When you think Karen, you think wealth and beauty and everything nice. When you think of Kibra, the opposite comes to mind. The only thing that unites the two is, probably, death, right?
Wrong. There is just something else that will not immediately meet the eye, and that is common between the two places — both are not connected to the sewer grid.
While the poor of Kibra get ridiculed for their infamous flying toilets, the affluent neighbourhood of Karen is using toilets on wheels.
It is a bizarre twist of events, well against normalcy, where driving is, for once, considered more prestigious than flying.
As Kibra hurls its human waste into the streets, a train of exhausters snakes down the posh estates in the rich neighbourhoods of Karen, Lavington and Kileleshwa and comes back up carrying tonnes of human waste. And loads of money.
Beneath the veneer of colour and wealth, some of Nairobi’s wealthiest estates ooze filth.
But because money works in mysterious ways, dwellers step out of their gorgeous houses smelling of expensive perfumes and, when they drive their expensive cars down roads lined with leafy trees, it is hard to assume they have to contend with filth buried in their expensive backyards.
A common city dweller would be forgiven for lambasting anyone that dares suggest that these high-end residential estates are not connected to the sewer grid.
On the contrary, these rich people are supposed to have their septic tanks sucked up once they are full, sewer lines not among the luxuries they enjoy.
“There is no sewer line in Karen. Many of the residents have to invest heavily on septic tanks, biodigesters and other methods of disposing of sewage,” says Rosebell Karobia, who speaks on behalf of the Karen and Langata District Association, the body that champions the interests of the dwellers.
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And so at Dagoretti Corner, alongside water bowsers that are often to nourish the thirst of the moneyed dwellers of Karen, Muthaiga, and Lavington, tens of exhausters sit waiting for a call.
Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), in the 2019 census, noted that only a section of the country is connected to the main sewer lines.
In Nairobi, Kamukunji, Makadara and Mathare sub-counties have over 70 per cent of their dwellers connected to the sewer line.
Other places such as Dagoretti (42.2 per cent), Kibra (38.8 per cent) and Westlands (22.4 per cent) still rely heavily on covered pit latrines — while 4. 7 per cent of Kibra dwellers use uncovered pit latrines.
But Kasarani leads in the use of septic tanks, a whopping 37.1 per cent of the population relying on the tanks and thus the exhausters’ services.
Njiru (22.7 per cent), Westlands (19.5 per cent), Dagoretti (15.7 per cent) and Lang’ata (15.4 per cent) also use the septic tank a lot.
This is where some of these rich estates are built.
Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company Managing Director Nahashon Muguna explained that zones designated as low density such as Karen, Muthaiga and Lavington were not connected to the sewer because the owners have ample land where they are expected to construct septic tanks.
“These areas are sparsely populated and the planners expected the residents there to have on-site septic tanks unlike in areas such as Umoja where a single plot has multiple dwelling units, necessitating a sewer line,” Muguna said.
But legend has it that the early dwellers of Karen were escaping payment of rents to the city council and were opposed to the installation of a sewer system.
They were the elite and were keen on staying as far away from the rest of the world.
The expansive forest that separates Kibra and Karen was meant to, according to a Karen dweller who did not wish to be named, purify the air floating from the poor Kibra to the posh estate.
And now at the expense of the very affluent who do not have the connection to the sewer but can afford to hire the trucks, the exhausters make a killing.
They mint money running into millions in a lucrative trade.
Distressed dwellers have to make the call to the exhausters every few weeks.
Owing to the scarcity of land in the neighbouring counties of Kiambu, Kajiado and Machakos, most of the human waste generated in Limuru, Ruiru, Mlolongo, Kitengela, Ngong and Rongai has always been carted to the Dandora Sewerage Treatment plant.
The exhauster owners charge between Sh8,000 and Sh10,000 per truck depending on the capacity and distance.
Ordinarily, they are not supposed to pay when discharging their load at public dump sites since the waste is later carried by the Nairobi Water sewer trunk.
Before it joins the trunk, the waste is deposited at Dandora. But now, following a notice issued by Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company in late October, all private exhausters are not allowed to discharge their waste in Kariobangi.
It has been suspected in the past that some of this waste is deposited in the Nairobi River, which is always visibly laden with filth.
Many people still depend on the dirty, smelly river for water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and other uses.
Septic tanks serve the purpose, although they are expensive for users.
“A well-maintained and constructed septic system will better withstand the stresses of heavy rains or flooding. Regular inspection is necessary to ensure proper functioning,” writes the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
“During heavy rains and floods, the ground can become saturated, preventing proper operation of the system. For example, a septic tank can collapse or float out of position.”
However, there is a lot of water pollution associated with septic tanks in the city due to users’ malpractices.
A dweller in Karen says that sometimes when it rains, people flush out the waste into the running rainwater. Generators pump the filth up and out into the open, a recipe for disease.
“The cost of paying the exhausters gets too high at times. When it is possible to cut corners, we do it,” he says.
Ms Karobia agrees, saying that there is a recklessness that could end up hurting people living in the area.
“Big developments that cannot manage their sewage end up releasing it on the roads, which is a health hazard to residents.”
According to her, there were discussions to put up a sewer line but the negotiations with Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company hit a snag.
Karen and Lang’ata District Association still feels shortchanged.
“The sewer line is a service that should be offered by the county government. It should be applied everywhere in Nairobi,” Karobia says.
“The water and sewerage company’s water bill has a charge on sewer, which means this is a service that should be offered by the county government. It is not about prestige. It is a service the company should offer.
“The sewer line is a necessity all over Nairobi and a service that should thus be offered indiscriminately.”
The fate of those who cannot afford to have their sanitation is painful, as the likes of Kibra resort to dumping their waste on the roads.
It is this waste that seeps into watercourses and ends up causing otherwise avoidable diseases.
Domestic sewage primarily contains biodegradable organic matter, which readily decomposes by bacteria and other micro-organisms, which can multiply using these organic substances as substrates and hence utilise some of the components of sewage.
It is worse for people who cannot have proper disposal of their waste because they are not connected to the sewer line.
“Karen people can sort their sanitation and still we have issues. Now imagine what happens to those who can’t,” says Karobia.
Poor planning has been blamed every time it rains and city estates have to swim in sewage, with barbs traded among relevant authorities.
As that happens, Karen, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Muthaiga and other big estates outside of the sewer grid continue to wield clout in the day and struggle with dirt at night.