Mustard Seeds youth group courtyard transformation in Phase 2 of Dandora suburb in Nairobi
High crime rates, youth gangs and theft: these are just some of the issues we are told to watch out for when travelling to the Dandora suburb in Nairobi. When the same stories and phrases are repeated about the area, people start to believe it and stop questioning if another narrative is possible. If society sees you as a criminal or gang member, why would you want to live up to any other expectations? Luckily, the people of Dandora decided to write a new story for themselves.
The Dandora Transformation League (DTL) is a registered non-profit community based organization. Started in 2013, formerly called the Mustard Seeds Community Based Organization, three members of the community decided to make jobs for themselves and start a project that involved transforming their shared courtyard space.
The East Africa Institute (EAI) has identified the lack of child enabling environments in Nairobi as an important area of research and is in the process of exploring the relationships between space, socioeconomic class barriers and the bio-psycho-social impact environments have on children. The needs of children have been forgotten in the wake of rapid urbanisation and population growth. EAI partnered with the DTL to offer a yearly prize of $500 USD to courtyards that developed and maintained space dedicated for children. The space needed to be safe, supervised, clean and operate as a play or work area for children between the ages of 5 to 15. Reasons for developing a space in a particular manner is also a criteria when it comes to rewarding the winning courtyard.
On her first visit to the area, Kristin Swardh, a research assistant at EAI, received a warm welcome. This challenged her expectations and she and her team members from EAI and the University of the Fraser Valley, Canada, were pleased to receive a briefing on the history, challenges and direction of the project and what the future holds.
Kristin was told that residents and the DTL transform each courtyard in ‘Phases’. Their projects start by cleaning the area, and then taking ownership of the space. The group then applies to be a part of the DTL family. From there the youth of the court work with the DTL family to transform the court and to agree on cleanliness standards. After the cleanup, the DTL members and residents agree on a monthly contribution to support the work of the youth, which creates jobs.
The project focuses on community capacity building to mobilise and guide members of the community into creating spatial change. The project is sustainable as future generations and the youth of Dandora see the positivity of an improved space for their own growth and development. To date, the DTL has brought together over 120 youth groups from the low-income Dandora suburb, mobilising over 3,000 youths to transform their spaces.
The ‘Phases’ the group of interns toured were green, colourful, resourceful and creative. Each court was named, gated and decorated with paint, plants, sculptures, play areas, benches and trash cans. However, spatial change goes beyond simply adding colourful paint and creative structures. Transforming space has led to transforming the mindset of the community, adding colour to their lives. One of the ward representatives grew up believing there were no other options for him and shared how he had been involved in criminal activity. The empowerment from the DTL encouraged him to invest in his personal and economic development while giving him the platform to do so. He shared stories about how his life had completely changed for the better and attributed those successes to the DTL.
The innovation in Dandora is one of the contributors to a fall in the crime rate. Youth gangs are now registered youth groups with a goal and mission. Ex-criminals are now employed with credible jobs and a consistent source of income and businesses report feeling more secure to operate in the area. The artists, painters, and designers are enthusiastic about showcasing their unique talents; children have spaces to socialise, learn and play; and community members invested in their own space and therefore determined best practices of operation. This communal ownership has encouraged respect and maintenance of the space. Monthly household contributions go towards paying the youth responsible for maintaining the courtyards, including security.
Such initiatives are changing perceptions of Dandora and mean that the area is gradually becoming a prosperous, clean, green and safe suburb.
Kristin Swardh is an EAI Research Assistant, conducting research on child enabling environments in Kenya.