African Community Development (Indigenous Style): Chamas and Harambee as a case in point

Dandora with Nairobi river
Parts of Dandora with Nairobi river (© Michael Waltinger, field research, 2013)

 

The latest edition of one of my favorite sources for non-mainstream reporting on certain parts of Nairobi, the African Slum Journal, is on the changing faces of Dandora – a well-known place in Eastlands Nairobi that I have visited myself severally over the course of the past years. What I find remarkable about this particular episode is that it provides an excellent example of locally and culturally sensitive community development.

Dandora is a settlement in Nairobi (Kenya) that, according to the African Slum Journal report, was established in 1977 by the World Bank and the Nairobi City Council as a means of planned and affordable housing for low income populations in the area. Over the years, the area also became ‚home‘ to one of the largest dumpsites in East Africa; which massively affects and pollutes the environment.

Local initiatives, however, have started to clean and color up the space with a two fold purpose: to develop their own community from within (through chamas as a financial and organizational form) in terms of developing a more habitable environment and also to bring down criminal activity by youth involvement and empowerment that in turn avoids idling.

As the community came to see the meaning and effect of the local initiative (health benefits, increased security, and so forth), residents of the area were increasingly ready and willing to contribute the monthly installments they could spare to that greater good. The organization, in turn, has then employed even more youths and equipped them with the tools necessary to carry out the community activities.

This is, in my opinion, a perfect example for the harambee-spirit that I got to know as being so typical for Kenya (and maybe other African communities as well) – and that is often used to fix community needs where the government fails to act 1 (which is in many instances) or where western ngo’s fail to engage with local needs in meaningful ways. It then is also an example of what non-top down grass roots approaches might look like that are locally relevant (by listening to the voices of the residents) and culturally embedded (chamas, harambee) and not designed from far away-world high-rise office desks.

 

 

  1. Harambee, or „pulling together“ for a common goal, is a form of community participation for which the late first president of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, has called for. This cultural mode is also very visible e.g. in the educational sector, which in Kenya is often heavily underfunded by the government, thus requiring parents and other bodies to contribute to (private) schools teacher salaries, the land on which schools are to be constructed, furniture, school materials, morning snacks, and so forth. All in all, self-help projects (as an expression of underfunded infrastructure and services) are omnipresent in Kenya and lively proof for the vitality and efficiency of indigenous community development.
    See for example in Swadener, Beth; Kabiru, Margaret; Njenga, Anne (2000): Does the village still raise the child? State University of New York Press.

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