We all fear a breakdown, a life where for whatever reason, the standards we have become accustomed to cease to be. A place where the infrastructure is crumbling with no chance of repair. Where the benefits system is no longer in place to catch those who fall through the thin veneer that separates the haves from the have-nots, a place where crime is rife, needs are many and hope is often the only thing you own.
Millions and millions of people live the life we dread on a daily basis. They survive in small, lean-to shacks with no utilities and where a hole in the ground latrine is the only sanitation for dozens of families. Unemployment is high, more than 50% but still these people not only survive, they thrive and I want to know how.
Welcome to Kenya.
As you may gather I have been out to Africa again. We are so lucky that Stuarts company pick up the tab for most of the flights, and that Stuart earns enough to pay for the rest of them, especially now that I am jobless.
As you go to a place more frequently, then you start to notice things that have slipped by you when you were in tourist mode. The initial shock of looking at shacks that are home to millions of people has been replaced by wonderment at how they cope in such conditions. You can learn more about coping with nothing after a few weeks in a third world country than you can ever hope to learn from books.
The Kenyans are an open and friendly bunch that are more than happy to share their knowledge, so much of which has been passed down, generation to generation. They know the ‘tricks of the trade’ that allows them to survive in the most austere circumstances. They are masters of make-do and mend and are fastidious about the smallest of details when it comes to food production, particularly growing their own food.
These characteristics, and their ability to get on with the task in hand (where I would be procrastinating for God knows how long) gives them a definite edge should the time ever come when some global calamity befalls us. Thinking about it, many Kenyans would probably fail to notice. I am not being facetious here, but so many have no electricity, gas, water supply or sewage supply an EMP, for example, would cause little if any disruption in their lives.
Let me give you an example. We have an apartment in Nairobi, very nice, two bedroomed all mod cons and as my husband’s company pay for it, it is fully serviced. You get to know the housekeepers, I always offer a tea or coffee when they come in to clean…bearing in mind I have already cleaned up so I am not embarrassed by the mess they find. They were more than a little worried at first because this was not entirely normal. As soon as they realised I was genuinely offering them a drink without a catch and it wasn’t some kind of time management stunt they relaxed a little.
So, over tea in Joan’s case and coffee for Elizabeth we got to chatting. Both of them provide for large families. One is raising her two grandchildren after the death of her daughter, she also has two out of work grown up sons she provides for and a disabled husband (construction accident some time ago). The other provides for her grandparents and her two younger siblings their parents having died some years ago.
One of these women lives in Kibera, said to be the largest slum on the planet. A piece of land some 2.5 square miles and home to over a million people. There are many other slums around Nairobi, but this is the largest. 60% of the population of Nairobi are slum dwellers. The other lives in Mathare, an area that used to be a quarry that is a mile and a half long and just 300 yards wide, half a million people live there.
Both women live with their families in mud-brick shacks with corrugated metal roofing, one has a crazy-paving type floor the other a stone and sand one overlaid with boards. Neither of the homes has any mains utility services.
Both of these women are proud that they have moved up the property ladder recently. An elderly gentleman in a three-sided shack next door to Joan died. The open side of his home abutted their house so her sons wasted no time in moving the side wall of their home four feet to create a bigger space. They now have their very own pit latrine, a mud brick dividing wall and a curtain separating it from the main living space. Joan compacts the rubbish cleaned out of the apartments and takes home the spare bin bags she now has to line their pit. The used bag is taken to a dump outside Kibera every day. She also takes empty plastic bottles and any surplus to her families requirements can be sold to recycling companies, but it’s what her sons do with the bottles they keep that amazed me. They cut off the sloped tops leaving them with a round, open topped container. These were fitted into a hole in the wall, row upon row to create a window, not ideal but enough to let in a small amount of natural light where previously there was none.
The left over top halves of the bottles are used to grow seedlings. Her sons have adopted a small piece of land alongside the main railway line to grow food but the soil is poor and seeds often fail to set and with those that do the seedlings fail to thrive. They dig holes and put the top halves of the bottles in and use these to get the seedlings to a viable stage before planting them out. This allows them to use much less of the decent soil that is in very short supply. After a few uses the soil is dug into the plot, along with dead leaves, cow pats and anything else that can add nourishment to the soil. When you see a housemaid picking ‘rubbish’ up from the immaculate communal apartment gardens it pays not to look too closely…the bag is usually half full of soil, topped off with bits they have supplied for the purpose of proving it’s rubbish if anyone asks. Yet more plastic bottles are used for irrigation of these small market gardens. A couple of slits in the top turns a throwaway item into an irrigation system. All grey water is reused this way. The bottles are ‘planted’, top-down and the water seeps out and gets right to the roots, avoiding the massive losses to evaporation that a hot, high altitude climate can bring. . Even more bottles are used during the rainy season, as individual cloches to prevent the torrential rain from battering the young plants. Crops too large for
Yet more plastic bottles are used for irrigation of these small market gardens. A couple of slits in the top turns a throwaway item into an irrigation system. All grey water is reused this way. The bottles are ‘planted’, top-down and the water seeps out and gets right to the roots, avoiding the massive losses to evaporation that a hot, high altitude climate can bring. . Even more bottles are used during the rainy season, as individual cloches to prevent the torrential rain from battering the young plants. Crops too large for cloches are protected by plastic sheeting tied to poles that are pushed into the ground. This also serves as a shelter when it’s wet as the boys take turns spending the night in their garden to make sure nothing is stolen.
Yet more bottles are used to store dried goods such as cornmeal and rice and at the back of the house fabric wicks lead from the grooves in the corrugated roofing into bottles strung along its length to catch rainwater in the rainy season.
Elizabeth didn’t expand her home, they moved to a two room shack nearer the edge of the slum. They too have a small plot of land, not owned but adopted, that her grandfather farms. His methods are similar to Joan’s boys but as he has been gardening significantly longer the soil in his plot is much better and he often plants directly into the ground, reserving the bottle planters for more delicate plants. He also uses plastic bottle irrigation for the plants and as rainwater catchers. His crops are also protected by various bits of plastic sheeting. Elizabeth has a piece of perspex that serves as a window.There is less theft in Mathare as most people have adopted a plot of land and grow some food crops. Those without land container grow whatever they can.
Both women have to pay rent to their landlords. Joan pays KSH 1050 ($11.04 /£7.07) a month, Elizabeth pays KSH 1250. ($13.14/ £8.66) Joan’s landlord does not know about the unofficial extension, if he did she would have to pay more, even though the space was sourced from another landlords property, something strenuously denied by Joan’s sons and all their neighbours when the landlord sent a messenger to see why the old man had not turned up to pay his rent.
Drinking water is always a problem regardless of which slum you live in. The pipe and tap (illegal) at each end of the slums are ‘owned’ by whoever tapped into the municipal water supply and they charge for the water. Just a few shillings a gallon but when you are getting the set housemaids wage of KSH (Kenyan Shillings) 9780 a month, $102.88 or £67.92 to keep your family afloat every shilling counts.
I was curious to find why they didn’t take a few of these empty plastic bottles and fill them with water before they left work each day. They explained that they are not allowed to do this, it is classed as stealing and they would lose their jobs. I was amazed, we are talking about a couple of bottles of tap water here, not them raiding fridges in the apartments. This was easy to solve, as a tenant I can do as I like with the water that comes out of my tap, including give it away, so with a note each saying I had given them the water, every bottle we could find was filled. Sadly there were too many to carry home, they walk the three miles each way to and from work. The solution was crowd-sourcing. The other staff heading to either Kibera or Mathare get a free bottle of clean water for helping carry the bottles back. This works out well apparently. Mr David the apartment block manager would not be overly impressed by this unofficial water supply system, but Mr David (Mr or Mrs is usually added to the Christian name when referring to work superiors) knows that part of his job is to keep ex-pats and their companies happily paying their rent so he will say nothing to make sure we will not find another apartment with a more agreeable manager.
It’s shocking that the management team allows the gardeners to pump hundreds of gallons a day over the plants in the garden, making sure the view is lush and green for when we sit by the pool, yet at the same time deny their own countrymen the chance of a clean drink of water. To hell with that. As long as I have a tap supplying municipal water, bottles of water will be supplied to as many people as possible.
Ah, but this water has to be paid for I hear the naysayers call.
Well yes, it does, by the landlords who charge companies massive monthly rents and the dozen or so landlords who reserve their accommodation for high-end tourists who pay as much per week as a company pays per month. The complex has an allotted amount of water it is allowed to use before the price increases, but there is no rebate if the allowed level is not used up. As the complex is always only 2/3 full the allowance is never reached. I am just making sure the landlords are not paying for unused water…a win-win situation.
As preppers, we worry endlessly about not having enough water to drink in an emergency situation. Imagine for a moment not having clean water in a non-emergency situation. Imagine worrying if every drink your child takes is the one that will give them cholera or typhoid. This is not something I can sit and watch when I am able to do something about it.
The Nairobi Water Authority states that it’s water is pure enough to drink. Us cossetted folks still boil it before drinking just to be on the safe side, but Kenyans with access to municipal water guzzle away happily and thus far there has been no recorded sickness from drinking the piped water that is supplied by the state. When that water is tapped into illegally however, especially in areas where there is open sewage, or where sewage outlets are near the water supply, the water can and does get contaminated. As always the young and the infirm bear the brunt of these infections and water-borne diseases still kill thousands of people every year.
It is a lack of infrastructure that prevents most Kenyans from having access to clean drinking water. I can’t improve the infrastructure, I can’t magically make water pipes appear where there are currently none. What I can do is make better use of the infrastructure that is there. It makes perfect sense to me that what is unused by the richest segment of society should be redistributed to those who so desperately need it.