The distraught story of living in Shauri Yako, Majengo in North Imenti and other slum areas among them Timau and Machaka in Buuri has over the years been narrated in a thousand ways.
But not anymore after US President Barack Obama launched the $7 billion US government direct funding for Power Africa Initiative in June 2013, through partnership with other private organisations that raised $9 billion.
A year after President Obama announced the initiative, World Bank committed to support the project by channeling Sh435 billion ($5billion) to finance connection of electricity to households, and increase its generation in six sub-Saharan countries namely Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Liberia and Ethiopia.
Meru residents had not foreseen the benefits of the project, and they never expected the funds to trickle down and reach more than 7,000 households across the county.
The first beneficiaries in 2013 were 250 households of Shauri Yako slum, and the plan to light up the informal settlement was announced by Meru county Transport Executive Newton Itoobi.
“Once the households are connected to the grid, residents will be encouraged to work for more hours to enhance their economic output. They will be guaranteed of security in those extra hours they will be working,” Itoobi said.
Efforts to salvage Shauri Yako Slum from its desolation have over the years been fronted by local leaders and many well-wishers.
“The planning of land in Shauri Yako slum was done in 2008-09, but to date we have not received allotment letters,” says North Imenti MP Rahim Dawood.
In efforts to improve living standards in the slum, Good Shepherd Sisters under the Catholic Diocese of Meru established a day-care centre that started with 47 children.
A temporary small timber house was rented out to shelter 17 girls, and a feeding programme that could feed approximately 200 children daily was rolled out.
The day-care centre was a partnership of the Good Shepherd Training Centre and Kooje/Mbaaria women empowerment project for the slum.
The grim picture of life in the slum was elaborated by Diane Lepagne from Canada, who came visiting the Good Shepherd Sisters. She states the life there was an eyesore, full of desperation but engulfed in hope for a better life.
“What I saw, felt, smelled and experienced was utterly heart-rending. Upon arrival at the Shauri Yako Slum, I saw hundreds of shacks joined together all made up of old corral type of wood with rusted corrugated tin roofs. Curious eyes, young and old all peered out at us,” she says.
Diane speaks of women groups formed to empower and support each other to make a better life for their children and grandchildren.
In Shauri Yako slums, there are grandmothers raising their grandchildren because the mothers have died of HIV-Aids related illnesses, or because the children have been abandoned.
The women make small beaded items, cards, soap and grow crops to sell at the local market.
“We were invited to a few of the homes, which were dark, with no windows, had dirt on floors and permeated with the smell of heavy smoke. The walls were covered with old newspapers, pieces of cardboard and old posters or flyers,” says Diane.
“One of the homes had a large poster with several pictures of Michael Jackson on the wall. Those made me wonder if the woman had any idea who he was. The shacks are one-room dwellings with little to no furniture, others had decrepit wooden bed with an old mattress, a couple of bent cooking pots, a makeshift fire pit, and an assortment of ‘found’ treasures,” she adds.
The walking alleys are characterised by mangy-looking animals; children stare at visitors wondering who they are.
Next to the slum which borders the posh Kooje Estate, is the stinking two acres of Gakoromone sewerage treatment site for human and other waste from Meru town and Gakoromone market, which is the second biggest open air markets in East Africa.
Meru town is home to more than 300,000 residents. While walking in the slum, senses are gagged with the putrid smell of faeces piped down the sewer and mixed up in urine, and other rubbish washed from the town’s offices and residential houses.
“How in the world do these women and children live? How do they do it? How do they survive? Where do they find the strength to carry on? Such utter despair and poverty surrounds them; it is everywhere you look,” Diane said.
Diane, however, says despite the seclusion of the area, the residents are proud of their minimal achievements of having a community garden glowing with farm produce.
The produce, mainly vegetables, is food for their children and grandchildren, and also raises part of their income to meet basic needs.
Among other income generating activities for the residents of Shauri Yako Slum is making soap for sale in the nearby market. Young men also make household goods such as cooking pans, charcoal burners, among others, from iron and other scrap metal which are displayed and sold in the market.
“My heart was filled with sorrow at the living conditions of these families. What can I do to alleviate this suffering and misery?” Diane asked.
The Power Africa Initiative ended Diane’s sorrow of seeing dark lit, stuffy and desolate rooms for the poor residents of Shauri Yako slum. And for once, the people here can afford a smile because much of their suffering will come to an end.
In Kenya, the connection of electricity to a single household costs at least Sh30,000 ($344). But when the government subsidy programme kicks off in September this year, the connection fee is expected to come down to Sh15,000.
With the current connection rates, the 250 households in Shauri Yako Slum cost of connection to the main grid is approximately Sh7.5 million ($86,206), and for all 7,000 connections in Meru county the total comes to Sh210 million ($2.3 million).
Africa has vast hydropower potential but uses just eight per cent of this untapped water force. In comparison, Western Europe uses 85 per cent of its available hydropower potential, which has contributed to their economic development and industrialisation.
In Machaka slum of Buuri constituency, which is home to the Nazareth Sisters Children’s home, the connection to power could not have come at a better time.
“Families have saved a lot of money they would have otherwise used to buy paraffin. The smoky tin lamps they used have been discarded, and today children complete their assignments in good time,” says Ann Nkirote, a resident of Machaka.
Similar success stories have been told in Timau whose best part of population is made up of slum dwellers, most who were squatters evicted from Karuri Shamba Systems when the Green Belt was reclaiming forest land for reforestation.
“It’s like God said, ‘let there be light’ – and it happened. Electricity in our homes is a turning point in our lives. What’s more, as young people we can start small businesses to earn a livelihood,” says John Kirema, a resident of Timau.