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Nairobi - a Place of Cold Water. Reflections before the faith and water conference

June 26, 2009:

"Dozens of huge luminous yellow and blue water containers bobbed beside us."

In advance of a major conference in the UK on Faith and Water Elizabeth Idiumenah travelled to the slums of Nairobi to learn about a church that is running extensive programmes on water and sanitation.

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By Elizabeth Idienumah

In the Masai language the word “Nairobi” means ‘a place of cold water’. Given the droughts Kenya is now suffering and the water-rationing in force across the country and especially the capital, this is ironic. And in few places are the ironies more apparent than in the Mathare slums, just a few minutes drive from the developed centre of town, where some 800,000 people eke out a precarious living.

I went to Nairobi in early June as the guest of the Redeemed Gospel Church – a church in the heart of the slums, run by Kenyans for Kenyans, which was running some extraordinary social projects, many of which related to water. Bishop Walter Thomas, of the New Psalmist Baptist Church in Maryland, an African American church that is one of the supporters of the Redeemed Gospel projects, said that although he had preached for many years on the symbolism of water, he had never, until he reached Nairobi, appreciated quite what water really is.

Water is THE commodity

On cue, as we drove to Mathare from the airport, dozens of huge luminous yellow and blue water containers bobbed beside us, conveyed down the road on bicycles. Water, it seemed, was THE commodity of the city: almost free in one area, and hugely expensive in another, it is a small business man’s dream.

The Mathare slums, just a few minutes drive from the developed centre of town, where some 800,000 people eke out a precarious living.
At first, the news seemed to be positive: the local council had made a free supply of water available to the slums. But in reality, the water standpipes were not placed equitably around the area, which for some people meant carrying the water a very long way – or, alternatively, paying a private supplier 2 shillings about 1.5 pence) for 20 litres, which is the amount that each person needs, as a minimum, per day. A small sum in the UK, but a considerable sum for people earning less than a pound per day. And Mathare was lucky: in Nairobi’s other slums of Korogocho and Huruma residents there wasn’t even a pretence of a free supply, with people payng the city council for their water.

The newspapers and TV and radio channels are obsessed by the shortages: whether it has an impact on food scarcity, when the drought will end. On one TV news series Israel was being showcased as the example Kenya needs to follow on waste water management – a relatively new concept to Kenya. Water is not just a problem for the poor.

Most areas of Nairobi were experiencing some level of water rationing. Redeemed Gospel Church’s project manager Magdaline Gitahi - living now in a middle-class suburb after growing up in the slums, said she had not been able to have a shower in the house for nine months, forced to wash from buckets, because the mains supply had been cut for her neighbourhood. She and her husband were theoretically paying 1,300 Kenyan shillings (about £10.40) for 8,000 litres from the city council but more times than not the water lorry did not turn up, and they would have to buy water privately at a cost of 4000 shillings for the same amount.

The cleanliness, needless to say, is variable. Water from the council tends to be treated for bacteria, but most private suppliers sourced their water from bore holes and it had to be boiled.

Water Crisis

In the context of this drought and all the news coverage, I was shocked to see that the standpipe beside the Redeemed Gospel church in Mathare flowed without stopping, splashing the precious fluid into the street. The pastor, Joel Gitahi, said there had been a tap attached, “but it has been vandalised yet again.”

He had replaced it on numerous occasions and said would not be doing so again until he had some assurance that this would not happen again. He said he was angry that water was being wasted, although he acknowledged he would probably have to concede. “There’s no-one else who will do it,” he said.

If water is a problem, then toilet provision is a crisis. Mr Mwangi, volunteer worker with the Redeemed Gospel Church Development Programme (RGCDP), showed me the facilities provided by the church for those who attended services, classes and outreach sessions in the church. There were six toilet stalls, painted in a faded baby blue colour in two rows of three. And all were padlocked. “Otherwise they would be vandalised”. Mr Mwangi unlocked the padlock on one creaky wooden door, and it swang open to reveal a hole in the ground.

It was relatively clean, but the smell of urine was piercingly acrid. Some children couldn’t wait for the padlock: as we were standing there, one little boy came over, and went straight into a squat position outside.

A few yards away were some public toilets run by the council. Stark, grey, uniform blocks: clean enough but inadequate for the swelling numbers in the slums. And the whole area smelled very bad indeed. The slum dwellers had to pay each time they used these toilets and apparently had to get a receipt for ‘proof of purchase’ I never saw any toilet attendant types who could oversee such an ill thought-out scheme, nor who were cleaning the facility.

Walking around the slums it was important to navigate cautiously: I sometimes found myself hopscotching across rubbish piles and dirty water which had collected in the gullies on the ground. In one less ramshackle passageway it was heartening to see a plastic blue potty. It gave a sense of normalcy and progress, and it was good to see that even in the depths of deprivation, some children are being potty trained.

I had mixed emotions about going to visit a woman in her shack close by the church: she was attending some of RGCDP’s nutrition and hygiene classes. She lived in a room measuring three metres by three metres – together with her husband and three children. Also there, in the day, were her two brothers, who slept elsewhere at night. But for mealtimes it was a tight squeeze for seven people. The room was baking hot and unbearably humid and the walls were covered by what appeared to be potato sacks with clean clothes decorating the ceiling, looking almost surreal. The hut may have been small, but it was most certainly well-ordered. And with RGCDP’s help, she was able to make the best of what she had and learn how to be more hygienic.

They were very amused to see me – the daughter of West African parents – and quickly decided I must be a member of the Luo tribe, who are also dark-skinned, and also wear their clothes flamboyantly. The people at Mathare even gave me a new name: Akinyi, ‘meaning ‘she who was born in the morning’.

Cliche though it may be, but in the depths of deprivation in the slums, I did find hope. In the very heart of Mathare’s poorest areas, the church runs a school for several hundred children aged five and up. Outside the corrugated iron walls were painted in the same pale blue as the toilets, and like everything else in the slums, the school was run down and dishevelled. Inside there were hundreds of children – most dirty and ragged, some a little cleaner - huddled together chaotically on one side. The chaos on the right was matched by an orderliness on the left as young girls in pink and salmon-coloured dresses listened attentively to a class on reproductive health. Given the likelihood that a lack of education means girls growing up in the slums are more likely to have children at an early age – impacting on their life expectancy, their health and their socio-economic hopes – this is one of the most important classes they could attend.

Another School

The Redeemed Gospel Church has another school for the poor in the slums of Huruma. The Bishop Kitonga Academy is named after the charismatic Bishop whose vision and passion for change in the 1970s led to this extraordinary spiritual and social outreach programme. Where the school in the midst of Mathare was drab and ramshackle the Academy is bright, with an inviting façade: as a school should be. The pupils are all slum children: some parents manage to pay the small amount of school fees, but for those whose parents cannot, the church is their sponsor. I sat in on a class on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, and was impressed by the competence of the teacher and her class. The children were eager, jumping to put up their hands to show how much knowledge they had accumulated, and in wonderfully coordinated happy choruses they chanted back key phrases such as ‘sanitation’ ‘conservation’ ‘environment’ to the teacher’s rhetorical questions.

One of the surprises for me was how every project in which the church was involved impressed the importance of water and hygiene. From the school in the slums to the nutrition classes for parents; from a programme for people with HIV/AIDS to the projects for vulnerable and street children; in all of them water and hygiene seem to be the vital ingredients to help people empower themselves out of poverty. But as the health coordinator explained: “Clean water and good hygiene decrease the likelihood of diseases like cholera and malaria. And people with HIV/AIDS have to keep good personal hygiene to reduce the chances of opportunistic infections.”

Everywhere I went, I asked about the role of government in Kenya in the kinds of areas that the Redeemed Gospel Church is working. And everywhere I got the same reply, one I have heard across Sub-Saharan Africa. “This is Africa: the government only cares every 5 years at election time when they can buy the very poorest with offers of free food.”

The first ever Faith in Water conference runs from July 5 to 7 in Salisbury with representatives from six religions exploring their relationship with water, and how this carries through into action.

Elizabeth Idienumah is a freelance journalist, who has worked extensively for the BBC as well as for Al Jazeera’s English language programmes. She works part time for the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and has been the programme coordinator for the Faith in Water conference.

Statistics on water, sanitation and hygiene

UN Statistics

According to the United Nations, every day 4,400 children under the age of 5 die around the world, having fallen sick because of unclean water and sanitation.

Five times as many children die each year of diarrhoea as of HIV/AIDS.

Farming uses up to 70 times more water than is used for cooking and washing.

Up to 40 percent of water is lost due to water leakages in pipes and canals, one of the main causes of which is illegal tapping.


One in four girls (24 percent) worldwide do not complete primary school, compared with 15 percent of boys. Currently around 65 million girls remain out of school. (The State of the World’s Children 2004, UNICEF).

Washing hands with soap and water can reduce diarrhoea by over 40 percent (Effect of washing hands with soap on diarrhoea risk in the community: A Systematic Review, BMJ, Curtis V, Cairncross S, 2003).

In Tanzania, there was a 12 percent increase in school attendance when water was 15 minutes away, rather than an hour (Water and Sanitation in Tanzania, Ministry of Water and Livestock Development and WaterAid Tanzania, 2002).

Only 62 percent of Africans have access to safe water and 60 percent have access to adequate sanitation, the lowest rates in the world. (World Bank Water and Sanitation Programme).

UNDP Statistics

UNDP calculates that every 1 US dollar invested in sanitation gains 9 US dollars economic return.

Each year at least 5 percent of Africa's GDP is lost due to water and sanitation related illness.

Over 443 million school days are lost to water and sanitation-related illness.

Almost 50 percent of all people in developing countries are suffering at any given time from a health problem caused by a lack of water and sanitation.(2006 figures).

2006 United Nations Human Development Report

• Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.

• Almost two in three people lacking access to clean water survive on less than 2 US dollars a day, with one in three living on less than 1 US dollar a day.

• More than 660 million people without sanitation live on less than 2 US dollars a day, and more than 385 million on less than 1 US dollar a day.

• Access to piped water into the household averages about 85 percent for the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, compared with 25 percent for the poorest 20 percent.

• 1.8 billion people who have access to a water source within 1 kilometre, but not in their house or yard, consume around 20 litres per day. In the United Kingdom the average person uses more than 50 litres of water a day flushing toilets (whereas average daily water usage is about 150 litres a day). The highest average water use in the world is in the US, at 600 litres day.


Faith and Water Conference, July 5-7, Salisbury

Listen to a class on water conservation and hygiene:

Other ARC events.



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