They gave up the bottle to embrace spirit of community


A hand- washing station in Ngando. Nairobi, Tazama Nia has developed a system of food vouchers to assist needy families, during the Covid-19 crisis. PHOTO | COURTESY

Rosemary is a mother of seven children and has one grandchild. Her husband died 10 years ago after being in hospital for a while and the family’s earnings were depleted by medical bills.

Unable to fend for her family, *Rosemary, suffered severe depression and turned to alcohol, abandoning her children. She would wander from one bar to another, day and night, drinking and often trading her body for money. She rarely showered and her life was one continuously bleary episode.

*Catherine is a mother of four children and grandmother of one. After a troubled marriage characterised by domestic violence, she started selling chang’aa during the day. She would then spend the night drinking the proceeds and indulging with men. The cycle would be repeated from day to day, and she hardly ever saw her children. Catherine often got involved in bar brawls and the scars are still evident on her body today.

*Samuel lost his father about six years ago. The death of his father left a big gap in his life and Samuel suffered a severe bout of depression. He turned to drinking, abandoning his wife and child. Many times, he felt that life was not worth living and he contemplated committing suicide to end his troubles.

Rosemary, Catherine and Samuel live in Ngando, a low-income neighborhood opposite the Nairobi Racecourse on Ngong Road. All three have gone through a rehabilitation programme run by Tazama Nia, a ministry started in 2011 by an American couple, Brad and Camie Matlack. They have been reunited with their families and their children are going to school with assistance from Tazama Nia.

This week I was invited by a friend to visit the Tazama Nia community centre in Ngado and I was impressed by the way the programme has responded to the Covid-19 crisis within the community, using staff and volunteers who have healed, trained and transformed. Those who have been transformed include recovering addicts, former prostitutes, widows, single mothers, school drop-outs and delinquent teenagers.

Tazama Nia means “look to the future with hope”. The logo of the organisation is a butterfly, which signifies the final stage in the metamorphosis of some insects. The philosophy behind the logo is that those who are in need of rehabilitation are at the larva stage — which is ugly and destructive — so they need to be helped and moved to the next stage which is the pupa.

The pupa stage is where the transformation occurs before the final imago or beautiful and productive butterfly stage.

Walking through the mud, pools of rainwater and garbage, Samuel took us round to see some of the 46 hand-washing stations, each equipped with a 20 litre premix of soap and water. Each station is manned by a staff member or volunteer from Tazama Nia who ensure that the stations are functional throughout the day.

Water is purchased by Tazama Nia at five shillings per 20 litre container and carried by their staff to the respective stations. Each station has laminated hand washing instructions and the soap is made locally in Ngando.

During the Covid-19 crisis, Tazama Nia has developed a system of food vouchers to assist needy families, who include the disabled, widows, orphans and special needs cases. A data base of household needs was created after visiting each home and the food vouchers are serialised according to each household’s requirements.

A member of each household presents themselves at the community centre each day, washes their hands at the hand washing station which is also equipped with a sanitiser. The member then proceeds to hand over their voucher and sits in a waiting area observing social distancing while the food package is given out.

This process begins at 9am and ends at 11am to avoid crowding. At the time of my visit, food vouchers had been issued to 100 households. Volunteers have collected material made out of donated T-shirts which has been stitched into masks by local fundis who are paid Sh20 per mask. So far Tazama Nia has distributed more than 2,000 masks to the community and I noticed that people are actually wearing them.

Tazama Nia is funded by various churches in the United States and well-wishers in Kenya. Brad and Camie Matlack have lived in Ngando since 2011 and the residents consider them to be part of the community. They work closely with the police and local administration.

The fact that the staff and volunteers spearheading the Covid-19 initiative are former outcasts in the community is encouraging and they serve as role models, giving hope to others that transformation is indeed possible, no matter how low down one may have sunk.

I was particularly impressed with the spirit of camaraderie and commitment to the cause of helping other members of the community in very practical ways.

I wish the same could be said of us in the middle and upper classes of society who are too concerned with our egos, how we are better off than our neighbours and who has the biggest shopping cart at the supermarket. We are the same keyboard warriors criticising the establishment while not doing anything about the crisis. These people in the slums are giving their everything.

It is my prayer that the Covid-19 pandemic will transform us as a nation so that we become beautiful and productive like the butterfly, sucking nectar and spreading it to others.

*Names of recovering alcoholics have been changed to protect their identity.