My daughter is 9 years old. She has attended both public and private schools and she has lived in the same estate since the day that she was born. She has access to technology, books and everything else she needs, but I can confidently say that l had a more enjoyable and fun childhood than she did. My daughter, being the second born, is sandwiched between two boys and so she is forever playing games with her brothers, like football, cycling, cops and robbers, British bulldog and hide-and-seek. In her school, and also at home, there are no proper playgrounds. The children play and chase each other on the estate roads. Her brother broke both his hands in the same school term. The same boy was hit by a car while riding his bicycle and the last born has scars on his chest after he fell into a ditch while being chased by his friends.
We are bringing up our children in a concrete jungle. My wife and l are outdoors people, so our house has rules on technology; that means if the children are in the house during the day, they’re either reading or it’s raining. Houses are to be occupied at night; children must be in school or out playing, telling stories with their friends, and getting dirty during the day.
I grew up in Nairobi and, during my childhood, it was green and beautiful. In all the housing estates, there were social halls where we would watch or learn sports like boxing and martial arts. The older boys played draughts, debated or watched TV. We would also go fishing in the ponds near our neighbourhoods. Sometimes, all the boys would meet at City Park to show off their swimming skills; the water was clean, and you could safely swim there. With only five shillings, you could go to Park Road Primary, or Pumwani High School, and pay to swim in a proper swimming pool.
During my childhood, we drank tap water and when there was a water shortage, there were no cartels selling water. You would just go to the nearest petrol station where they would open the fire hydrant and give people water. Garbage was regularly collected by city council trucks, so you would never see dirty mounds of rubbish anywhere. Thinking back on this today, it all seems like it happened ages ago, but not that much time has passed, and we aren’t too far gone to reclaim our city.
There is a new Sherriff in town, Major General Mohamed Badi, Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) boss. His work is already cut out for him. He can start by reclaiming all public playgrounds and social halls. It doesn’t matter what has been built in those places, even if it’s a place of worship, God would be happy if justice was done by returning the space to the community and prosecuting whoever stole the land. The incidents that have happened to my children would have been avoided if we had playgrounds in every estate.
Moving forward, anyone given a license to construct residential areas must have allocated playground and green spaces in their plans before their construction is approved. There should also be a campaign for every child to plant a tree; it could be in their school or where they live. Nairobi is a small city and it should be made a walkable and cyclable city. Anyone should be able to walk or cycle, at any time of the day, from one end of the city to the other.
Both the National and County Governments should allocate areas where artists can develop studios and workshops for them to create and thrive. All the land in this country is transacted for profit and that has led to the creative industry suffering because artists can’t afford to buy or rent spaces. We can’t compete with profit-making companies for the available spaces. Every ward in this country needs a space where artists can create and work; land that is specifically set aside for that purpose.
In just over a decade, Boniface Mwangi has risen from poverty to prominence in Kenya. He is renowned for his powerful photographs and his courageous protests calling for social justice. He is an award-winning Kenyan photojournalist and human rights activist. His work has appeared in leading publications in the world — from The New York Times to The Guardian and Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph and The Boston Globe among others.