A child's guide to solving inequality

Posted by Mora McLagan Commissioning Editor - Communications

15th May 2014

Workers sort through the contents of a truck carrying waste arrives at the Jamaica dump in the middle of the Mukuru informal settlement, in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 2, 2014. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
Children whose parents can't afford to pay school fees spend their days sorting through piles of rubbish in Mukuru, Nairobi. In the third of three blog posts about Mukuru Mora McLagan introduces the inspiring young people she met in school and out, and explains their hopes for a better future.


Last month I was in Mukuru slum in Nairobi , where Oxfam has been working with our partner Sanergy to provide some very clever waterless Freshlife toilets in the local schools.

Oxfam filmmaker Fred Perraut and I were there to visit the toilet project and show its wider impact on the children's lives. Photographer Sam Tarling helped us turn the school yard into a fashion catwalk, as kids dressed up in the costumes of what they would like to be when they grow up and told us their hopes and dreams for the future.

Teachers are the real superheroes

Rachel, 9 years old, wants to be a teacher when she grows up and believes that the government should build more schools in Mukuru. Credit: Sam Tarling/OxfamAt Jaombi and Rueben community-run schools I asked children what they thought  about life in Mukuru. Importantly, most saw Mukuru as an entirely different place to Nairobi, the city they are supposed to be a part of. Their interviews speak volumes about inequality in Kenya and the gulf of opportunity between rich and poor. But they were also full of ideas and solutions. I asked all children; "What would you change if you could be president for one day?" Their answers bowled me over (follow the link to see for yourself). 

At Jaombi school I meet Rachel, nine years old and one particularly thoughtful, serious little girl. Although dressed as Superwoman for our film shoot, she firmly believes that teachers are the real superheroes in Mukuru. It's they who have the real super-powers to transform lives around here.

But when I ask Rachel to tell me what life is like in Mukuru for children, she looks at me wide eyed as though imparting a huge, terrible secret: 

"There are some children in Mukuru who cannot go to school" she says in a half whisper, "Instead they go to the dumpsite and collect dirty rubbish because they need to earn money. Their parents leave them at home and think that they have gone to school, but really they go to the dumpsite."

Going to the dumpsite instead of school

Morgan, 5 years old, plays while his mother works at the Jamaica dump in the middle of the Mukuru informal settlement. Credit Sam Tarling/Oxfam

A couple of days later, Sam and I go to the local dump - nicknamed 'Jamaica' - to see for ourselves. Here we meet one of the children Rachel was talking about. Morgan, five years old, told us his family had no money for his school fees, so he came here each day with his mother to search the rubbish.

This vast dump used to be a quarry, but today it's grown from a hole in the ground into an epic landscape of steaming mountains and valleys of trash from Nairobi, much of it from expensive hotels and restaurants. 300-400 people live and work around the dump, mostly searching for plastics or computer waste to sell, but also looking for food to eat. As they work, dozens of gigantic vultures tower over them. It looks worryingly unclear to me whether the vultures are drawn to the rubbish, or to the small children working the site.

Our guides at the dumpsite are Steve, Ken, David and Raymond from the local Biocentre, an Oxfam partner here. All four, now in their late teens and early 20's, tell me that they too used to work here. They supplemented a hand to mouth existence for their families, by dodging school when they could not afford the fees and helping to feed themselves and their siblings. 

Looking for a lucky golden ticket

Elizabeth, 26, a mother of two, works at the Jamaica dump, Mukuru,Nairobi, Elizabeth has been working here daily, usually starting at 8am and working till the evening to provide for herself and her children, who are 6 and 3 years old. She is the sole provider for her family. Credit: Sam Tarling/OxfamConditions are dangerous, and I watch workers pick through the mess of plastics, food, burning rubbish and syringes in flipflops, with no protection from the toxic fumes that make me gag. Perhaps they hope one day to turn over a piece of stinking food waste from a 5 star hotel and find a lucky golden ticket out of Mukuru.  

As we watch them, David spots something under a murk of hospital waste and packets of unused pills. It's an IT student's manual for how to run web publishing programmes. He carefully blows the warm ash from its cover and smooths out the pages with his fingers. "I'll keep it in case I would like to study computers one day" he tells me. "Maybe it will help the Biocentre."

It's amazing to think of who the computer student might be who threw this manual away, and if he could imagine where it would end up. I wonder if he's aware that there are young men like David, living perhaps just a few streets away from him, who would be grateful just to have enjoyed a full school education, paid for by the government?

Back to Rachel at Jaombi School - soon to be a brilliant teacher and for now, full of the certainty of youth. What would she do to help these children if she were President? Rachel answers straight away:

"If I was President, I'd like to help the poor and ensure that they can all go to school. I would build more schools in Mukuru."

It's so simple. More schools, more investment in education. One small step to solving inequality and poverty. Let's hope that by the time Rachel is teaching, her dream will have become reality.

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Blog post written by Mora McLagan

Commissioning Editor - Communications

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Mora McLagan