a few, lost in thought, stare at the water as it cascades downhill.

All along the river’s course from the Museum Hill, down to Globe Cinema, Ngara Market, Racecourse Bridge and on to Gikomba Market, Majengo, Kamkunji and Eastlands, none can deny the revival of one of the capital’s three main rivers. The other two are Mathare and Ngong. Flowing North to South of the city are smaller ‘tributaries’ like Ruiru, Kamiti, Rui Ruaka, Karura, Gitathuru, Kirichwa and Motoine, which flow into the Nairobi Dam before flowing further downstream as the Ngong River.

Change in fortunes

"I now have a job, work in a much cleaner environment and earn a monthly salary," says Ndemiso, who has worked in Ngara for more than 10 years.

Although his income from selling scrap was higher than the Sh18,000 he now earns, Ndemiso appreciates the comfort that comes with his new job. His concerns are few. Save for better quality boots, torches and a shed where guards on night duty can shelter from the rainy, cold nights, Ndemiso asks for little else.

From one who was once hunted by City Council of Nairobi askaris, Ndemiso has turned into the hunter, handing over to the local administration anyone caught dumping waste into the water.

The clean up, according to the National Environment Management Authority (Nema), has seen over 500 tonnes of waste removed in Phase One of the Nairobi Rivers Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Programme. Besides patrolling the river, Ndemiso also takes care of the dozens of Mukima and Mukindori seedlings at a tree nursery close to it.

"The seedlings are used when various groups come to plant trees along the river. Soon there will be pawpaw and mango trees growing here and the number of monkeys will also increase," he says.

Ndemiso’s colleague, Mr Steven Kamau, is already saving part of his salary for a trip to Israel in search of greener pastures. Kamau, who abandoned his job as a mason at a construction site to work as a security guard along the river, has no regrets.

"This river was once a source of filth. But it has now brought me fortune. I know that with time, I will make enough money for my trip," says Kamau.

Aiming higher

Mr Julius Mwathi, a spare parts dealer on Grogan Road, is a happy man. For years, customers coming to his shed close to the river did so at their own peril. And when they did, it would be for a few minutes before jumping back into their cars and driving through the sludge.

"Customers would not stay long because of the stench and insecurity. Since the clean up began the air is fresher, there are less muggings, and my customers don’t mind staying for a chat," Mwathi says.

But at the Racecourse Bridge an employee of an eatery close to the water’s edge thinks differently.

"It is true that the river is cleaner, but I never lacked customers even when it was filthy. The main problem is the sewerage," he says.

Brisk business

For Mr Ombato Oyando, a snack vendor in Majengo, the clean up couldn’t have come at a better time.

"Business has improved. Previously customers would be hesitant to buy anything from me because they would associate the dirty water with the fruit and sweets I sold," he says.

From his perch on a bridge that links the Majengo slum to Shauri Moyo, Oyando, a resident of Nairobi since the 1960s, recalls the phases the river has gone through.

"We used to swim and fish in the river. But that was in the 1960s and 1970s, long before the entry of plastic bags into the market," says Oyando.

The papers, he says, were in many ways the beginning of the filth trail for the river. At the famous Kamkunji Grounds, a group of youth under the ‘Kazi Kwa Vijana’ initiative has just finished cleaning a section of the river. As they move further downstream, several goats, as if waiting for their departure, invade the tree saplings, nibbling at the leaves and soft grass that surrounds them.

"They are the greatest threat to these trees," says Mr Alfred Chigati, who is among a group of 20 youth employed to clean the river. For this, he earns Sh250 a day.

"It’s better than nothing. It would be nice to earn more, but were it not for this job, I would be idling in the estates," he says. However, he says maintaining a clean river isn’t easy.

"Some residents and business owners are hostile and misunderstand our intentions," he says.

But it is the promise that the job holds for his future plans and opportunities that a cleaner river offers that keeps him going.

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