Fighting Pay-to-Play in Korogocho

P1010060Nairobi We hit the jitney early and made it a long day in the villages where we had been organizing. There were bases that needed to be touched with the Chief (a government appointee), the assistant chief, the ward manager for the City of Nairobi, and the Chair of the Highridge Village and Father John from the Catholic School, but more importantly the officer’s committees from both groups wanted to tour their villages with us, outline the issues, and then meet to air out and tighten down last minute details before the “launch” of ACORN Kenya.

Although I had been in Korogocho before, this was an opportunity to get better grounded in the two villages where we were organizing, so I trudged along happily across the environmental catastrope our members call home, which included open sewer flowing through the alleys, mud-packed houses dark and falling apart, open garbage pits that served as hog wallows, no potable water, selling coals for burning, and so on. Several visits were with adults and children painfully, and often inexplicably, ill and desperate for attention in an area promised a hospital never built.

Hours later the more interesting discussion came amid pointed questions from some of the committee members on the issue of resources. In the beginning the question was not put to me so clearly, but as the questioning continued, the charm of the request was impossible to mask. The going NGO rate for people to go to meetings has moved as high as 200 Ks (more than $2.50 USD). As a membership dues based organization, we were adamant that we did not, could not, and would never pay people to come to meetings. The venality and patronizing nature of NGO practice in the slums and elsewhere in Eastern Africa makes this heresy, so it was no surprise to hear someone of the more than 25 officers raise it again. But, it was hard to cut the head off of this snake, because it was so deeply ingrained. It gave the meeting a bad taste. The more this part forced the “pay-to-play” issue and the more I along with the organizers said no, the more some people were testy and unhappy. We were walking new ground in Korogocho.

The polarization came to the point of debating whether to cancel the meeting. It turned out that six weeks ago the leadership had budgeted 70,000 Ks (uncomfortably close to $1000 USD) for the meeting unknown to me. They were disappointed on the eve of the event that they had not been able to raise money anywhere near such a level so all of this was tinged with frustrations as well.

One of our local group chair, Mr. Daniel, finally got up to close the meeting, said it was a good exchange, and that the meeting in his view was going forward as planned. He asked the assembled officers to say yes, if they agreed. Almost to my surprise, the yesses resounded in the room. Perhaps we had finally really scaled an important wall in Nairobi.

I left unsure though. After the meeting we debriefed for a minute with some of the leaders with Sammy defining it as a successful day. The language was more Swahili than English, but it became clear when Sammy and David drew both chairs together, that the question of pay had come up again. To build a real organization with power in Nairobi slums, we are going to have to put a stake in this devil over and over it seems!

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