You can’t ignore the sight of young kids and women sleeping on a dumpsite, surrounded by acres full of trash, hundreds of vultures and some cattle grazing on disposed of products. Still, at Kachok dumpsite in Kisumu, this is what everyday life looks like for many people. “Sometimes you can even cry”, John Ochieng - the dumpsite manager - tells me. In fact, I could cry after John takes me for a tour around the site.
However, with the help of god, this inspiring man has been saving the dumpsite residents for the past 14 years. Providing food to an 85-year-old year blind, handicapped man, keeping street kids of glue, raising money to get them back in school and providing medication to the ill.
I visit John and former street boy Kevin in their ‘church without borders’ (located on the dumpsite), where they organize a service every Sunday. Providing hope, life lessons, food and medication to all of those that have no other place to go and remain the unfortunate residents of Kachok dumpsite.
John, you have been working on this dumpsite for over 14 years. Can you tell me something about the circumstances when you started?
The first month, I could not even enter by myself. This place was dangerous, filled with gangs of street kids, murders took place. Even me, I feared my life. So I asked my god what will bring us together. I realized I needed to become friends with the people. I started to talk with the street kids; teaching them. Two years later I built this church so that every Sunday we could come together and pray.
Now, everybody likes John and every Sunday this church is packed! It can go up to 70 people, most of them having to stay just outside. I provide people with food, organize fundraisers, invite pastors and teach the kids life lessons: giving them hope and changing their attitudes to prepare them mentally for a better life.
“Even me, I feared my life. At first I could not even enter by myself.”
That sounds truly amazing! But let me ask you Kevin, what does everyday life on a dumpsite look like?
I was still a very small boy when I came here, that was in 1999. I can’t even remember where I come from. I don’t know my roots, don’t know my parents; I only know this dumpsite. So life was very tough here, we faced many challenges. There was a lot of gang violence and police raids. Big kids bullied me, rains would keep you awake at night and waste food could make you sick. All of us street boys were sniffing glue to forget the pain.
So how did you end up as a preacher in this church?
At first, when John came, we didn’t like him, especially because he took away our glue. If you want to become the enemy of a street boy, you don’t take away his food, you take away his glue. So in the beginning, I didn’t come to church; I just did not care. However, when I heard that after service they eat, I came directly (both laughing). John started teaching me the word of God and I started to read the bible.
“I can’t even remember where I come from. I don’t know my roots, nor my parents; I only know this dumpsite.”
The lord really transformed my life and I got salvation. Now I have a bike and earn a living by driving people around. I have saved money for a small house so the rains can’t touch me anymore. Now I’m preaching in this church without borders, where everyone is welcome. Spreading the word, praying together and helping each other. Through the mighty act of the lord, God has opened a way.
So John, it seems like this church is providing a lot more than hope. It seems a life-saving community evolved, isn’t it?
Yes, absolutely! I try to show the kids they can achieve a better future. But handing out money is not the solution. You can bring ten busses from your country to bring some business here, but that won’t help us. What they first need is the word of God to guide them and prepares them mentally. After that, we act as a community, raising money for members to go back to school or helping them with basic needs.
“Sometimes my wife asks me: “John we cannot eat well here and yet you are spending a lot of money there; why?”. I’m telling my wife: “God knows”.”
The only challenge is money. I have no sponsor; I’m doing this alone. My salary is 25.000 Ksh. a month ($250) but every Sunday I already spend 3000 Ksh. (30$) for food and medication. I also need to pay my rent and support my family. This gives me problems at home sometimes, but what can I do. Sometimes my wife asks me: “John we cannot eat well here and yet you are spending a lot of money there. Why?”. I’m telling my wife: “God knows”.”
But John maybe she is right, it doesn’t seem to belong to a dumpsite manager’s core functions. Why are you doing all of this exactly?
I came as a refugee to Kenya. My father was a rich man in Uganda, but we had to leave everything behind. If you knew my stories you could even cry. In Kenya we suffered so much, but eventually we managed. So now if I see people suffering, I can feel it! If a small boy comes to me, saying he wants to go to school, I feel his pain and I need to help him. What I know is that the more I give, the more god is blessing me.
So Kevin, to conclude, how important is local heroes John for the people in Kachok?
At this moment we have one street kid who is in the Kenyan army. This year another two boys are graduating and I am now a preacher at the church. Also, we have an 85-year-old blind man who has been living in a small tipi on the dumpsite almost his entire life. Unable to walk, unable to sustain himself. Without the help of John, who brings him milk and bread almost every day, this old man wouldn’t be alive
Together with John (right) and Kevin (middle), we bring milk and bread to an old man living in his tipi on the dumpsite.
So John has many children here. He is supporting us. He has been my mentor since I was here. This guy has made me in what I am today; he is my father. John provides. He needs to, because he is our father now.
I wish to thank these local heroes, John and Kevin for sharing their personal and incredible stories. Also, John wanted you to know that everybody is welcome in his church without borders. If you ever visit Kisumu, make sure you drop by and support his cause in any way you can!
Local Heroes interview and photography by Vince.