Friday, 27 February 2009

Bricks

We’ve been working (unpaid, mind you!) the last 3 weeks in Pamoja Trust’s office. I’ve turned into IT Boy, which Tania says really suits me. Doing the job has meant we have got to visit some more slums, or “informal settlements” as they really should be called. A couple of days ago I crashed a tour with a bunch of people doing similar work to Pamoja in Morocco and some UN-type Americans. The first settlement was fine, quite homely actually – flowers outside the buildings, nice smiling kids (“HOW AH YOU?”). They’re compact - 14ft by 15ft buildings (built by community members themselves) on 3 floors, the top floor being mainly open roof – and sleep two officially. The communities organise their own saving schemes and members must meet certain criteria to qualify for a new property. The one we saw was to cost 105,000 Kenyan Shillings – that’s just under £1,000 - and it would belong to the owner outright, although there is uncertainty as to whether the government will give out official land titles in these areas. The communities plan to build more of these structures right in the middle of the settlements, amongst the more ramshackle mud and corrugated iron affairs – so that people will aspire to build and own one themselves.

The second settlement we visited was deep in Mathare (I think!) and we had to drive down increasingly narrow and busy streets full of informal private enterprise, lined with young men who didn’t seem at all happy to see us. One actually gestured across his throat with his finger – the first time I had seen any kind of negative reaction to mzungus in a slum.

We got to see how they make the bricks they use for the buildings. They had this great machine, like a press, that compacted the kind of earthy mud into a tessellating shape. To get a better look, I stood on what I thought were dried bricks. Then I noticed one of the community leaders looking disbelievingly at me and shaking his head – so I sheepishly (and quietly) got down, to find I had broken at least one of the wet, new bricks.

Doh! What a twat! Whose side are you on, Alex?

In the last place we visited that day, we got to see them making the “chang'aa” hardcore liquor, out the back of the settlement. In big metal barrels / stills, that looked just about to explode, over raging fires. I have not tried said beverage yet.

Finally, T has got me a wicked book for my birthday – John Irving’s “Hotel New Hampshire”. A Dutch guy we met, Erik, who has now sadly returned home to Hitchin (no less), recommended it. I love it; it’s ages since I have read a well-written, quirky and deviant, American story – something I would have read as a precocious teenager. Thanks T.

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