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Restoring Hope in Informal Settlements

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

From Crime to Green

Image taken with some of the group members at our project site in Ruiru in December '22

Early 2022, HFG EA Director, Sheena Shah was introduced to a youth group residing interior of Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements, by reporter and journalist Jaclynn Ashly who had been capturing stories from this informal settlement and shedding light on just how much areas such as this have been impacted by brutal police violence. She came across a group of young men in Mathare who have reformed themselves from a life of crime to regenerate themselves, their community, and environment. In 2016, these young men transformed a large piece of land in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements, into a green park and agricultural space, where they grow vegetables to sell to their community with the little that they know and have no training in the subject. They named it the Mathare Green Park. Jaclynn recognized their efforts and had some basic knowledge of permaculture through her own research and was connected to Sheena & Harvesting for Good East Africa.

Jaclynn invited Sheena to the site in February last year to meet the group and see if this would be a viable group and project to get involved with. Sheena agreed to the visit and was absolutely amazed at the land and centre that the group had acquired. She was intrigued by the young men that she met and the willingness to gain applicable skills to further develop their land to a more functional space that would attract more people from the community to mimic. We invited a couple of the members of the group to our project site at the Ruiru Rehabilitation Centre in November where they had a chance to interact with has been achieved there. They were able to take aways lessons from there and apply to their existing land. We also donated over 80 seedlings for them to start off with in January.

The group's site at Mathare Green Park - a mere 3-hectare land where each of the 16 members has their own plot to cultivate on

Since our first visit there, it has taken over a year to design the programme and work with other experts to make it absolutely worthwhile and more importantly long term. The idea has been to design something with clear goals.

Why this project is important to the group - At heart they believe that by learning a useful skill and growing their own food in disadvantaged urban areas/informal settlements, they can provide meaningful work, build communities, and help to ease the massive problem of incarceration in the area, driven by lack of opportunities that propel young people into crime.

It’s a huge coping skill to be working with the soil, planting stuff and seeing it grow. This type of work can effectively lead to entrepreneurial opportunities and also deters young people from getting involved with gangs, and providing them with something like this that is tangible, lessens that. This is why this is important work and why it has taken so long to deliver such a concept.

With the support of friends and colleagues, we were able to raise the funding to cover the first stage of the project which we are very grateful for. The first step was for us to carry out a week long permaculture training facilitated by Harvesting for Good East Africa at their partner site that was developed as a permaculture model site at a children's shelter in Ruiru last year. The group had the opportunity to interact with what has been achieved, see it in action and in practice and then provide them with more practical sessions. They helped revamp most neglected areas to get a further gist on the fundamentals of maintenance and upkeep. They are now gearing up to implement these techniques at their own 3-hectare piece of land, where they have each acquired a portion to start developing their own farm sites. We will continue to support them through follow ups and provide them with specialised training overtime, ensuring that they are understanding the concepts further.

Images from our training this week (these images below are taken by HFG EA Founder- Sheena Shah)

Ten out of sixteen men have received the training to take back to the rest of the group and in hopes that this work continues to develop within the whole community in Mathare and take it onward to other informal settlements. Peer to peer support is by far one of the most important ways to change beliefs and attitudes. The learning outcomes are determined by understanding their needs as a whole to make this successful.The group indicated that this was the first training that they had ever received. They included that no-one has taken this much interest in them and they feel absolutely grateful for this opportunity. We can only change landscapes by changing mindscapes which makes this an incredible opportunity, and if we can get through that battle, the rest is easy, however we do need to consider that no matter how skillfully crafted our project plan is, it is the ability to craft the connection between permaculture and the group's aspirations, sense of self worth and dignity to determine whether our movement is created or not.

This marks our second stage of the work that we are gearing up for which includes follow ups, further training and supporting the group with inputs and material to get them started. A lot of time will now be put in to creating the exchange visits, equipping the group themselves by being agents of change for the community as a whole. We are starting to raise the necessary funds to start this work. This week, the group received tools (which they've had) to get them equipped for our visit to work with them on proper design and getting them started.

Image taken by the group themselves after receiving their first set of tools

“The most essential need is raising funds for us to continue this ongoing and important work. Before this group, there were truly no role models in their community who could show young people how to make an income that was not through crime. These men have followed no one except their own hearts and their desire to live a dignified life, leading them to reform from their criminal paths. If transformative pathways start with the people, these men have already accomplished a lot on their own.

Now, however, they need support in building on what they have already created. The difficult journey has already been done; they only need assistance from here on out to look for creative ways to enhance their already inspiring journey. Permaculture training is the first step to helping these men upgrade their farming techniques and access organic markets in Nairobi, creating a transformative impact on the land, community, and providing income-generation for the youth and community as a whole.” We seek your support to get this work off the ground- Jaclynn Ashly (Facilitator and Journalist)

Please get in touch with us if you would like to support us further in making this project a reality long term.

Meet the team below.

Meet at least seven out of the ten members that we are working with, who are typically out of the full sixteen inspiring members of Mathare Green Park (the images taken by journalist, Jaclynn Ashly who has worked closely with the group and introduced us to them)

Anthony Mugendi, aka “Chief,” age 26 (is the Field Project Lead)

Mugendi is one of the founders of the group and continues to be one of their most vocal leaders. “All of us were doing bad things, robbing and stealing,” he says.

“So many of our friends were killed by police or vigilante mobs so we needed to find a way out. We knew that our community was the only ones who would be able to protect us from this violence.”

“We had to get the community to trust us so they could protect us; we started working on creating a new bond with our community and providing them with services they needed. Now we have so much love and solidarity in this community and that’s the only reason any of us are still alive. All the mothers here bring their sons to us when they are acting badly. We try to show them that there’s another way in life.”

Patrick Kimani, 31-years-old

Kimani cultivates one of the land plots at Mathare Green Park, growing spinach. “This land has been very special to us,” he says. “It gives us an opportunity to grow food and sell our produce to the community. It is nearly impossible to find a piece of land as large as this one in the slums, so we are very lucky here.”

“I’ve learned a lot since we started Mathare Green Park. I know now how to work and look after myself without stealing or depending on anyone else. We are eager to learn more about permaculture and how to further benefit our community, while improving the quality of the food we’re growing.”

George Owino, 21-years-old

“I feel good since I joined the movement,” says Owino, who used to be involved in crime. “I began realising that I didn’t need to steal to make money. Now I do garbage collection around the community and I make sure the environment is clean and that we’re properly disposing of waste -- something that has always been an issue for us in the slums.”

“All of this really speaks to me. Having an environment free from waste and doing positive activities has transformed our community and the way we relate to each other. A clean environment must always come first and developing healthier and cleaner strategies of agriculture and livestock keeping will ensure that our community members have adequate and healthy food.”

Pius Kimani, 22-years-old

Kimani joined Mathare Green Park when his older brother, 27-year-old Christopher Maina, a beloved member of the group, was shot and killed by police in 2017. Following Maina’s killing, large protests broke out in Mlango Kubwa. That same night, the police officer who killed Maina returned to the park and shot bullet holes in the youths’ water tanks, purportedly enraged by the community-wide demonstrations against the police.

“My whole family’s life changed after my brother was killed and that’s when I joined Mathare Green Park,” Kimani says, standing in front of the same water tanks riddled with now patched up bullet holes. “Pirates” is scribbled across one of them.

“Now I’m managing the garbage collection and making sure the environment is clean from pollution. I’m also cultivating sweet potatoes. I’m excited to learn about permaculture and regenerative farming. I hope to share this knowledge with friends and the rest of the community once I learn.”

Edwin Maina, 25-years-old

“I joined the group after I finished school,” Maina says. “There was a lot of violence in the community and I joined the movement in 2017 to try and help stop this. During school, I was doing a lot of drugs and this group saved me from turning into a junkie.”

“Mathare Green Park has brought a purpose to my life to fight for what’s right and stand strong for justice. I studied agriculture in school and I’m very eager to learn more about permaculture and to see how we can apply this knowledge to better ourselves and the rest of our communities.”

John Mwangi, 22-years-old

“I used to be a bad boy, a thief. That’s the only way I knew how to make money,” Mwangi says. “A lot of people like me were being hunted down and killed by vigilante mobs, so I joined the group in 2016 to get some protection. Now, I do garbage collection in the community. My life is much better now. I have my work and things are much more peaceful for me. If it wasn’t for Mathare Green Park, I would have definitely been killed. There’s no way I would be alive today to speak to you.”

“I would really like to learn more about organic and regenerative agriculture. But I don’t know much about it so I would need someone to show me. I think it could even help us convince the youths who still haven’t reformed to try it out so they can get a better direction in life. So I hope to share what I’m learning with them.”

Michael Okang’a, 25

“I like the unity of Mathare Green Park and the support we give each other to be independent,” Okang’a says. “I farm vegetables on a plot in the park and I enjoy it a lot because I’m making some money and believing in myself and depending on my own capabilities. At the same time, the community is also receiving healthy green food straight from the farm.”

“We need a lot of work in upgrading our farming techniques. I believe if we do this we would get healthier land and healthier communities. And hopefully more opportunities for ourselves and our fellow youths. I’ve never thought about selling to organic markets. Honestly, I didn’t know they existed until recently. But I think it’s something we can do and it would be a really good example for the rest of the youths trying to figure out how to live and make an income in the slums.”

Meet the Facilitators of the Project

Jaclynn Ashly

International journalist

Jaclynn Ashly is an international journalist from the United States, who began working in and around Nairobi in October 2021. She was introduced to Mathare Green Park while doing fieldwork on experiences of police brutality in the informal settlement. She began interviewing the young men for a story, whose publication is still pending, exploring various youths across Nairobi’s informal settlements who have given up on a life of crime to cater to the needs of their communities.

She realized that the men at Mathare Green Park have a unique placement among all the reformed youths in Nairobi, with a large piece of land that, given the right support, could be developed into sustainable permaculture techniques. Once that is accomplished, they can become the first youths in the city’s impoverished areas to access a new market in the upscale organic marketplaces in Nairobi. She has spoken to various organic farmers’ markets that have already expressed interest in providing the youths with a booth at their farmers’ markets; this ensures that once they develop the expertise they can immediately begin stepping into that world.

Importantly, with unemployment still one of the major issues for young people in the informal settlements, Jaclynn sees the transformative potential of showing an example to other unemployed youths throughout the informal settlements of how to access a new market. This inevitably could also encourage other youths to develop urban agriculture techniques in their own communities, or even on their roofs, to access this market.

Jaclynn believes that Mathare Green Park, the members of which she has spent a significant amount of time with, can be the ones to spearhead a new reality that can encourage young people to imagine something different, in which the growing of healthy and organic food can bring money into the settlements.

[Project Lead] Sheena Shah

Permaculture Practitioner & Director, Harvesting for Good East Africa

Sheena is an Educator and Permaculture Design Practitioner with over 10 years experience. She is the former Education Programme Manager of the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya (PRI Kenya), with more than 6,500 people trained in Permaculture Design and three International Training of Trainers certified courses. She was appointed the Executive Director for the PRI Kenya from 2016 to 2018, responsible for overall management, field operations, strategy, programme delivery, partnerships and communications. Sheena helped develop and design PRI Kenya’s reputable consultancy programme and framework for PRI Kenya. Together the team designed a participatory permaculture design curriculum which was offered to small and larger NGOs and businesses across Africa, working with clients such as Save the Children, Community Forest International, Trocaire, IDDEF, Mercy Corps, Kenya School of Integrated Medicine, NRC, just to name a few. Sheena also master-minded PRI Kenya’s social media presence from inception which really helped build up the organization’s reputation and storytelling platform.

Sheena is now the Founder and Director of Harvesting for Good East Africa. HFG-EA's aim is to transform micro and macro lots, integrated with permaculture design for long term resilience. They have worked with several homes, businesses and individuals since 2019, which includes creating two permaculture model sites in Ruiru at the Ruiru Rehabilitation Centre and in Naivasha at the Naivasha Children’s Shelter. Both projects received grants to set up these sites which they are actively involved with. HFG-EA has recently partnered up with Mlango Farm to facilitate Intro to Gardening & Permaculture Workshops and has taught 60 people to date since May (2023).

Sheena's focus is on regenerative business, using solutions to ensure long-term sustainable development in small-scale projects and markets, whilst overseeing permaculture development in East Africa. Her talent lies in her ability to creatively solve challenging issues while understanding the building process and practicalities of creating a successful landscape. She was introduced to the Mathare Green Park by Jaclynn and was drawn to the group’s development and story right away. It has been nothing short of eagerness to be part of such profound work. She is determined to support the group and create impact.

Sheena is a Gaia University Associate and an Associate of the University of Pennsylvania's- School of Social Impact & Strategy. She is also part of the Advisory Board at permEzone. She teaches part time at Ecodemia, a UK based virtual learning hub and has recently pursued her fellowship at Metis.

John Saam

Field Manager, Harvesting for Good East Africa

John is a proud Maasai tribesman from Nanyuki County. He took his Permaculture Certification course at the Laikipia Permaculture Centre [LPC] in 2016 through a scholarship that Sheena's work with the PRI Kenya offered in permaculture, master composting,integrated pest management, earthworks and organic farming practices. He worked with the Laikipia women's groups, assisting them with nursery propagation and management.

John joined the small team at HFG EA in March 2022 and has since undergone a training of trainer series to equip him with the skills to deliver permaculture activities and training in the field and on projects. He is passionate about the subject and it is absolutely evident!

Through his efforts and willingness in training and following up with gardeners and individuals, HFG EA has been able to strengthen partnerships with the respective sites. This is a brand new development project for John and through Sheena’s guidance, he is eager to support the Mathare Green Park. Little does he know, he is absolutely instrumental in the success of this programme and development.

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