Contagious Smiles

Contagious Smiles

by Bev Watkinson

A taste of life from Bev in Mukuru, Kenya, with a daily reminder of why she’s there-

A year has passed, and it just seems like yesterday since I ventured on my journey of living and volunteering in the Mukuru slum. But rather than a single journey, each day here is a journey in itself, filled with happenings, stimulation and adventures. As a rule, I seldom look up the places I travel to, I want a place to tell me its stories, in its own way without the prejudice inclined by pre-knowledge. That is why when I decided to come to Kenya and knew Nairobi was to be my home for the next while I didn’t bother googling it, I just went. Living here is such a mixture of different emotions, the turmoil and absolute frustration of being in a seemingly affluent city with all the modern western cons needed in today’s world, while at the same time confronted daily with slum life, and the constrictions of sub-standard infrastructure, whether it be in our home, or at work. Today, the power works….but there is no water….tomorrow….who knows!!!


Along the route to work …..the morning greeting from the goats.

Also picture just some of the transport options. Firstly, using public vehicles in and around Nairobi, is like hectic at the best of times. But when you are a Mzungu (a white person) the challenges get even harder. To get to work each day (without a ride from Br Frank) involves Shank’s pony; maybe the matatu and a boda boda…or the amazing new option- an Uber.

Firstly the Matatu….it is often a 14 seater Toyota Hi-lux with little or no suspension….body work that indicates just how many brushes or accidents it has in the course of each day, and usually in peak hours has around 20 passengers squished inside. But for me, it’s the getting in and out that proves to be the most inelegant thing anyone has to witness. Cost is minimal about 40 cents… however, it triples on rainy days, and without a lot of the language, I can still manage to be assured my stop is on the route. More importantly, traffic in Nairobi is horrendous (and even for me that is not an exaggeration). The Boda Boda is a motor bike who can get you to any destination in the slum in the quickest possible time, but the question is …can I hold on while he skirts between every other vehicle on the road, barely missing pedestrians; livestock or any other thing in his way?

But more importantly, there is little or no control on what time we might arrive at work etc. “Kenyan time” takes a lot of getting used to, pace is a lot slower here (however, I don’t think that when I am at work some days – but that’s another story); Time doesn’t seem to be a major factor in getting any show on the road. People can arrive one; two; three hours late and always the excuse is “we are on Kenyan time”.

Transport options in Mukuru

Once at work, life is different. The joys of being greeted each morning, with the solemn handshake and questioning, after my health, etc from staff and school kids, is so uplifting and overshadows any transport issue encountered that day. But then the reality of life in the slums permeates every aspect of the work of the Centre. Counsellors with referrals of suicide; rape; abuse, and the list goes on. But at least, the positive impact made by so many, over the last 20 years is really evident within the Ruben Centre, and each day sees knew opportunities to develop a “just and empowered Murkuru”.

As you may know I came to Ruben, to work on developing the curriculum and course work for its Vocational Training, and to expand the opportunities, skills, and products made and sold by the people working in the Ruben Human Development and Skills Training Program (HD&STP). During the last twelve months, these areas have certainly tripled in production, sales and networking, but believe me, the expertise was already in place, and it has been a great delight to me to see how this unit has grown under the coordination of Elizabeth and her team.

The original Sewing; Tailoring; Beadmaking wares have been expanded to a full production: Weaving; African craft; Sewing & Tailoring uniform contract work; and salesroom. Of course all of this has seen the number of people employed through the unit grow in both capacity and capability. Also, our curriculum studies have expanded and courses in Urban Farming; Small Animal Husbandry; Global Freelance Platforming Business Development; Baby, Infant & Toddler (Nanny) Courses have been introduced. Both Government and large NGO’s are utilizing these as both introductory courses for community development and as study courses to empower youth in our community, and to formalize skills in new areas. I am overwhelmed at how much has been achieved, and all through the immense belief and sheer hard work of the staff, and their belief, in what Ruben can offer to its community.

In January, Br Frank asked if I would step into a Centre Development role, and as part of that position for the past two weeks I have completed an extensive “needs” assessment for one of Ruben’s major donors. While I am overwhelmed by the face of poverty that presents each morning, and, I believe, I am well aware how much poverty actually exists in our world, but, truthfully, I was never prepared for the poverty that could exist in (as I stated before) a seemingly affluent city. The majority of the urban poor in Kenya live in slums, or ‘informal settlements’, with the estimates suggesting that in Nairobi, the fifth richest African city and home to around 5,000 millionaires, the slum population now makes up over 50% of the urban population or between roughly 3-5 million people.

Slums in Nairobi are well-known, named and measured, and one of the city slums, is actually measured as the largest slum in the world. In fact, I believe, Mukuru, could be the near perfect case study for what can happen when there is an almost complete lack of basic services and investment, added to the fact that what infrastructure exists is so poor and so expensive.
To drink and to cook, locals are forced to purchase jerrycans of water at 20 Kenyan Shillings a pop. When gathering the results for a socio-economic impact survey I was constantly told about the high cost of water, rent, and electricity. Then to top it all off, they quote the information that their siblings who live in the more up market areas are paying far less for their housing infrastructure costs.

The headline I recently read in the local newspaper was titled “In Mukuru, a glass of water can kill.” The sad fact is when you can’t afford the cost of water you resort to the bacteria ridden water that surpasses for a river, and runs through the slum. Then there are the DIY criss-crossed wires that run from the factories to the 10 x 10 one-bedroom shacks that are the homes of most of the families living here.

But, still walking through those big gates I am greeted with a smile, and a million laughs during my
working day, and of course, as we all know, smiles are so contagious.

Staff of the Ruben Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, are being mentored by volunteer Bev Watkinson to further develop their educational, health and social programs in the impoverished Mukuru community. If you can volunteer like Bev, call Christine on 02 9560 5333 or register here.