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How to help your neighborhood when it is everything to you

In informal communities, each decision is made based on a hierarchy of needs. Irregular income leaves no room for emergencies or luxuries. With a saturated and inconsistent supply of electricity or drinking water, the absence of sanitation systems, and poor quality education due to insufficient resources, informal communities are subjected to the harshest living conditions in Kenya. At a time when Covid-19 is wreaking havoc around the world, many cannot even afford the strict government regulations.

In one of the oldest suburbs, Mathare, there are approximately 400,000 people. Most of the population lives in extreme poverty in houses built with mud and corrugated sheet metal, explains Billian Okoth Ojiwa, team leader for the Billian Music Family, a suburban nonprofit resource center. teaches music and prepares to survive. The government-advocated covid-19 precautions are not tailored to informal communities, so many residents overlook them.

“Take a walk around here and you will see that there are not many who wear masks or maintain a safe distance. This community faces problems worse than the pandemic itself; that’s our view on the subject. Many families do not have enough to eat, and at one point there was no water. How do they expect them to wash their hands without water? ”Billian laments. “At the beginning, when the government announced the mandatory use of the mask, one cost 100 Kenyan shillings (75 euro cents), and that is equivalent to two kilos of corn flour. So you have to set priorities. A family with five Children would need about 700 shillings (5.42 euros). If they don’t have enough to eat, how can they buy masks? “

Billian Music Family aims to transform the lives and livelihoods of children and adolescents by providing a safe environment and space. It seeks to train young talents and leaders, and help the Mathare community through music, education, dance, and other social and educational activities.

In a report published by UN-Habitat Many suburban residents are reported to work outside the formal sector, earn unstable incomes and have minimal savings. These people will lose their livelihoods every time the cities become confined, they will have no chance of receiving social subsidies and they will not be able to buy water, soap, food, or medical treatments. Thus, in these contexts, the rapid and innovative deployment of a guaranteed income, basic supplies and a social security cushion is necessary for communities to implement the necessary public health measures to fight against the spread of covid-19 in their communities. neighborhoods.

Billian Music Family tries to make life easier for the residents of Mathare in these unpredictable times. The organization started by providing water and masks to the community. She served water in cisterns until the state took over the task. Immediately she began to offer food as well. According to Billian, there were charitable people who brought food to the community. That was good, but they were killing grocery stores and small local establishments, he says. “We wanted to strengthen the local economy, and that’s how the idea of ​​food stamps was born. These coupons can only be redeemed at local stores. The idea has worked well, allowing local shopkeepers to also support their families, ”she explains.

Billian at his office of his organization Billian Music Family in Mathare, Nairobi.

Coupons for the nearest store

The coupon system is very transparent. Community health volunteers identify families in need. To ensure reliability and success in applying the system, the Billian Music Family partnered with ICRISAT, a food research organization comprised of 7th Memorial Park, FootPrints for Change, Crime Sio Poa, and Kenya Unite.

“Trust is the most important component, especially when there is money involved. Kenya Unite handles the accounts. FoodPrints prepares weekly reports on how many families have received food and their data. They also attach the bank and Mpesa receipts, ”says Billian.

ICRISAT offers technical advice on nutrition, which is essential to ensure good health and a strong immune system. “We are faced with a disease that attacks him. We try to ensure that our community receives healthy food. Every weekend, armed with a detailed coupon and an SMS of support, needy families collect food products at the nearest store that has been assigned to them, ”says the center leader.

Preserve dignity and self-esteem

Coupons also help preserve dignity. According to Billian, lining up people and taking photos of them to offer help destroys their self-esteem. “They put you there in view, so that the whole neighborhood knows that you go to charity services. Depending on how much money we raise each week, the coupons are 500 or 1,000 shillings (4-8 euros), ”he says.

Billian Music Family serves 100 to 200 families. Unable to help the entire community, the team leader was concerned that families left outside, even if not in such need, would also demand free food and basic items, putting the project in jeopardy. “It was an unfounded fear. At the moment we have not had any incidents, “he says.

We are faced with a disease that attacks the immune system. We try to ensure that our community receives healthy food


Training or talent are the easiest ways to get out of the suburb, he says. For this reason, the closure of schools in Kenya (the school year has been suspended) is a great setback for those who depend on that education. “I visited some relatives about three weeks ago and their children were having a Zoom class. So their life goes on as normal, and they learn, socialize, and play with friends. But at Mathare, parents can’t afford an online class. The closure here is a tremendous blow, ”laments Okoth.

And while the Billian Music Family has been offering space to host classes via video call, only a limited number of students can attend due to lack of space. Her priority is senior high school students. “We have about 20. We take their temperature before entering. Teachers and university students take care of the classes. We also feed them to make sure they are well fed. I am very much a supporter of education because it opens the mind to proper reasoning. It also provides an opportunity to fight for what one deserves, ”he says.

The goal is not just to educate them, but also to keep them busy and away from idleness, he adds. According to Billian, the biggest challenge posed by this unforeseen school closure will be teenage pregnancies. Kenyan media, citing data from a public health information system, they reported that in the first five months of 2020, some 4,000 adolescents went to health facilities requesting prenatal care in Machakos County. “Some parents tell me that they don’t feel safe leaving their daughters home alone when they go to work. Most are looking for a small space for eighth grade students, the last year of primary school, ”he says.

It’s hard to live up to the reputation and expectations that the community places on the Billian Music Family. The resources they have at the moment are not enough to cover all of Mathare. “We organize discussions on sustainability with young people. During this pandemic we have realized how important agriculture is and having our own food. We don’t have land in Mathare and we never will. If we don’t think creatively, we will never be farmers, “says Billian, adding:” In the future we want to help women’s groups rent land. We can produce corn or millet and add additional value. A mill and community containers ”.

Mathare has enough population to consume the flour produced, without the need to go to external markets. These are some of the aspects that are being considered. The production value chain will employ many people in this area.

For Billian, Mathare is everything. Born here. The neighborhood supported him all his life, after he lost his parents when he was in high school. They helped him with a community scholarship and he made it to college. “When good things happen here, I celebrate it with my soul, and when bad things happen, I feel it in my soul. I owe the community more than I give it, ”he says.

Several Mathare residents queue up to pick up food at neighborhood stores.

Several Mathare residents queue up to pick up food at neighborhood stores.

Billian won the 2019 volunteer of the year award from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The Billian School of Music won two awards, for best documentary and best music video, at the Los Angeles Brazilian Film Festival in 2019. The play, Child of Nature, talks about bringing children from all over the world together to change little things. “We want our music to be educational entertainment,” he explains.

Our protagonist grew up without models to serve as an example. Now he is telling the children of Mathare that nothing is impossible when one perseveres. “I want to work with other leaders who have similar ideas and use the networks we have to make Mathare a better place. My grandchildren will find a different community, with a reliable sanitation system, stable electricity and water, quality education, and tall buildings. This will only be possible if we have the right leaders in the community itself ”, he stresses.

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