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Mathare youth ditch crime for digital mapping

Not everything you’ve heard about Mathare is true. And if it is, you’ve probably been exposed more to the stuff that sells. You’ve heard more of insecurity and how the government is yet to get on top of it.

Certainly you have heard of the hand-to-mouth scenario that this bottom of the pyramid population finds itself in. You are familiar, at the very least, by imagination, of the side-by-side shanties that stand over a soggy mosaic of ill-disposed plastic bags, the untreated sewage and how all this now forms part of the poorism circuit. It is true.

But there is something about Mathare that escapes most eyes. It is the relentless efforts by few young men and women who have put Mathare on the global map, literally.

To begin with, in a world that had long boasted of its global village status, Mathare didn’t appear web some few years ago. It was like the people in there never existed; yet, more than 250,000 people call it home.

“Google searches would almost come to naught when fed with the word ‘Mathare’,” Simon Kokoyo a resident and youth mobiliser with a mapping project called Spatial Collective recalls. Perhaps a factor that contributed to the assumptions and exaggerations about Mathare.

Spatial Collective has mapped dump sites, drainages systems, schools, police posts and health centres and put them on the internet as maps. This allows planners and donors to know what services are available there.

When Spatial Collective began its operations about two years ago, a group of young people were trained to collect and process data that would be used to map the area, its resources—yes, they have resources too — and identify Mathare’s most pressing needs.

Today, there’s sufficient up-to-date information that was raised by simply treating the community as a resource. And that is perhaps why the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, is pleased with what he saw there.

As an envoy on youth, Alhendawi is mainly tasked with “bringing the voices of young people to the United Nations System” as his numerous online pages report.

Mug people

“The secretary general would be really proud of you,” Alhendawi told young Mathare data collectors and mappers seated opposite him at Mathare Environmental hall last week.

One of them, Thoita Kanyi, explained how the project had began as a turning point conversation between criminals who had terrorised many.

“We would mug people, drink and smoke. In the end, we lost friends and realised that we really hadn’t gained anything from that lifestyle”.