From the Tweed to Nairobi

By Adam Coleman

With a population of about one million people, Kibera in Nairobi is Africa’s largest slum. With open sewage routes, uncollected garbage rotting in the streets and a basic lack of safe water supplies or sanitation, Kibera is a community operating at survival level.

A combination of poor nutrition and lack of sanitation accounts for many illnesses in the slum – death from diseases including HIV is a common occurrence.

By contrast, the Tweed Shire  in NSW is an extremely fortunate, well informed and resourced community that maintains a comparably very healthy environment.

When Tweed Shire Council general manager Mike Rayner was invited to present to the Third World Water Forum in Kyoto in 2003, he met Olita Ongonjo, a community development worker representing Maji na Ufanisi – a non-governmental organisation from Nairobi.

Both men immediately saw the vast contrasts in their organisations work but also some common themes and the opportunity to share and learn from each other.

“He got to know me and we had [a picture of] this beautiful, relatively speaking, pristine view of the Tweed River looking up to Mt Warning and he said ‘what are you doing over there, you don’t have any problems’,” Mr Rayner says.

“I said ‘well, our problem is that we want make sure we don’t end up like you’. I said ‘your message should be that one day you might be able to [have your waterways] looking like ours because Lake Nairobi – they used to sail on it’. It’s now landfill.”

Following the Kyoto exchange, the council pursued the feasibility of establishing a long-term relationship with Maji Na Ufanisi.

“When I came back, I did a report to council and I said look, rather than a sister city relationship, why don’t we do something at the other end of the spectrum?” he says.

“Why don’t we see if we can use all of the resources that we have in terms of our people and our community and our schools to make a difference to the life of a third world community? And remarkably council, which had never agreed to anything actually, were unanimous.”

Olita Ongonjo and John Nyachieo from Maji na Ufanisi made the trip to the Tweed Shire for a three week study tour where strong bonds of friendship and commitment to the mentoring relationship were established.

“We bought Olita and an engineer over for three weeks and we took them through the Tweed community, schools, service clubs and farmers and so forth,” Mr Rayner says.

“They spent two weeks being trained on water- and soil-related matters, water testing and repairing vegetation, and within the next twelve months we had developed this idea of a mentoring program.”

In February 2004, Tweed Shire Council formalised support for the mentoring program by committing $10,000 per year for five years, a commitment that was soon matched by the International River Foundation (IRF) and later by On Q human resources.

A program desk has now been established in Kibera, Nairobi and Olita Ongonjo is employed as the Kenyan program coordinator.

The key role of the desk is to facilitate four project streams – advocacy and environmental education; youth network mobilisation for environmental rehabilitation; cultural and technical exchange and the SafeWater Project.

“The Tweed community now has a desk in the middle of the biggest slum in Africa,” he says.

Making sport of cleaning

One of the programs the desk facilitates is Y-CLEAN (Youth Led Environment Action Network), which mobilises unemployed young people living in the slums as volunteers for recycling, rubbish removal and river rehabilitation.

It has been successful in combining environmental volunteering with sport.

The model is driven by youth and will also involve collaboration with government, NGOs, business, schools and universities.

“The Tweed community had a soccer boot and gear muster,” Mr Rayner says.

“We collected about 200 kilograms of soccer equipment. We shipped that over there and with that we launched the Great Nairobi Sports for the Environment Tournament where Australia’s high commissioner turned up – it was a two-day event where you played soccer but you also learnt about the environment.”

According to Mr Rayner, there are now 600 kids involved in a youth cleanup and environmental action network, “planting trees, doing garbage collection and playing soccer”.

With the help of those 600 kids on World Environment Day last year, Nairobi City Council garbage trucks went into Kibera for the first time.

“The thing that struck me about the whole program is the amount of support there is in the community but it’s very much about relationships – it’s not fly in build a toilet block and disappear.”

SafeWater in Obambo-Kadenge

When Olita and John came out to Australia for the first time, they met plenty of support from Tweed Shire Council.

“Engagement with the staff was incredible to the extent the staff on their own initiative have commenced a payroll deduction scheme,” Mr Rayner says.

“That is now up to $13,000 a year. This was their initiative; this wasn’t council’s initiative.”

The SafeWater project was born as a direct result of the contributions of Tweed Shire Council staff along with contributions from sponsors within the Tweed Shire community.

Using money raised a water filtration plant from an Australian company called Skyjuice Foundation was purchased in March 2007 and taken to a very isolated and extremely poor area of rural Kenya by Tweed Shire Council environmental scientist, Marty Hancock.

Before the filtration unit at Obambo-Kadenge arrived people in the community had been travelling for kilometres to a contaminated dam for their water.

Due to severe poverty, villagers could not afford to boil or treat their water in any way, and so as well as walking long distances to collect it they were affected by contaminants derived from cattle, agriculture and domestic runoff.

“We had to have [the filtration plant] secure so that the microfiltration units that we were taking over wouldn’t get stolen. So

Olita went out and he lived in that village for three months emailing Marty, giving him advice, coming back to Nairobi and going back out again.” he says.

“We had to be sure when Marty left Australia with the filtration unit under his arm that he could get there and we could get the thing commissioned,” he says.

Mr Rayner says the SafeWater Project is making a huge difference to the lives of the Obambo-Kadenge community.

“The infant mortality rate in that area was very high due to dysentery and waterborne disease – it will reduce,” he says.

Benefits for the Tweed

Aware of the financial sustainability issues affecting many councils around Australia, Mr Rayner is quick to point out the benefits to councils of undertaking a similar project.

The Tweed community in NSW has embraced the program “like you wouldn’t believe” he says.

“Okay it cost council $10,000 a year plus some time that our staff have spent on it.

“But that investment from council’s one hundred and fifty million dollar a year budget is from my perspective, the best $10,000 of the investment in staff training that you could make, apart from anything else.

“Apart from the benefit of what you might be achieving out there, the impact of exposing our own organisation to that community has done a lot more. It’s the cost of sending two people to a conference for a week.”

This article first appeared in the December 2007/January 2008 edition of

Government News magazine.




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