Rivers filled with waste and poison #perouskenya

Posted by Amy Christian Stories, Film and Photography Project Manager

13th Aug 2013

In Mukuru, bags of human poo are called 'flying toilets' because people tend to use them at home and, once it's dark, they go outside and throw them as far as they can. At first I found myself wondering how people could bring themselves to poo in a bag and throw it into the street, or worse, into a neighbour's house. But after a week here I can really see that there are not many alternatives; clean toilets are not being ignored or passed by, they are simply so rare that they aren't an option at all for many people here.

I've been here a week now and have grown used to the sights and sounds of Mukuru. But I'm not sure that I could ever get used to the smells of Mukuru. The delicious aromas from food stalls and charcoal fires are interspersed with the distinct and terrible smell of rotting human waste. It hits the back of your throat and there have been many times in the last week when I have almost gagged at the smell of it.

In my last blog post, I told you about visiting the Oxfam-funded recycling plant in Kingston, Mukuru, with Eric Godia. After that visit, Eric and another youth group leader, Murimi Ngarira, took us to see their community and the surrounding areas by the river.

We walked along the busy mud roads of Kingston, through Bonholm and ended up in part of Mukuru called Jamaica. It took us a while to walk the fairly short distance, there were so many sights and sounds distracting us along the way. Brightly painted butchers and kiosks selling everything imaginable, tailors, cobblers and street food vendors all busy at work. Music blasted sporadically from different shop fronts and motorbikes sped over the muddy bumps and weaved through the crowds.

We came to a small wooden bridge, underneath which ran what looked like an open sewer. The water looked almost black with dirt and had small grey bubbles popping up on the surface. In it there were mounds of waste and rubbish, foil wrappers, old shoes, bottles and cans and hundreds of small plastic bags filled with human poo. Two days ago a man called Isaac told me that there were times when his family had been afraid of sitting down to eat at night as it was highly likely that a bag of poo might fly through the window and end up on your plate. Staring at the little polythene bags from the safety of the bridge I wondered how people even began to cope with living like this.

Eric and Murimi assured me that things have improved a lot in Kingston and the surrounding areas since the waste management and recycling project started up. "There used to be a lot more of this around. Even in the streets you would see lots of flying toilet bags but now you don't see that as much." Eric told me. "Our work here has really helped raise awareness that it is not good for the community to put waste in the streets."

I have cautiously entered several 'choos' (public toilets) in the last week and am finding it hard to explain just how awful they are. Mostly pit latrines, they consist or a slab of concrete with a hole in the middle and two extra slabs either side for your feet. They are very dirty. Very. Covered in feces, urine and I'm not sure what else. The smell is toxic. I have been told that disease caused by lack of sanitation is common here and, after seeing a few of the 'choos', I'm not surprised.

For a moment I tried to imagine what the riverbank would look like if there was no rubbish, if children could play football without stepping on human waste, if the water ran blue.

As we came to the end of our walk in a part of Mukuru called Jamaica we popped in to see Murimi's mum and sister who were busy at home preparing lunch for the family.  They showed us the family choo that sits outside about two metres from the house, made of four corrugated iron sheets and a hole carved out of the concrete floor that reaches down to the local sewer. The house itself sits on the banks of a river that runs through Mukuru separating Rueben and Kingston. "When it rains the river and the sewers overflow and the waste gets pushed up through the hole. It floods all over the house and surrounding areas." Murimi told us.

We wandered down to the river where there seemed to be lots of activity going on. A three story house was being built on the bank opposite, next to which children sledged down a mound of dirt and rubble on plastic sheeting, a group this side played football and a little further down a gathering of women were washing what we thought at first were clothes but later found out were plastic bags. The shallow river water rushed with force over rocks and licked at the banks that were almost entirely covered in litter and waste. The water was black as the night, a sight I had never seen before. So filled with waste and poison it didn't even look like water. For a moment I tried to imagine what the riverbank would look like if there was no rubbish, if children could play football without stepping on human waste, if the water ran blue. I'd like to think that one day that might be possible. Perhaps with people like Eric and Murimi around, it will be


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Blog post written by Amy Christian

Stories, Film and Photography Project Manager

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