Reflections on Dandora

Having the opportunity to visit Dandora was a day that will not soon be forgotten. This neighborhood of 140,000 people is located 11 km from Nairobi’s city center, and is notorious for holding a reputation that makes even the local’s question why we would go and visit that area of the city. Issues such as high crime rates, youth unemployment/gangs, urban decay, and one of Kenya’s largest unregulated dumpsites are a few of the reasons why Dandora has maintained its negative reputation for so long. Regardless of this, I still found myself curious and eager as we drove into this community to meet up with an NGO called the Dandora Transformation League (DTL) that has been positively impacting this community since 2013. As we drove through the narrow streets crowded with children pointing at our windows and occasionally yelling out “Mzungu!”(White person) it became evident to us that we were not in Westlands (where we were staying) anymore. After being lost for quite some time, we managed to find the DTL building where we were greeted by Allison who invited us in and proceeded to tell us about the work that the DTL has been doing in the community. Her enthusiasm and passion was infectious and shared by her colleague Evans who told us about his past as a criminal in Dandora before his involvement with DTL. It became evident to us that there was a strong correlation between the physical transformation of the community and the internal transformation that the youth were experiencing as a result.

The vision of the DTL is to “Have a Dandora that is clean, green, and safe while generating employment for the youth in the area (DTL, 2016)” By mobilizing youth to participate in changing their space into a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable environment, they are more likely to steer clear of crime, and positively benefit from knowing that they are contributing to their community while building healthy and positive relationships in the process.  

Myself and the other interns had the opportunity to visit the 4 phases (or courts) that the DTL had transformed. Most of them had many children in them who were eager to greet us and share their space with us. Bright colorful fences and playground equipment surrounded by newly planted trees and flowers adorned the space, with an occasional quote which was hung up in attempts to inspire those living in the area. I did not feel unsafe as we walked around Dandora, but I also recognize that we were in a group in the middle of the afternoon. I walked away from this day in Dandora feeling thoughtful about my experience here, and attempted to unpack and process my feelings about my own biases/assumptions after this visit. Here are some of my thoughts:

Were my perceptions of a ‘slum’ (aka informal settlement) in Africa accurate after this visit? The media in the Western world has shaped Africa as a continent in which poverty is persistent and crime is high. We have seen countless images of starving children in informal settlements and villages who so desperately require assistance. (In most cases the assistance of a white foreigner) It is very easy to reinforce existing narratives of what this type of environment entails, rather than focus on the resourcefulness, resilience, playfulness and quiet daily rituals that many people in these communities live. (Which was also observed on our walk around the community) I don’t want to dismiss the fact that poverty is rampant in these communities, but I also think it’s important to know that these communities shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘spectacle’ that needs to be captured in order to conveniently boost the white ego.

As I thought about this and looked through my photos of Dandora, I noticed that many of them were filtered through my own set of attitudes and beliefs. For example, I seemed to have more photos of the homes that resembled ‘shacks’, the garbage dump, along with dusty and dirty roads, rather than the actual court yards which the youth had worked on, which were filled with fresh grass, bright colors, and reused and sustainable materials. This makes me question why I had more pictures that fulfilled the stereotypes of a ‘slum?’ What did I have to prove to others? Was this to boost my own ego?..

This ties in with “White Saviorism” which is a title that not many foreigners want to admit, myself being one of them. Essentially, this refers to Western people going to ‘fix problems’ in developing nations. Guarino states that “This call to action puts us in the position of “savior”. Whether or not we realize it, this position lends itself to an internalized assumption of superiority over the people who “need help”, oversimplifies a complex conflict, and becomes a self-serving response to the emotions of white people in America (2018). This is not only exemplified through projects such as building schools etc, but can also be observed through taking cultural photos of people in their daily life without permission, or becoming impatient with the work pace of certain cultures, assuming that the work ethic in western culture is more efficient.

Recognizing and dismantling the white savior complex is often a confronting and humbling process. Although one’s intentions are usually good, they can be incredibly damaging, as there are ties to colonialism that need to be acknowledged.

-Learning my way out of deeply internalized White Saviorism, and committing myself to always dismantling these notions, is an ongoing process– Janine Guarino

As I’ve processed these thoughts and feelings, waves of guilt have passed over me regarding my own attitudes, thoughts and experiences in the past in which a ‘good intentioned’ girl went to another country to ‘help.’ Obviously I wanted to get into Social work because I desire to support and help people, and yet I’m continuing to realize that there will always be things to discover in my personal and professional journey. The more I explore, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

DTL (2016). Retrieved from https://dandora-transformation.org/history-mission-and-vision/

Guarino, J (2018). Holding up the Mirror: Recognizing and Dismantling the White Savior Complex. Retrieved from https://medium.com/mama-hope/holding-up-the-mirror-recognizing-and-dismantling-the-white-savior-complex-61c04bfd6f38

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