The Land Cruiser drops me off at the back of a Catholic church, an oasis from the sprawling growth of Mukuru. This is the hub of Micato’s efforts. Kids are playing basketball on a freshly tarred new court, funded in part from the bar mitzvah money of a 13-year-old boy who visited Mukuru a year prior. Across a small field are the new classrooms of Gorretti Nursery School, which is now doubled in size and offers children a free hot meal at lunch, thanks to the generosity of a Kansas-based donor who would like to remain anonymous. Standing in front of me is the Harambee Centre, a three-building community center built in 2007 from a $100,000 check Jennifer Walsh and Bernard Wharton presented to Lorna Macleod upon their return to New York.
When Walsh and Wharton were delivered to this same spot in 2006, their children went to play soccer with the locals while the couple was escorted around a facility that desperately needed upgrading. Wharton noticed that the person showing him around was carrying a sheet of paper with a crude drawing of a community center they were hoping to build. An architect by trade (he’s designed a house in the Boston area for Red Sox owner John Henry), Wharton found his curiosity was piqued.
“We had been looking around for some sort of project in Africa for a while, and this one seemed noble and interesting. Before we got on the plane that night, we knew we were going to create that building,” Wharton says.
Inside the Harambee Centre, students read at the desks of a library. Another room is temporarily used as a health clinic, where 30 optometrists will be visiting the week after I to give free eye checkups to the people of Mukuru. In a third room, kids congregate around computers to try their hand at a video game designed by Warner Bros. that educates them about preventing HIV and AIDS. Macleod has also forged a relationship with Johnson & Johnson, as evidenced by the reusable sanitary napkins being manufactured in a separate building. Macleod learned early on that many girls were missing school during menstruation because they couldn’t afford to purchase pads. The kits have since been presented to more than 15,000 girls and are made by women from Mukuru, giving them an important employment opportunity.
On the far corner of the property is a deep well created by Micato for families to access fresh water. During the outbreak of cholera in late 2009, when members of Mukuru fell ill and several people died after ingesting contaminated water, the mayor of Nairobi drove into the settlement to try to calm people’s fears. This angered locals who thought he was doing too little, too late. They shooed him away, shouting, “Why can’t you be like Micato, who gives us clean water?” The safari outfitter has gained the trust of the people in Mukuru by being firmly rooted in their community for such a long period of time.
“I’m often asked how come we don’t branch out to other poor areas of Nairobi,” says Lorna Macleod. “When you see a child you help get an education graduate from college and return to Mukuru with a skill that bolsters the community, that’s a powerful statement. Locals helping locals is the end result we all desire.”
Stephen Jermanok last wrote about cemetery-hopping in Boston for American Way. He blogs daily at www.activetravels.com.