Moving Day in Mathare Valley

Mathare Valley, Nairobi

Mama Rose...

"Will I miss anything about Mathare Valley?" the old woman wrinkled her nose and her already small eyes narrowed to quiet slits. "If you said I had to leave here in ten minutes with everything I have, I would be ready to go in nine. Now tell me, what will I miss?"

The strong but petite woman is speaking faster now, her words flying, her hands in the air, her eyebrows arched. "Will I miss waking up at every noise and fearing someone is coming to rob or hurt my family? Will I miss the open sewers? Or being able to hear every sound through these tin walls, every quarrel between husbands and wives, every belch and grunt? Will I miss not being able to leave my laundry outside without it being stolen? Or fearing for my children each time they leave the home? Will I miss the darkness or the absence of anything green or the stench that never leaves the air?" she sighed.

"I tell you, there is nothing I will miss. I am ready to go this very minute."

Mama Rose, so called because she is the mother of Rose, though her real name is Eunice ("Our names disappear and we are given new ones when we give birth to our children," she explained), sits beside me on the frayed sofa in her tiny tin shack on one of the tumble down alleyways of Kenya's most notorious slum. She wears a pink scarf with roses on her head, a plaid woolen jacket over a black cotton dress that hangs over her small, but strong frame, looking neat and well-tended, despite the horrendous conditions just outside her door.

Her house is constructed entirely of corrugated iron sheets, mostly rusted, and I wonder how many times the walls have fallen down or been burned or replaced in her 32 years of renting there. Broken sheets of linoleum partially cover the dirt floors. A few pots, pans, tea kettles and thermoses stand on a wooden shelf. The house is illuminated by a single light bulb; clothing is stored wherever there is space - on ropes strung across the walls, and piled in the two tiny rooms where she and her seven children slept each night - four in one single bed, and three on the floor so that Mama Rose can have the dignity of her own small place to sleep.

The photographer Susan Meiselas and I came to Mathare Valley to see if we could better understand the trajectory of people moving from this desperate slum to Jamii Bora's development of $4,000 houses in Kaputei. It has been challenging to know if Acumen Fund's housing loan to Jamii Bora actually helps to reach the "real poor". After all, we were told, the houses cost a lot of money. To afford the monthly payments, the average person might have to make more than $4 a day. "Isn't this outside of our target group?" we wondered. At the same time, we knew that the purchasers of homes had started out with Jamii Bora as beggars and prostitutes and people barely scratching out a life.

I wanted to become clearer about when and how to provide patient capital that would enable people to become not just a little less poor, but to actually have a chance of moving into middle class. Indeed, poverty has many faces, and I fear Acumen may be contributing to oversimplifying it by defining it as a single income level of "less than $4 a day."

Mathare Valley lies in the valley surrounding Nairobi, a shallow bowl of land filled with 750,000 people crammed into little tin can shacks piled along narrow alleyways running with raw sewerage and the refuse of everyday life. I nearly slip several times as I gingerly walk along the pathway, concentrating on keeping my feet on stones along the path. I try to avoid not only the muck, but the jagged edges of the metal rooftops jutting into the alleyways, carefully dodging boys sniffing glue and taking sponge baths, young goats, girls doing laundry in colorful plastic basins.

How, I wonder, did Mama Rose not only survive but manage to put her children through school? "I met Jamii Bora, and they told me I could lift myself out of this mess. I started selling vegetables on the street and then used my savings to take a loan to start a water point (a place for selling water) just outside my house. Then I sold little bit of soap -- you know people here like buying things in small bits." I look for an example of the soap. She points to what looked like lye. "I buy the bar for 37 shillings, and then I cut it into six pieces that I sell for 10 shillings each. If a person has very little money, I will agree to cut one of the pieces into two to sell each for 5 shillings. And you see, in other areas nearby, people sell the pieces for 15 shillings, so I get some of their customers because my prices are better. I sell tomatoes and eggs, too, and all the time I am saving, saving."

The tiny store, about three by six feet and protected with chicken wire, is attached to her house. The water tap is set up right outside so that the kiosk worker can sell water as well. Thirty-two years in this place, and Mama Rose and her family are finally moving to a home in Kaputei, where she will have space and clean air, her own kitchen garden, an indoor shower and toilet, and a priceless feeling of security.