Why build infrastructure in a slum?
In 2010, while making the movie “Lost in Africa,” actress Connie Nielsen spent 10 months working in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. She was struck how the conditions resembled a prison: scarcity of goods, extreme over-crowding, violence and an almost total absence of choice. The desperately poor spent all their time surviving; education was an unaffordable luxury. But her friend and guide, William Ogutu, stressed the most immediate problem: there was little water, and the water was expensive and of dubious quality. A Kiberan pays eight times more for water than the middle class in Nairobi living a mile down the road, where water is piped into their houses.
Connie promised William that she would build a well in Kibera. They met with the Elder's Council, who seconded William's plea for a well, and they found a site. Then Connie returned to San Francisco, and started to plan a well. But she couldn't stop thinking about people's lives without any sort of infrastructure; water is only the beginning. What about toilets and showers? Try to live in a big city, without the dignity of being able to relieve yourself in a sanitary fashion and to maintain simple hygienic standards.
Once she started looking at the numbers for disease and child mortality in Kibera, Connie resolved to do more than boring a hole in the ground and fastening a hand pump on top. But to pump enough water for showers, the project would need real power, another mostly absent amenity in Kibera. Solar panels would make the most sense in this part of Africa, with a back-up plan for the rainy months. And she thought more about the “prison.” How could she help Kiberas truly build a new life for themselves? The project kept expanding: Water, showers, toilets—adult education?
At home in California Connie was preparing to build a new house with David Warner, the CEO of Redhorse Contractors. David is an amazing builder, and he is an expert in incorporating clean technology. Connie asked him, “Would you build a well in Africa with me?” And with no hesitation at all, he said, “Yes.”
Together Connie and David have created a team with over 50 collaborators in the US and Kenya, many of them donating their services toward achieving the vision. The Human Needs Project is well on its way to helping Kiberans break down the barriers of their poverty, and perhaps, set themselves free.