I Live in

Dandora Phase 4

Words and photography by Kevin Ochieng Onyango

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This article is part of Issue #13

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Growing up in the Dandora slums in Nairobi, Kenya, was amazing - my childhood was fun. While we didn’t have much, we had a good time - especially because of our love of football. It was a place where children could be children, swim in the river, go out, get dirty and have fun - that was very prominent in my community.

But in the early 2000s, I heard stories that Dandora was divided into six phases (six areas). And as the population grew, the amount of land available to the public to dispose of their waste shrunk. Before people even realised it, almost a whole part of one of Dandora’s phases was totally filled with waste from the residents. The Nairobi River, which we used to go swimming in, became polluted by small streams that poured into it from the nearby landfill.

I live in Dandora Phase 4 - it has been my home since birth. And now it’s been 20 years since the dumpsite has been commercialised and industrial waste, harmful chemical and medical waste are being dumped there by pharmaceutical companies and industries. It’s more serious than ever - schools and hospitals are vacating and abandoning some of the areas near the dumpsite.

My conceptual and documentary photography focuses on pollution, water security, climate change and a humanitarian approach to life. My connection with photography started with my love for art and wanting to use art to impact change. I used to draw and paint, but I found photography was a faster tool to communicate effectively to a larger audience.

On a personal level my photographic journey has helped me become the person and the community I portray in my images. I’m more cautious about conservation and recycling and I try as hard as possible to not only be a photographer but an activist for the issues I’m communicating through my work. We are now not only able to speak, but also to shoot images that speak.

I tend to capture real life stories of my community. I mostly use a conceptual form where I recreate, stage and produce images that speak on a particular theme. Photography is a very important tool in impacting change - with photography comes evidence.

I strongly believe that photography can be very political - a lot of communities are misrepresented by mainstream media, while a lot of people get recognition and accolades for this false representation which is unethical.

Water plays a key part in my work. There is no water system laid out in Dandora. The one that existed was dug through the landfill and since has not been functional, so most people rely on buying water from drilled borehole water projects and wells. The joyful aspect of water is simply defined by the fact that since it is quite a challenge to get here, when we do get it, we get peace.

Since my youth in Dandora, the Nairobi River is now full of sewage.  Kids now can’t swim there anymore and some of the playgrounds where we used to play football are now mostly dumping grounds. On the brighter side, the structure of houses in Dandora has since changed for the better. There are fewer mud and iron sheet houses. People have developed and built more permanent structures made of stone and the slum’s name will soon fade and transition into Dandora Estate… If only we kept it cleaner.

It’s nice that we try to effect change by educating people on disposal habits and environmental conservation using art and photography but I would like to see more sustainable intervention projects from my government. For instance, building a recycling plant or facility to help to reduce plastic pollution and other recyclables.

My hope is that every home has a recycling bin that has a grading system on what to recycle and the information on how to do so. I would also like to see a more sustainable approach in reclaiming and cleaning the Nairobi River, not only because of its history but also the fact that it contributes to many harmful waterborne diseases here.

I hope that one day we can swim in the river again.

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Words and photography by Kevin Ochieng Onyango

This article is part of Issue #13

Cover of  Issue #13
Rebirth Roots Rights

Themes in this issue include a call for love and care; radical kinship through reconnection with nature, community, and cultural practices, humanit…

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