What comes to mind when the name Dandora is mentioned?
For many, this estate in Eastlands, located on the outskirts of Nairobi, conjures route 36, 32 and 42 matatus, infamous for being dirty, a lucrative den for pickpockets, not to mention its rowdy touts.
Others associate Dandora with the biggest dumpsite in the country, an estate littered with dirt and overflowing sewers pouring into the drainage system.
For most though, it is the high level of crime, thanks to the jobless youth who idle in the area, youth who strike fear in residents, even in broad daylight.
But this negative picture is changing, thanks to a group calling itself Dandora Transformation League (DTL), which is composed of a group of young people from this area, who are determined to change the image of this estate they call home.
These young men and women started with the subdivision and fencing of various small parts of the estate to make them look somewhat similar to one of the many Nairobi residential areas which are referred to as courts.
They then went to work and started clearing the garbage in these areas, the result being neat and clean patches of land where the children who live here delight in playing in. They also unclogged the drainage systems, which are much cleaner now — dotted around the estate are patches of manicured grass as well as newly planted trees.
Who would have thought that Dandora, long associated with crime and filth, would one day look this hospitable? So, how did they do it?
It all began in January 2014 after three young men from Dandora Phase Two, calling themselves Mustard Seed, joined hands and initiated a project to not only clean up the area, but also improve security by erecting fences and gates that separated various parts of the estate.
When they began, all they had was a common goal, a volunteer’s spirit and determination.
“We were just three - Abubakar Mope, Samuel Ikambi and I,” says Charles Gachanga, the Mustard Seed court chairman.
Gachanga had just come home from Tanzania, where he had lived for a couple of years, and was dismayed at the level of crime and filth that had engulfed the place he had called home since childhood.
“Within just a month of returning, 15 young men suspected of crime were shot dead by the police. I had to do something because the estate was drowning,” says Gachanga.
He mobilised 33 young men and sold to them his dream of changing the image of the area.
“We agreed to meet the next day, but only three of us showed up. We were not discouraged, though. We vowed to do everything we could to make a positive impact.” They started by converting unused spaces occupied by rocks and dirt into flower gardens surrounded by trees, before moving to the clogged trenches.
“Our finished work gave us the motivation to move to other areas and repeat the process,” he adds.
With time, though, they realised that to make a bigger impact, they needed money— which they did not have— to buy the fencing material, and also to facilitate the cleaning.
In the process of looking for a donor, they heard about Awesome Foundation, Nairobi Chapter, an organisation that was launched in 2014, comprising young people who contribute money monthly, money they n use to support people and/or organisations that are doing something “awesome” in Nairobi.
Robinson Esialimba, the founder of the organisation, says that he was very impressed by the three young men’s initiative, which they agreed to fund.
“When we saw how the three had managed to transform a small derelict plot into a small oasis of flowers and trees, we encouraged them to expand their initiative to the whole of Dandora,” says Esialimba, who could not help envisioning a green, colourful and clean Dandora.
So far, the organisation has funded 17 similar projects within Nairobi between January 2014 and July 2015,”
PEACEFUL, ORGANISED PROCESS
Excited about the projects, Esialimba and his group decided to join forces with the founders of Mustard Seed and formed a group which they called Changing Faces. The aim was to challenge similar youth groups in Dandora to come together and form similar initiatives in their areas. Since the concept was homegrown, they later decided to register an organisation called Dandora Transformation League (DTL), which they thought would resonate with the youth they intended to reach out to.
“We wanted a name that would be meaningful to all the young people who lived here, a name that was personified and inclusive, one that would not be viewed as representing just one small group,” explains Esialimba.
Today, Dandora Transformation League is an umbrella body bringing together more than 3,000 youth who share the same vision of living in a Dandora that is clean, green, safe, and offering plenty of job opportunities for the more than 12,000 young people living here.
To gauge the best performing court, cleanliness is considered, as well as the availability of parking space. Most important, though, is how secure the court is. The winning court is awarded money, among other gifts.
During the first competition in 2014, the winning team took home Sh100, 000, while in the second competition which took place last year, the amount went up four times, to Sh400, 000. However, instead of one team being awarded, 28 teams were recognised, the aim being to encourage them to work even harder this year. The next competition is in May 2016.
This money, says Gachanga, comes from well-wishers, among them local leaders.
“Last year, for instance, we received equipment as well as Sh1m from Deputy President William Ruto.”
Officials are elected every year in a “peaceful and organised” process.
“At the moment, I am the chairman of the board of directors, which is composed of six other members, while Gachanga is the CEO, running the executive committee with 17 other officials with representation from all the phases in Dandora,” says Esialimba.
So far, the group has managed to fence and clean up 139 courts. The courts have been given inspiring names to reflect the changing face of Dandora – besides Mustard Seed, there is Tunawiri, Gift, Tunaweza, Fig, and Believers, all which convey the positive change that is sweeping through this community.
“Obviously, these aren’t normal everyday names; they are meant to speak of the dreams the young people here have of the new Dandora,” says Mr Gachanga.
In a short time, this group has brought about changes that have never been experienced in the 40-year history of this estate.
“Since DTL became active, we have rescued eight public spaces from grabbers, thanks to our members, who have an ear to the ground,” says Esialimba.
They have also reclaimed some spaces which housed abandoned kiosks that served as dens of crime at night. They have got rid of these structures and created clean open spaces which they have converted into parking lots, which generate income for the group.
“So far, our efforts have created jobs directly for more than 100 young people – we aim to create more for at least a 1,000 more in the next five years, and thousands more indirectly,” says Gachanga.
This is a vision that is giving hope to the young people here, who previously lived in despair and disillusionment.
“To fulfill their responsibilities, the organisation charges every household a monthly fee of Sh100, which they divide into three. Fifty shillings is used to pay the youth who man the gates at night, Sh30 goes to those who clean and keep the estate tidy, while Sh20 is set aside for maintenance, including painting and repair.
Gachanga adds that those who do not pay upkeep money are not harassed, but since they need the support of every household to keep the project going, with the help of the local leaders, for instance the chief and his assistant, they hold meetings once in a while to talk to the community about the benefits of the project.
Their other primary income comes for the Sh100 they charge for parking per car.
“We are also in the process of striking a deal with one of the matatu saccos that operate in this area to provide them with carwash services, as well as guard their vehicles at night,” says Gachanga.
They expect to get Sh400 a day per matatu - Sh300 for washing services and Sh100 as security fees. This means added jobs for the youth of Dandora, who were once jobless and disillusioned.
To ensure accountability and transparency, each court uses Money Pay Bench, a payment platform that allows members to pay using the court till number.
“This system also allows residents to monitor the account. Besides, each court has three bank signatories, which discourages fraud,” he adds.
Many have benefitted
Amos Maina, a reformed robber, is one of the beneficiaries of this project. Maina, one of the guards here, now describes himself as a responsible family man.
“I have been jailed for robbery with violence and witnessed some of my friends being lynched by a mob – thankfully, that part of my life is over now; this project has given me a new lease life,” he says.
Johns Jane, deputy chairman of Tunawiri court, is another example of the young people who have immensely benefited from the change sweeping through this community.
“The organisation granted me and two friends a loan, which we used to start a furniture workshop that is doing well; we can now support ourselves,” he says.
Another member, Jayfu Iregi, a Tunawiri member, adds that they have also been able to mend the previously bad relationship between them and the police.
“Ours is an honourable and honest association, and our members know they are not to be involved in any kind of crime – our reputation is very important, and we have made a vow to guard and uphold it,” says Gachanga. The group has also embraced the Nyumba Kumi initiative, which has played an important role in bringing down crime. We have the details of all the members of the households under this programme and monitor each other, therefore, we tend to know every move that our members make.
Though a very successful project, like all good things, there have been challenges along the way.
“Our relationship with the county government and the provincial administration was far from good to begin with,” says Esialimba.
Francis Kimemia, the assistant chief here, says that initially, residents feared that the group was a resurrection of the Mungiki sect, which once terrorised the area.
“For years, Dandora youth have been associated with the outlawed Mungiki sect, and at first, residents were afraid that this was a rebirth of the dreaded group,” he says.
With this fear in mind, several youth were arrested on suspicion that they were criminals.
Says Kimemia, “After ensuring that these were simply youth with a genuine desire to positively transform their community, we called a meeting with the community to assure them that they had nothing to fear.”
John Saruni, Embakasi North Sub-county administrator, says that the DTL project has proven to be the best rehabilitation intervention for some of the youth, who were once shackled to alcohol and drugs.
The Dandora OCS, Mathew Ndogo, is impressed too, pointing out that since the initiative began, crime levels in the area have reduced by more than 70 per cent.
He says, “It is no secret that lack of employment was the major contributor of crime here - the fact that some of the youth who had once been involved in crime now have something to do has brought crime down significantly.”
No doubt, the change here has been nothing short of phenomenal, and the group says they would be flattered if other young people in other estates emulated them. Next on their sight is the stubborn Dandora dumpsite, which they hope to get rid of. Though the government’s plan is to relocate it, the group wishes that the government would instead fund them to clean it themselves; their intention is to recycle the mountains of garbage.
Some would say that this would be a herculean, even impossible task for these young men and women, but if what they have managed to accomplish within such a short time is anything to go by, then they might just be up to the task.