• A clean-up of Nairobi River combined with riparian restoration led to the green space
• The project has helped former gangsters and prostitutes become conservationists and table bankers
In Korogocho, in sight of Dandora dump, is a long stretch of grass and trees. It takes your breath away. It’s not what you expect. But it’s the Peoples Park, and it was made by former gangsters.
At least that is what they say they were. “This place has a dark history. But we are out of crime now and none of us are willing to go back,” says Fredrick Okinda, the leader of Komb Green Solutions, the group who created the park.
The park lies along Nairobi River and runs right up to the bridge that crosses from Korogocho into Dandora.
“The bridge used to be a no-go zone,” says Sarah Nyambura, 34, one of the women involved. “It was a mountain of garbage here, a thieves’ hideout. Men could pull you here from the road and God-knows-what would happen.”
But Sarah is laughing now. We are planting trees. Her child lifts a seedling. She says the area has been completely changed by the replacement of what was a den for nefarious activity with a clean place where people can sit on grass, in the open, and under trees.
Where once bad things happened, they now have table banking on Sundays, attended by 56 people, 34 of them women. “We put in Sh100 a week when we can: 50 goes into saving and 50 into a merry-go-round.”
“It has brought us from far,” says another woman. “Some of us were prostitutes in the central business district, though it was not our choice to do that. Now we are looking at carpet cleaning, being saloonists and catering.”
Fredrick explains that the males in the group got tired of gang life. “We lost so many — killed by police, killed in mob justice or killed in gang war. But now the police who used to be after us handed us our certificates after we were trained in riparian restoration.”
Okinda is referring to a training that was led by Sam Dindi, the founder of environmental magazine Mazingira Yetu. Dindi has followed the group from the start.
“They were having running battles with the police,” he explains. “The motivation for the park was a safe place where they could rest without feeling harassed.”
Okinda says, “The change began as a ripple.”
The group cleaned away the garbage. And as its seriousness became apparent, it won support from the district to erect gabions to stabilise the banks of Nairobi River. The men and women also got tetanus shots, first aid training, gumboots, and other protective gear. And, oh my, do they need them!
The river is loaded with dangerous sharp objects, including medical waste like syringes. As we walk along the bank, Okinda points to small circles of stones. These are graves where they bury the bodies of babies, some of them unborn, that they pull from the river. It’s a sad moment. But let’s be realistic. It is common knowledge that the river is treated this way.
The men are worried about the water quality, and Robert Muchiri, one of the group, collects a sample for me to take for testing. It turns out to have a very heavy load of E. coli, Streptococcus faecalis and other bacteria associated with human waste.
Robert says although he was born in Nairobi, he’s a farmer who likes to keep livestock. He has pigs in a wooden stall next to the park. His ducks were stolen but he hopes for more.
In March 2019, the park won first prize in a competition run by Public Space Network. The collective of “stakeholders and urban experts with an interest in a cleaner, safer city” said the park was “an impressive transformation of a riverbank in an informal settlement”.
The World Health Organisation says that green spaces are fundamental in cities, capable of reducing stress and health inequalities and improving well-being.
The men are deeply proud of what they have done. “There are some guys who want you to stay in crime life,” said one. “They want to say, ‘welcome back’. But it’s your life, not someone else’s life. Your family depends on you.”
The group has many future plans. They are extending the park, at present 200 metres long. They want to connect it to the Internet as a service to those who gather there. They have a plant nursery and the shell of a building where they want to put a nursery school. They hope the Dandora side of the river will start to regreen.
Sam Dindi comments that there are “some pockets of space. But the programme needs sustainability”.
Okinda is not put off by the struggles, however. “We have managed to mentor 500 kids not to go to the dumpsite to pick metals and to listen to their mothers.”
Organisations wishing to engage with Komb Green Solutions or visit or donate to the Peoples’ Park can contact:
Komb Green Solutions [email protected]
Mazingera Yetu [email protected]
Cathy Watson is Chief of Programme Development, World Agroforestry (ICRAF)