The priest of the slum dwellers of Nairobi
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Korogocho is a sprawling slum in Nairobi; the fourth largest after Kibera, Mathare and Mukuru kwa Njenga, with over 2 million people living in an area of 2 square kilometres according to UN habitat.
Like any other slum in urban cities, Korogocho has a myriad of problems: alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution, crime and many diseases including waterborne diseases, malaria, HIV and Aids topping the list.
I was recently in Koch as the slum is commonly known to meet Fr John Weboosta a Comboni missionary who has given up the comfort of living in a parish house to live and work deep within the slums.
The slum is a beehive of activities, women frying fish along the road, young men on motorbikes playing loud music speeding up and down , some welding in metal workshops, children playing along the road as yet another lot of youth idle away time conversing amongst themselves.
My guide, Paul Mwangi a member of St John’s Catholic Church Korogocho points out a shanty, a rickety board nailed on its wall reads ‘Holy trinity Church’. The rickety building has been converted into a changaa den and people are trooping in.
“This is where both the old and the young meet and by evening you will find many people staggering out of there and others sleeping along the road,” he laments as we walk away.
It’s a life one would like to walk away from but Fr Weboosta has finally fit in. He says it was hard at first. He was attacked severally and robbed of his valuables but he says the gang members have realized that he is here to help them.
“Now I have sleepless nights not because of fear of insecurity but thinking of the solutions of the people of Korogocho, I really want this place to change,” he says.
Despite being born in a military navy camp in Mombasa where his father was an officer, his heart has always been to help the less privileged in the society. It is not his first time working in a slum though.
“While studying in Peru, I volunteered in Phorrilloa, a big slum in the capital Lima. My heart has always been to work to uplift people in the slums,” says Fr John.
He says he chose to live in Korogocho because he believes that if you want to change people you must be ready to live with them, it is much easier to know their problems.
Today the Comboni missionary has founded many Community Projects that seek to better the lives of slum dwellers. With the help of donors from Italy he has managed to tarmac the main road that cuts through the slum opening it up and making it accessible.
“With the tarmac incase of fire, the fire brigade crew is able to access this area. We are so grateful to father for what he has done to us” says Paul a resident. The priest also runs a waste management project where young men and women are employed to recycle waste materials from the nearby Dandora dumpsite.
“From this waste management project I earn a living from where am able to feed my family” says Wanjiku who makes beads from the waste plastic materials. Fr. John has also helped many youths go back to school, especially young girls, who had dropped out of school because of early pregnancies. He has built three primary schools, a health centre and several water kiosks for the dwellers. He continues to champion for the relocation of the nearby Dandora dumpsite through a campaign dubbed “stop dumping death on us”
The missionary who has worked in the Korogocho slums since 2005 says he has seen a lot of positive change.
“I have seen youths leave crime, prostitution, and other evil things that happen here, they have embraced a good life where they are earning a honest living from now.” Fr John’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2012 Fr he won the inaugural Franco-German Human Rights award, for being a champion of human rights. According to him, this gave him the platform to be able to tell the story of Korogocho to the world.
“I was the first Kenyan to get this award. Through this award; I had a chance of making Korogocho known to the world”. He; however, does not have kind words for organizations that he says misuse slum dwellers.
“Every year the government and non governmental organizations get
a lot of donor money to start projects to empower these people
but most of the time it goes to the wrong pockets and the little
that they are given is in form of handouts so as to cheat donors
when they come around .This is why the slums keep on increasing
day in day out,” he laments.
According to Fr John the Church should follow the example of Pope
Francis and enhance pastoral life within the slums. People should
not see the slums as places of violence and crime as people in
the slum are much alive in terms of their faith.
“We have a Pope who thinks of the people in the slums. This a
revolution and we are expecting a lot of support from the Church
now,” he concludes.