Saturday, February 7, 2015

Adopt a Lamppost, an Initiative Illuminating Slums in Nairobi


NAIROBI – After darkness falls in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, walking through the city’s most-populated (and impoverished) neighborhoods, in which electricity is still a luxury, becomes a dangerous activity, as the cover of darkness provides the perfect opportunity for thieves and rapists to assault the locals.

Simple things such as installing electric lampposts could change the lives of millions of people living in Nairobi’s slums, but the financial challenges Kenya faces are keeping most of the population immersed in darkness once the sun sets.

Thus, one can observe banners with the slogan “Adopt me” hanging from the few lampposts that are scattered through the African city, as part of a campaign to finance lighting projects in exchange for making advertising space available for big businesses.

Efforts have been building thanks to Kenyan activist Esther Passaris, who leads the “Adopt a lamppost” initiative, started ten years ago, convincing Kenyan businessmen to invest in lighting and improve security in the capital’s streets.

Passaris has been working for years with local authorities to install and maintain thousands of lampposts in the city, financed through profits derived from billboard ads.

The initiative has been met with considerable success, being currently supported by major banks and airline companies; although much remains to be done since large swaths of Nairobi still become engulfed by darkness after 6 p.m.

The Kenyan activist concentrates her efforts on slums where 3.5 million people live, representing 60 percent of Nairobi’s total population. The largest slum is Kibera, Africa’s biggest shanty town, located just five kilometers away from downtown Nairobi.

Passaris, 48, supervises the installation of seven new 30-meter-high electric poles that will illuminate an area of approximately 90,000 square meters, providing light to more than 7,500 houses in the neighborhood.

Each one of these poles will cost around 3.3 million shillings ($40,000), since all of the materials are imported from South Africa, as they are not manufactured locally, the activist told Efe.

These seven new posts will join the 14 that this campaign has previously installed in several neighborhoods in recent years, significantly improving residents’ lives.

Locals are aware of the change that the new poles represent. Many of them approach to observe workers installing the lampposts with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Passaris said, with a hint of pride: “Now, even at night, life goes on in Kibera. Children are able to stay on the street doing their homework. It’s wonderful.”

“Like in most of Nairobi’s slums without electricity, some residents are forced to open holes in their roofs to allow a beam of light from the high poles to enter their homes at night,” she added.

In 2002, Passaris launched the project following the footsteps of another initiative in the urban area of Soweto, located in the South African city of Johannesburg. That year she decided to travel to Soweto to meet and learn from the project’s organizers.

Passaris began to direct revenue stemming from advertisement campaigns to aid in the development of her native city, which was witnessing a high crime rate due to many reasons, including the lack of street lighting.

Slums, in particular, have a high rate of rape crimes, as many women are sexually assaulted when they leave their homes at night to use public bathrooms, since their homes generally do not possess any toilets.

The lack of street lighting in these neighborhoods allows rapists and criminals to become more active and commit crimes with impunity.

“With light, people can feel safe on the streets. Without it, it is impossible,” architect Charles Newman told Efe.

Newman works for an NGO called the Kounkuey Design Initiative, which operates in Kounkuey, a neighborhood which lacks basic needs such as drinking water and drainage. He believes that street lighting will help reduce skyrocketing crime rates.

He also highlighted that the Kenyan government is aware of the problem, and is providing its support to projects aiming to improve safety in the capital’s slums.


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