Always dressed discrete and never spills a word. My best Nairobian friend and member of ‘Berlin’ Max Kalahari is a true low-profile master, but when it comes to his hood, this smart guy can’t stop talking.
Max grew up in Nairobi and knows the city like the palm of his hand. He has taught me everything there is to know about the fast, exciting, and sometimes hostile urban life-style in Kenya’s capital. He guided me through the network of people and places that make-up this unique and rapidly growing city.
Today he will guide me through his hood, where I visit Max and the rest of team Kalahari during one of their activities. A football peace tournament in the heart of their estate: ‘Deza Grounds’ - sheng (Nairobi’s urban language) for Desert. During the games we wander of to one of the many rooftops in California - where we sit down and I learn what, where, and who Berlin is.
Max, we are now on a rooftop in California estate, Nairobi, Kenya. Can you first explain to me what the name of a West-European country has to do with the activities you organize here?
As you know in Berlin there was the wall. This big pile of rocks is the only thing that stood between two completely different worlds. It separated people and divided totally different lives, opportunities and resources. But walls are everywhere, also in Nairobi, and especially here in California.
Many people here lack opportunities, but more importantly; most of them believe they cannot do anything. Our role in the community is to make them realize that this is not true and show them there are other ways. That they can actually do something; that they can join the ‘other world’: cross the wall. The wall became our symbol and through Berlin, we try to show them that breaking through can be done!
So tell me: How do you tear down walls. What tools do you need?
First, you need to have a nice, clean community space. Desert grounds is located in the middle of our hood and serves as the heart and lifeblood of California. People have been holding meetings, and attending rallies in addition to playing football here, since its inception. This is also where the idea for Berlin was born.
In 2011, a group of young residents came together here and saw the need to face some challenges together – instead of going through them independently. To take back control of their environment, the group took on the responsibility for figuratively and literally cleaning up the area. With the motto ‘Enhancement of Clean Environment’, Berlin would and still continues to organize neighbourhood clean-ups.
Okay. I understand the ‘literally’ part. But what do you mean with figuratively cleaning up the area?
I mean, like many neighbourhoods in the Eastlands of Nairobi, California suffers from many of the same poverty-related issues. The unemployment rate among young men is much higher than the national average. Also, this close-knit community doesn’t venture far outside of their immediate environment, yet there are only few jobs in the estate itself. The result is a big group of young males with nothing to do, possible further consequences are crime and radicalization.
So it’s important to also ‘clean up’ the neighbourhood by organizing activities for them. In addition to football tournaments like this one, we host talent shows, football match screenings, Taarab (Swahii music) nights, fun festivals for children and a medical camp twice a year.
"The wall became our symbol and through Berlin, we try to show them that breaking through can be done!"
But how is this going to help the people of California to cross the wall?
California has produced some of the biggest artists in the arts and culture, as well as in the field of sports. Kenyan hiphopartist Jua Cali (reminder of his hood) and his label ‘Calif Records’ were located right inside California estate. Also big football players - like current Premier League player Victor Wanyama – has had the pleasure of playing soccer on Desert Grounds. California has always been this place of creativity, using other avenues to get into the world.
The next step in the process, and also our role in the community, is to strengthen these partnerships. We invite and keep in touch with all of them. So that when they come, they remind the community that there are a lot of ways to cross some of the walls in life.
Fantastic Max, that sounds terrific. Do you have any future ambitions that would help you to achieve this goal?
We will always try to keep that creative and open environment. You can come here and express your feelings, everybody is welcome! We will keep making an effort to stress the importance of feeling a sense of community. So that people have the strength and will to work from their own heart, that is first.
Secondly, we want to make the estate better. The place looks dirty and especially the quality of the field is really bad. Developing an artificial and more professional football playing surface is vital to keep this resilient community intact. It could change the whole economics of this place.
Want to help-out team Berlin with the field? Or you know anybody who might be able to? Maybe you are just interested in their developments. Follow the movements of Berlin on Twitter.
I want to thank Max and the rest of the team for inviting me, making me feel at home in Nairobi, showing me around their neighbourhood and reminding me of the importance of community work. Asante sana! Keep up the good work!
Words by Vince de Jong, The Urban Detective
Pictures by Rabih al Aufy & Ilan Schleif
What an insightful piece by The Urban Detective! Want to read more inspiring stories on the momentous neighbourhoods of our cities? Check out Issue 2 of A City Made By People here! http://store.acitymadebypeople.com/