April 24, 2012

Turning Trash into Cash in Kibera — A Semester Abroad

April 24, 2012 - Carley Matsumoto (‘13) explores methods for creating opportunities in unexpected places in Kenya.

April 24, 2012

I had never been to Kenya, let alone conduct research within its largest slum. This fact didn’t seem daunting until I arrived in Nairobi and realized researching the effectiveness of foreign aid looked good on paper, but in practice, it was slightly more complicated. Fortunately, I was able to contact the aid organization Carolina for Kibera (CFK) who agreed to take me in as their intern. Equipped with only the knowledge that CFK is one of the pioneer aid organizations in Kibera and with little familiarity of Kibera itself, I arrived ready for anything.

My initial hesitations were given no time to linger as my first day in Kibera was spent constantly on the move. I was meeting more people than I could remember and taking in an overwhelming amount of information. Before I knew it, the day was over and I found myself relaxing outside on a water jug, processing the day’s events alongside six rough and tumble Kibera garbage men. These men worked with the Taka ni Pato (Trash is Cash) initiative under the Economic and Entrepreneurship Development section of CFK.  If I had taken in anything that day, it was that this twofold initiative uplifted a significant amount of people, as it teaches both youth and women community members the skills to maintain a stable income through the cleaning and repurposing of waste materials.

As time progressed, and as I was continually led through back alleys and down narrow corridors, it seemed that I couldn’t turn a corner without being introduced to a Trash is Cash employee. I was struck by the positivity and the generosity of everyone, with people eager to show me what it was they did and how they did it. One of the garbage men in particular, Donny, spoke about how Carolina for Kibera changed the nature of his livelihood. He claimed that once he realized he could sort the trash and sell the plastic, CFK worked with him and his co-workers to develop a process and partner with shredding factories that would buy from them. The recognition that the process of garbage collecting could be transformed in this way can only come from those who understand the social fabric and community culture of Kibera. Thus, because nearly the entire staff that works at CFK are residents of Kibera, such understanding is possible. Furthermore, the aid provided is by no means stationary, but rather ever evolving and capitalizing on opportunities to improve. More important than gathering insights, however, was the opportunity to build relationships that I foresee extending well past my short time is Kibera. The connections I made are ones that I intend to keep both for the sake of maintaining friendships as well as for the sake of continuing to help further their progress. The desire to maintain contact is indicative of the value of personal connections and its importance in fostering effective aid.

The recognition of individuals as having unique needs and the effort to build meaningful relationships is a very apparent quality that CFK possesses. However, the need now lies in how to connect Kibera’s residents to the global North in a more mutually beneficial way. The question of seeking connections that aren’t aid driven but partnership driven frames the larger issue of how organizations portray slum populations.  How does having to appeal to donors affect these portrayals and how can these third world populations overcome the imagery of vulnerability which so often dominates the rhetoric surrounding them.