24 November 2012

Kenya: The Liquid Gold, Brown Cake of Mukuru Slum

Photo: Lauren Everitt/AllAfrica
A toilet in Kenya's Mukuru slum


"Take a left off Mombasa Road onto Enterprise, drive for about 300 metres until the Kobil. Turn right, first left then head for the brick godown."

I've always heard people say there are two Nairobis. But that might be oversimplifying it. There might be the two extremes of those who have the basics and those who don't but there are the interesting gradations in between.

So I turn off Enterprise on to 'God Knows What' Street. Whoooooshhh....Mukuru kwa Reuben (or more correctly 'Ruben') opens up in front of me through the narrow telescope of the shack-lined street revealing humanity... on steroids. The soundtrack changes.

No, not changes. It just becomes more complex. The alternative rock I'm listening to in the car becomes one of the many sounds coming at me.

I think that's the mistake that we all make when classifying the slums. Just like New York, Mukuru cannot be classified with an adjective that sweeps over it attempting to paint it one shade of brown.

You just have to be ready for the assault of a place where everyday is Monday, the only time is now and where the weather setting is always 'High'.

It's Sunday November 18, 2012 and my band and I have been invited by the social enterprise Sanergy for the celebration of World Toilet Day.

Sanergy's business is sanitation. It sells and distributes a toilet under the name of Fresh Life to entrepreneurs in Mukuru to help with two of Mukuru's leading products- piss and shit.

Good old liquid gold and solid brown human cake. Don't let my use of 'dirty' language ruffle your conservative middle class plumage. In this environment the use of a dirty word should be the least of your problems.

"I don't get it. Why haven't we been doing this already?" I ask as David, a young MIT grad from New York walks me through their fabrication plant.

Again don't let the words 'fabrication plant' scare you. Sanergy shares a godown with several other companies and to enter its inventory room, one must pass through an area used by artisans polishing Kisii Soap Stone carvings for the domestic and foreign markets.

The inventory room stores the cement that they get at wholesale prices kindly from Athi River Mining Company, the plastic bit you squat on with two holes that direct your pee and poop into separate vessels, gum boots, wheelbarrows all neatly stacked on shelves or lined up against the wall.

"Kwani, what happens if the poop and the pee get mixed together? Does it spoil the poop?" asks Ricky, my bass guitarist.

"Not really. There is a preferred ratio though," replies Peter the Mukuru-born-and-raised driver, who is also showing us around. He knows his stuff.

You can see he loves working here. He is well trained. That means a lot for the buy-in of Mukuru residents that he interacts with daily.

"And this is what we're using to make this project sustainable," David digs his hand into a sack of fertilizer and comes up holding what appears to be red soil. "Clinically tested. No pathogens. Here, feel it." I hesitate. "C'mon," he urges.

I smell it cautiously, prod it then gather the guts to hold it. Organic fertiliser made from the shit of the residents of Mukuru.

"Kenya imports most of its fertiliser. It's highly concentrated and synthetic and therefore damages the soil. This is organic. It's safe. And it's local. This sack is much more affordable than imported fertiliser. No tariffs. Lower transportation costs. Kenya's waste could bring down the cost of food,"he says.

"You're shitting me?" I'm amazed. I'm surrounded by all the components it takes to put an entrepreneur in business. Everything down to the gumboots they need.

"And we collect daily. It's all about customer service. It has to work or else people lose faith in it and soon they're crapping into paper bags and hurling it onto neighbours' roofs."

"What's that?" I ask pointing at a large translucent tank. "That's where we collect pee," says David. "A few weeks in the sun and the nitrogen level goes up. We sell it to farms. They're lining up. And this is Ani."

I'm introduced to a young Indian man who runs the micro-finance institution that loans would-be Fresh Life purchasers the money they need to start up.

I want to sit down. I'm in a new world. A world where poop becomes fertilizer? That's not new. Where pee is collected for use on farms?

That's not new either. What's new is that former chang'aa sellers and down and out mums are now new entrepreneurs earning a living and spreading dignity, turning what used to be the community's shame into opportunity.

We head off to the grounds where the festivities are being held walking past Fresh Life toilets in location. They are manned, in use, clean and, owing to the generous pouring of sawdust after every use, odourless. It's rained the night before so the streets of Mukuru are a black sludge.

"What makes it black? Is it black cotton soil?" I wonder aloud to Kate, the communications officer at Sanergy.

"It reminds me of Detroit," she replies as she and David walk casually through the mud like it's something they do everyday.

But it is something they do everyday. The smells, sights and sounds of Mukuru begin to blend in. There are freshly fried mandazis, chips, maize.

There's the not so great smell of butcheries (but not even butcheries in Muthaiga smell good) quickly concealed by the wafting aroma of nyama choma.

Then there's music. Lots of music. The pulsating wave of what sounds like a thousand radio stations, CD/DVD stalls, the slightly out of tune lead guitar at one of the many nearby churches where the gospel is being sung and preached with verve, cheers from a double-storey kibanda dubbed Estadio Santiago Bernabeu right there in Mukuru- offering live games for 10 bob, and the video stalls where for five bob you can watch the latest Hollywood film full with real time commentary in sheng.

"Eh... Sa anamwuliza kama hizo feh ameziwai?" "Ngori Joh!" Within minutes we're at the field where any evidence of last night's downpour is being obliterated by sunshine Mukuru style.

The field has been rented from the local youth and the bumpy pitch has a few patches of grass. But the markings have been done and no player in the game to follow can claim that she (it's local under-17 girls' teams) didn't know that this was the penalty area.

As Kidum starts his set, I find a place at the back of the audience where I'm hoping I can listen without too much disturbance or conversation.

Behind me a trio of women is sitting on a khanga leafing through a newspaper, chatting as they protect themselves from the heat with a parasol, licking on flavoured ice.

I laugh to myself. Khangas and Barafu a bottom of the pyramid Blankets and Wine. Why not? The growth of any industry is a function of reaching the base.

Ask the cell phone companies. Ask the companies that package their products in little sachets so that economies that function in daily cash can participate.

Ask Sanergy. Do you need a toilet in your house or do you need a clean toilet experience daily? You hear development types and business execs talk about low-hanging fruit, meaning opportunities that are ready to grasp. I heard someone say in Africa the low-hanging fruits are the size of watermelons.

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