As part of the Kenya Series, we took a trip to the jua kali in Gikomba market is not one for the mean spirited. It takes you right through Machakos, the busiest bus terminus in the country, and into Nairobi East lands. During the colonial period, the East-lands were the African quarters, hence social amenities and infrastructure were poorly planned and developed. Over the years, the subsequent overcrowding due to rural-urban exodus only made what was already a bad situation worse.
However, East-lands is exactly where Myweku set out for, to explore the expansive jua kali artisan shades at Gikomba market. Jua kali is Swahili for hot sun, a name that arose in reference to the blistering East African outdoors in which the artisans work. The jua kali has had quite a history. In a country with arguably the highest literacy levels in sub-Saharan Africa, blue collar work is looked down upon. However, in the past decade or so, the unemployed have been forced to wake up the realization that dependence entirely on the formal sector for employment is neither prudent nor sustainable.
Gikomba is a daunting environment by any standards- mad man symphony from hammer on anvil beating metal into submission fills the air, good natured banter from hearty artisans fill the shacks which seemingly go on and on in a never – ending labyrinth. Blue, red, green wares are stacked, or parked in prominent displays; nearly anything imaginable from simple gardening tools to complex agricultural machinery and household furniture are manufactured here from scrap material.
All products here are made from recycled material. Empty drums are salvaged and cut into metal sheets which are used to make barbeque grills or drainage pipes to capture rain water. Old motor bike tires are used to make wheels for burrows. Old tin is fabricated into pots and pans.
The Gikomba shacks are also a source of employment for many Nairobi residents. Most stalls are owned individually, or in small group partnerships. Artisans are often encouraged to grow and initiate their own enterprises. Eli Omondi owns one of the shacks, and employs two other artisans. He says they get a cut from items sold, “I was once just like them, if they work hard, it will not be long until they own workshops of their own”
The most striking thing about the jua kali is the empowerment mindset of the artisans; the can do, will do attitude is almost infectious. Indeed, given the history and context of the jua kali, this attitude is exactly what the doctor ordered to counter the post-traumatic oppression disorder in developing economies.
Photo Courtesy: analoguedigital.com