Beautiful Mathare: View from a Room

Most would not call it beautiful. The acrid smells of open sewage and rotting trash; the makeshift dwellings of mud, sticks and mabati; the in-your-face poverty seen in the out-of the-barrel clothes children wear are the first signs of ugly at the far end of beautiful. But “beautiful Mathare” is what Fredrick Muruka calls the panoramic view of Nairobi’s Mathare Valley from his fourth story one room dwelling overlooking the Valley that he has known since childhood. I would expect an artist to look at things that way, and to have a heart for the people who live there. He visits his mother–who lives down by the Mathare River–and regular paints there because of the quite and warm “atmosphere”.

Mathare is not the worst slum in Nairobi, that title goes to Kibera with a reported population of 2 million people and made famous in the book and movie The Constant Gardner. Mathare is certainly representative of the many slums in Africa from Cape Town to Cairo. Official reports place the population at 50,000–local reports place it at 500,000. I have known the Valley since my days in Nairobi in 1985 where my wife worked as a translator for western doctors in a small Baptist Clinic that no longer exists. Life is tough: 30%+ HIV, 70% unemployment, 80% of the children victims of violence and abuse, and only minimal access to education and healthcare. The Mathare river, a tributary of the Nairobi River, is full of sewage and home to chang’aa brewers (a home made “white lightning”) where the water from the river is syphoned into barrels of corn and cooked over open fires, illegally of course. Gang violence has increased, so extortion and house burnings only add to the disaster that occurs during the floods of the rainy season.

So what makes this Valley beautiful? If you ask Fredrick Muruka, it is the shapes of the mabati roofs and the splotches of green tree areas amidst them. It is the joy of working with children of the Valley, teaching them to paint. He is the volunteer Director of the Mathare Valley Watoto Wa Kwetu [Our Children community arts center. Click here for an excellent video of the Center and founder–or see below]. Muruka makes and sells curios for the tourist market to make ends meet while he paints prophetic abstracts when he can find the time.

There is a beauty in this place-though one has to look to find it. It is called hope and it is expressed mostly in the children and the resilience of people who strive to live with dignity. A new Kenyan friend Gideon reminded me that far worse than a poverty of wealth is a poverty of the mind and heart. Having grown up in both Mathare and Kibera, Gideon was still amazed at how both friends and relatives would choose to live in the slum when they had opportunity, as well as the means, to move up and out. “The food is cheap [inexpensive] and life is easy. And there is a fear that you could wind back here anyway if you to take on too much responsibility and things falter.”

He is part of a small group of young men from the Valley who work in the city and donate their time and money to run a new Inspiration Center that provides alternative activities for the children. While most of the young men still live in the Valley, Gideon owns his own home in one of the more posh areas of Nairobi where his children also attend school. One of the men, still single and now in his early 40’s just won the US State Department immigration lottery and is moving permanently to San Antonio, Texas.

Is there hope for the future for the people of Mathare? The slum has been around a long time. A new road was just opened by the government and the inhabitants agreed not to build storefronts and houses in the right of way. So far it is working and with added street lights there is some safety at night. The government has also built new high rise apartments that are given to family residents. Though, there is always the understanding that this poverty of mind and heart will allow some to either sell or rent their new homes to the middle class and move back into the Valley where the living is cheap and pocket the money–gentrification.

For two days I watched a woman wash clothes in a tub. I asked if this was her “small business” to make ends meet. “No.” she responded. “I wash clothes for my family every week. It takes me two days” Indeed, even in the most meager dwellings, the spaces are swept clean, children are bathed and clothed. Food is available–everywhere–as women and their children sell produce, hot chapatis and chai in front of their dwellings.

Over Thanksgiving 2008, BuildaBridge (a non-profit I co-founded with Vivian Nix-Early) continued its annual project Diaspora of Hope with artists going to Mathare and slums in Guatemala and Haiti to work with kids. Their stories give indication of hope. There are signs of hope in all of these places: in the joy and resilience of the kids, the hospitality of people, their creativity and will to survive. Splotches of green amidst the mabati, may be the beauty amidst the poverty and violence–poverty that needs to be eradicated. Make no mistake, Mathare is a dangerous, dirty and delinquent place–but hope is expressed and there is beauty in Mathare.

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