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Kenya: Waterkeepers Take the Garbage Out of Rivers, Fight Polluters and Transform Lives

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Under an overcast sky on a chilly November morning, a group of people from Waterkeeper Alliance, wearing green waterproof overalls, gloves and gumboots, joined Komb Green Solution, a community-based organisation from Korogocho slum to clean a two-kilometre stretch of Nairobi River.

The river flows from its source in the Ngong Hills, 35 kilometres southwest of Nairobi, through the city, and some 500 kilometres east to the Indian Ocean at Kenya’s Coast.

With the recent rains, the river is flowing relatively fast. Normally, trash and other debris makes it sluggish.

On this clean-up day, the visiting groups working with Komb Green were from local chapters of Waterkeeper Alliance from Kurdistan, Jordan, Senegal, Mali, Sweden and the Bahamas, representing their local groups.

The Alliance held an international regional summit in Nairobi from November 11 to 14–the first in Africa. The summit’s objective was networking and training activities on how to safeguard rivers from pollution.

At the summit, Marc Yaggi, the executive director of the alliance, explained how it came about.

“Some 20 years ago, waterkeeper groups around the world came under the umbrella of Waterkeeper Alliance to set standards for quality control, monitoring, training, raising public awareness and government outreach on the state of rivers.

“Five years ago, there were 150 waterkeepers, most of them in the US. Today there are 350, in 46 countries, with half of them outside the US where the movement started.

“Once you mobilise people to understand that rivers are something they own, a treasure to hold in common trust, then you can convince the government to protect them,” said Mr Yaggi.

On the sidelines of the summit there were site visits, and that is how we ended up at the new Korogocho bridge.

Across the river is the city’s Dandora dumpsite. On the Korogocho side, the slum is a maze of narrow alleys through iron sheet shacks, vegetable plots and a playground built by Komb Green Solution that stretches to a well-tended green park, aptly named Korogocho People’s Park.

The park starts from the edge of the slum to the bridge connecting Dandora and Korogocho. It is this bridge that changed the story of this part of Korogocho.

Strong connection

In 2016, an Italian company was contracted by the Kenyan government to build a bridge to connect the two slums; locals had long relied on a dangerous makeshift crossing. The company approached the community for labour.

“The contractor employed a group of us as watchmen and labourers paying us Ksh300 ($3) a day. But he made us sign a contract that if company property was stolen, we would be prosecuted and could end up in jail,” said Daniel Ndung’u, a self-confessed reformed criminal.

The bridge was built and there was no incident of theft on site. At the same time, there were fewer cases of crime reported by the community.

The old makeshift crossing, being a main artery between the slum communities for commerce and other daily activities, also happened to be popular with muggers and petty thieves both day and night. The communities across both sides of the bridge lived in fear of being mugged at knifepoint and, even, gunpoint.

The new bridge brought changes. It was well lit, making crossing easier more difficult for muggers to operate. “But once the project ended, we asked, ‘what next?'” explained Ndung’u, standing on the new bridge, from where he points to what was once the place where stolen goods were hidden. The spot is now where the Korogocho People’s Park is situated.

Ndung’u says being involved in the construction of the bridge taught them that they could earn an honest living. “We learnt to work hard and earn money.”

Deborah Ogollah, a former sex-worker and a member of Komb Green Solution said that when the work on the bridge ended, they needed something to replace it.

“We started talking among ourselves and to the youth about how we could transform our community,” she said.

A mother of one, Ogollah worked as a sex worker for three years earning Ksh100 ($1) per client and was vulnerable to physical violence. She vowed that her child would not lead the life she once did.

In 2017, a group of 16 former bridge workers got together and decided on environmental clean-up and restoration of the place they call home.

They began by building gabions along the river from the rubble left by the construction company. The gabions helped control soil erosion and flooding on that stretch. Then they cleared the rubbish from the river bank, and planted vegetable patches as an income generation project.

From his savings, Ndung’u now operates a car wash business by the bridge and a kiosk selling second-hand clothes that he proudly shows off.

“We did not want to return to crime,” said Fredrick Okinda, the chairman of Komb Green, who said he has lost many friends to extrajudicial killings, mob justice or from drug use and alcoholism. “You don’t choose to become a criminal,” he explained, “You just find yourself in it.”

Stark difference

Because of Komb Green’s work, there is a stark difference between the two sides of the Korogocho bridge over Nairobi River. The Dandora side is choking from electronic waste and plastic bags. But the Korogocho side, especially along the People’s Park, is clean and green. Komb Green members clean the river every day, including the open sewer drains that flow into the river.

As the trash is fished out of the river, women separate the plastic bags and wash them to be sold to plastic recycling firms, adding to the group’s kitty.

But harsh reality hits when a foetus or a dead body floats by. A few of such discoveries have been given a decent burial in stone-marked graves by the river.

The efforts of the group caught the attention of Leonard Akwany of the Lake Victoria Waterkeeper Alliance who was looking for a social enterprise to present at the summit in Nairobi.

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Sam Dindi of the Nairobi-based Mazingira Yetu magazine introduced Akwany to Komb Green Solution. “We did an internet search and met with the group,” he said. They were impressed by their efforts. “These were people representing the ideals of Waterkeeper without knowing it.”

Komb Green Solution

“When the group started in 2017, everybody was against it,” said Mr Akwany. “There was a lot of speculation about why they were forming this group. There were concerns that since some members were known criminals the group could easily evolve into an organised crime gang. But with time they have proven themselves.”

In the beginning, they had no resources and few organisational skills. But they had a dream to change their lives and their environment.

“Their dedication and passion has seen them face these challenges and overcome them,” said Akwany.

“We are now working with them to transform the group into the Nairobi River Waterkeeper so that they can network with the global waterkeeper community and get support,” Mr Akwany added.

Now with 69 members from an initial 16, and under the mentorship of the Lake Victoria Waterkeeper, Komb Green Solution has a committee run by a chairman, secretary and treasurer, assisted by a decision-making committee that plans the work and addresses other operational issues.

The group meets every Sunday. Members pay Ksh100 ($1) towards a kitty that is used for emergency needs, and the rest is banked in a savings account.

Donations from well-wishers are trickling in and recently the group received an award of Ksh100,000 ($1,000) from local non-profit organisation Public Space Network, when it won a competition for youth-led initiatives transforming public spaces around Nairobi.

The Korogocho people’s park has a dedicated children’s playground–with swings and slides made from scrap metal–and a toilet with running water.

As we walk along, we arrive at a green plot with kale, tomatoes, and a lemon tree in the middle. “We have two plots like these. The fresh produce is for the children,” said Ogollah proudly.

The plots are tenderly cared for and the members hope that one day the river water will be free of pollutants and they could use it to water the crops.

I ask Ogollah what the name Komb means. “It’s a corruption of the hair comb. We want to comb our lives clean,” she explained.

The success of Komb Green has inspired other people living along the river. “We are helping other groups in the slums along the river to organise themselves,” said Ogollah.

The beginning

The Waterkeeper Alliance is the fastest-growing global movement for swimmable, drinkable, fishable water.

The group was started more than 50 years ago along the Hudson River, US, that drains into the Atlantic in New York state.

Local fishermen became alarmed that the once clean river full of sturgeon was becoming so polluted that the iconic fish was fast decreasing. The fishermen were advised by a sports journalist that they could sue polluters to protect their river.

They hired the first riverkeeper, a man named John Cronin. On his first patrol, he found an oil tanker whose crew was stealing the fresh river water to take to the Bahamas. When he pulled up to the tanker, they asked who he was and he replied, “I’m the riverkeeper.” He was accompanied by the sports journalist who captured the moment. It was the start of the river keepers.