Viwandani – life in tin

Viwandani is the slum where U-Tena does the majority of their work, and where all of the KUZA mentees live. It is part of the greater Mukuru slum, which is home to around 700,000 people. Mukuru is the largest slum in Nairobi, but is broken into many pieces, all of which are considered informal settlements – aka their existence is essentially unacknowledged by the government. This means that there is no government provision of public goods – ex. sanitation, electricity, or health care. Consequently the people are forced to endure and adapt to their conditions. Waste is not managed, water must be purchased and boiled, and electricity is tapped. Precariously drooping between houses and across walkways are homemade electricity connections tapped from bigger supply lines. Some of the wires are naked wires twisted together, which poses an even bigger hazard. These are responsible for the ignition of fires in the slums nearly twice a month (Cha Cha’s estimate from experience). The fires have taken countless lives as there is little to be done to prevent their spread and no clear escape or exit plans. Furthermore the live wires can come untethered and fall into the street carrying enough electricity to easily kill a small child. This is only one of many hazards for the small children that live and play in the slum streets.

One day after work Cha Cha took us for a walk through the neighborhood where he and many other U-Tena employees grew up/lived in until a few short years ago. He showed us three different houses that he used to rent. The nicest one was a concrete building of which he rented one bare room for $28 a month (fairly posh for a slum). The average rent price is around $6 for a tin walled single room (12×12) with a dirt floor. These small home allow for little privacy and protection from the world outside. Children are disproportionately effected by home sizes as they have no place to play, little break from noise to get sleep prior to early school hours, and are exposed to sexual acts at a young age.

The slum – much like most areas of Nairobi – works in micro markets. Meaning that every 100ft you can find everything a person could need. People sell all wares and foods, there are barbers, shoemakers, hairdressers and bars. The bars commonly sell an illegal and cheap alcoholic brew called changaa, which is commonly made incorrectly and can have a large amount of methane which can leave heavy drinkers blind. The main road provides a bustling channel for community and commerce.

Unfortunately the residential areas just a few steps away are not as bright and clean. There is an unclear pathway to walk, as one must constantly be dodging piles of trash and sludge.We also unfortunately encountered a stray dog that was licking what appeared to be its own miscarried fetus. Cha Cha told us that during heavy rains, many of the homes are flooded with this trash and toxic water. An industrial area surrounds the slum and one factory dumps a blue liquid into the street daily, which then drains through the slum streets and into the river. We crossed the river on a precarious bridge that stood twenty feet above the river and was made out of sticks.

We observed that we felt very safe within the slum and that people seemed overwhelmingly kind and unconcerned with our presence. However due to a high level of unemployment the slum has been home to high rates of crime in past years.We have heard multiple stories from friends about people working hard to make an honest living, just to have it snatched away by a young boy wielding a gun – likely just trying to pay school fees or buy a meal. These crimes not only affect the victims but the whole community as police profile and falsely arrest innocent young men by accusing them of crimes.

Our walk was eye opening but also heart warming. Every minute or so we heard Cha Cha’s name called out and spoke to his countless friends and neighbors, many of which invited us into their homes or businesses. We have returned to the slum on multiple occasions and experienced more of the lively beauty they hold. Aside from the tight knit and friendly community, one can find delicious fresh samosas for 10Ksh, children playing and yelling “how are you” in candy coated voices, and small shops churning out beautiful handmade items such as clothing and shoes.

Organizations in Viwandani

One of our visits was to Reuben Center – the primary school that many of the U-Tena members attended. Reuben is the name of a large portion of Mukuru, and the school is home to 2000 students. It has made immense advances since it was composed of tin buildings which Cha Cha described to us. It is now supported by Christian Brothers from Australia and has almost fifteen concrete buildings for classrooms and offices. It is also home to a community health clinic and trade schools where students and adults who did not have the chance to pursue a university education can learn craft skills. During our first visit we met a young man named Kelvin Petrelli who is the sports coordinator at Reuben. He is a dancer and did dance therapy with rape victims before coming to work at Reuben. At Reuben he organizes different sports activities and asked us to return to talk to a group of kids interested in Track and Field. Yesterday we returned to Reuben and did a small talk and clinic focused on how skills (patience, work ethic, healthy lifestyle) you learn from track can benefit you in other areas of your life. We then showed the kids warm ups and stretches and small group lessons on frisbee, javelin and running workouts.

During another one of our walks through Viwandani, we came upon an organization run by friends of U-Tena called Wajukuu. Wajukuu is an artist collective that owns a community building in the slum. The bottom floor of the building is an open room that is used for children’s art classes and free public showings of documentaries and popular soccer matches. The upper floor is a studio space for about six artists who make a living selling their art. Kevin, our yoga teacher, is involved with Wajukuu, U-Tena, and a group called Mukuru Development Project. MDP provides a space for Kevin to teach yoga classes to young children and is developing new home building techniques (sacks full of dirt used like bricks) that will provide better insulation and protection from fires. Innovations of this sort have been attempted with cinder block but the width of the cinder block reduces the home size in a quantity that was not deemed proportionately valuable to residents.

Finally, another U-Tena member Kevin Cira has begun a program working with young boys on football (soccer) as he found it to be a vital outlet for himself as a child.


Our experiences in the slum have opened our eyes to the realities of the suffering and corruption that take place in Kenya. Equally however, has it increased our ability to understand and connect with the people around us and appreciate the resilience and strength of the Kenyan slum community.

– Carly


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