The Bags That Feed Me



We arrive in Korogocho as the third slum we are visiting for a project on food security in the Nairobi urban poor, we can use that funky description used by donors or just call it Nairobi slums. Koch, as it’s popularly known, is one of the slums that surround the Dandora dumpsite. The dumpsite is where all the garbage from the Nairobi ends up, it is also controlled by cartels and access to it is a privilege, as we would later learn.

Instead of her retiring, she is busy looking through your trash, 78-year-old Maria, as she was christened by her friends, should be resting and playing with her grandchildren in Ugenya, she has lived a full life, however, every morning she is up at 5am braving the cold and smoke coming from the Dandora dumpsite so she can be able to feed her grandchildren. Out of her 7 children, 4 are dead from gang violence and the ones who remain are not able to support her financially.

Maria, is one of the elderly and disabled people who depend on the dumpsite for survival by collecting various things, bags, plastic wares, old used pans, papers, basically, anything that can be recycled will be collected.

The morning cold mixed with the smoke from the ever-burning dumpsite has Maria on medication for various illnesses, coughs, bronchitis and occasional pneumonia, not just her, but her grandchildren as well. Missing a day of collection or getting to the dumpsite late means that they do not have a chance to make any income on that day.

Maria has decided to specialise on the woven bags we use for shopping. She has to collect as many bags as possible, go home, wash them and iron them to resell. Due to water shortage in Koch, she will wash them in the Nairobi River, which is highly contaminated with sewer waste and garbage. To be able to make enough for the day, the additional hands of her grandchildren are paramount. For her, the ban of plastic bags by the government was a huge blessing to her family; it increased her income by almost 2 fold.

The bags will end up in the very hands of those who threw them away in the first place, this time they will be contaminated with sewer waste and ready to kill, in their own small way.

Maria is one of many old people who depend on the dumpsite to feed their families; her grandchildren are part of an estimated 60% of Korogocho dwellers who survive directly or indirectly from the dumpsite. As we campaign for the dumpsite to be moved, someone like Maria is caught in between wanting a better living condition for her and her family and having a place to get her daily bread.

Thinking about her situation leaves us desperate, desperate for a change that is very much needed in this country. We want a country where children are not exposed to this subtle form of child abuse, a country where there is a better retirement scheme, even for those in the informal sector. We want better sources of income for every person. We want to feed ourselves in dignity.

Over the next couple of weeks, we would engage with more people in the slums and realise that the statistic by Route to food that 70% of Nairobi dwellers are food insure is true.

According to Oxfam, food insecurity in urban areas is becoming serious and requires urgent intervention before it becomes disastrous. Urban areas, especially the slums have high populations. During food crises, people in the slums, resort to begging or prostitution, selling belongings, withdrawing children from schools, or looking for a second job to feed their families, age notwithstanding. These effects show how being food insecure has a spiraling effect on other areas of our lives and sectors of our society.

Research process: we used a public engagement method of research called Photovoice, this is where the researcher teaches the community members on the topic of research, the participants then go ahead and capture pictures that explain their situation in relation to the topic and have a focus group discussion on the photos. This allows the community to tell their story in their own way and come up with their own solutions and give recommendations that will help bring change to their community.

New Development: Nema has gone ahead and banned the woven bags that we talk about in the story, in the coming month, we hope to follow up on the story of Maria.


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