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Surviving against all odds in Nairobi’s Dandora area

© UNICEFKenya/2011/Serem
16 year old Lucy with her 11 year old brother, Alvin, in their single-room house in Dandora, Nairobi. Lucy's younger sister and cousin also live here.

By Daisy Serem

NAIROBI, KENYA, 1 March 2012: Dilapidated houses, burst sewers spewing drainage on the streets and overcrowded walkways. This is the scenery at Dandora, one of the informal urban settlements in Nairobi, where the city’s largest dumpsite is located. Families live under these unsanitary and hazardous conditions with many sharing tiny single-room houses. On the streets, the children play together, jumping over garbage and open drainage, oblivious of the risks involved.

Deep in the heart of Dandora, we meet Lucy Wanjiru, a 16-year-old girl who lives here, sharing a single room with her brother, sister and cousin. On this day she is home with her 11-year-old brother Alvin. He has skipped school because he hurt his hand while playing with his friends and though it looks rather swollen she has not yet taken him to see a doctor. Accessing quality healthcare is a challenge for many people living in informal settlements in Kenya.

Lucy and her siblings are orphans having lost their father at a tender age whilst their mother died in December 2010. Her relatives were not willing or able to provide for them and they were often moved from one family to another until a well-wisher offered them the room in Dandora. Lucy then took up the role of sole guardian and provider for her brother and sister and works hard to ensure they stay healthy and in school.

Challenges of urban life

Although she completed her primary education last year and is supposed to proceed to high school, as many of her age mates have done, she is still home due to financial constraints. For now she earns a living doing house chores for neighbours, like washing dishes for 50 Shillings per job.

“I wanted to go to secondary school but there is no money,” she says. “I have been called to two schools but it seems my dreams of getting an education are fading away.”

This is the life of many people residing in informal settlements around the country, living from hand to mouth. Even for those children whose parents are alive and able to provide, high poverty rates mean many are excluded from vital basic services such as healthcare, education and improved water and sanitation.

Children in an urban world

UNICEF’s ‘The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World’ spotlights children such as Lucy, who are living under harsh conditions in urban areas. According to the report, more than one billion children all over the world now live in cities and towns. In Kenya, nine million people are urban dwellers with two thirds of the population in Nairobi living in informal settlements.

A look at opportunities for the urban child reveals shocking inequalities between the rich and the poor with many children in the informal settlements struggling to survive and thrive. Even as urbanization takes root, UNICEF urges governments to reduce disparities for all children in order to realize a more inclusive and productive future.

“Excluding these children in slums not only robs them of the chance to reach their full potential,” says UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “It robs their societies of the economic benefits of having a well-educated, healthy urban population.”

© UNICEFKenya/2012/Serem
Lucy reads her letter of acceptance to Mirururi Girls High School but due to insufficient funds she has been unable to go to the school.

Keeping the dream alive

Luckily for Lucy and her siblings, they are beneficiaries of the Cash Transfer Programme for Orphans and Vulnerable Children. Through this initiative, supported by UNICEF and other development partners, the Government of Kenya makes pay-outs to poor families taking care of orphans and vulnerable children.

Lucy and her siblings, alongside many other orphans and vulnerable children, receive regular cash transfers to assist them in their day-to-day lives. For Lucy, the 2,000 shillings given every month helps her buy food, school books, uniform and other basic needs. But she longs for the day when she can free her family from the daily cycle of poverty.

“I want to be a newscaster one day,” she confidently says. “I just want to be able to take care of them. I want us to leave here and live a better life.”

The Cash Transfer programme now reaches close to 500,000 orphans and vulnerable children. Recent evaluations of the programme reveal that it has significantly reduced poverty rates as well as helping to keep children well-nourished and in school. UNICEF plans to assist the government to scale up the cash transfers to reach more needy households, but requires about US$4,275,760.

Lucy takes us to her former school, Kinyago Primary School, where her brother and sister are students. Alice, 14, is in class; a shy and reserved girl but a very studious pupil. She would like to be an engineer one day, and her proud elder sister says she will do whatever it takes to fulfill all their aspirations.

“My sister is like a mother to me,” says Alice. “I love her very much and I am very grateful for all that she does for us.”

For Lucy, as a young guardian, she now waits for a silver-lining in her educational pursuits with the hope that her dreams and those of her family will be kept alive.



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