Rewriting Hope

His name – Kaka.  

Isaac Mwasa actually, but no one calls him that. His frame is slight, boyish almost. Its only when you start doing the math that you realize he must be a lot older than he initially comes across.

He’s quietly intense, speaks with purpose and measure. He’s not trying to convince you of anything. He’s secure in himself, just sharing his story. For him the story begins and ends in Mathare. One of Nairobi's informal settlements. Look for Mathare on Google maps and you won’t get much – no pop ups or pins indicating services or restaurants, just lots of brown roofs. Roofs housing over 90,000 of the city’s residents. How do we know?  Thanks to Kaka and his team who have spent months working with on digitally mapping Mathare.  Structure by structure they have layered water, sanitation, schools, health facilities, churches and security on their maps. Their little team holds more real time information on the reality of the  teeming masses of Mathare than Nairobi's County government.

And they are putting it to good use.

Kaka’s story started almost twenty years ago when he was just a young guy playing football with a group that was an offshoot of Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA).  His truth -  friends lost to violence, drugs and hardship in the narrow trash ridden alleys and lanes of Mathare. It disturbed him deeply. Deeply enough to chart a different future for himself.

Kaka’s future unfolded from an unlikely challenge. The concept of a public space in Mathare was unheard of. Open land was quickly grabbed or quickly became a dump site overflowing with plastic, broken bottles, or used as a defecation site. Kaka and his comrades knew of one location that was public land but had become a dump site. They wanted it back. In 2000 they started campaigning the council to clean up the site. No one listened  - until election season. Eager for votes, an aspiring councillor promised to clean up the site if they would vote for him. A few weeks later a bulldozer moved in and cleared the site of the trash that had lain there festering  for years.  It was a strange win and the beginning of a new strategy. In a land where votes were traded for a dollar or the promise of a one kilo bag of sugar, Kaka and his crew had found a tradable commodity. One that worked for them.

In time the crew fenced off the small plot of land and began dreaming of a community centre that would be a safe haven for Mathare’s youth. By the next election cycle they had put together architectural drawings and secured county approval for a building. When votes were sought by an aspiring Member of Parliament, they presented their plan… and got funds to build their centre. The youth crew pitched in with hands and backs to carry cement, lug steel and mix concrete. Within a year the community centre was erected.

Today it serves multiple purposes – every lunch time street families are served a meal by a local community based organization, volunteer teachers offer computer lessons, each evening ma-youth pay 50 shillings to watch Arsenal or Man U battle it out on pitch half a world away. The small centre is a beacon of tranquility and hope in a place that desperately needs it. 

Kaka changed his future through the Mathare Environmental Conservation Youth group.  The centre remains the base for the group who continue to provide for-profit services in the community. They started by collecting garbage in the community, for Ksh 150 a week they'd pickup trash from each household and then deliver it to a dump site. Armed with the information garnered through their mapping project they have advocated for action from the county government. In the last four years the group has had four dump sites cleared that the county government wasn't  even aware existed. Each year they are pushing themselves to think more creatively about how to bring about positive change to their community and their reality. 

Kaka is an unassuming hero. As he weaves his way through the narrow paths of Mathare children run up to him and elderly people wave. Its clear to see how deeply the people of this area appreciate him. After all he’s one of them,  and through tenacity, ingenuity and foresight he’s making their lives better each day weaving a different story for area youngsters, writing a new future, one that can change a generation.

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