The British-educated founder of an internationally acclaimed community centre in one of Africa’s most notorious slums is calling for help to save the project after being threatened with jail and eviction.
Sammy Gitau returned to his native Kenya after defying all the odds to study for a master’s degree in development at the University of Manchester. His extraordinary story of discovering a prospectus on a rubbish dump in Mathare, where gang violence, drugs and poverty are endemic, made headlines around the world when it was highlighted in The Independent in 2007.
But now Mr Gitau said he has been told by Nairobi City Council that the Unicef-backed resource centre, where tens of thousands of children and young people have been helped, will be turned into scrap and that he faces imprisonment for breaching planning rules.
He claims he is the victim of a power struggle going on in the city where political leaders fear the centre’s growing influence on young voters.
“I came back to my country because I believed I could make a change and that change has been happening. Now I am being punished,” he said.
The slum, home to 500,000 people, witnessed inter-tribal clashes following the 2007 presidential election when Luo gangs of youth burned 100 Kikuyu homes following the defeat of their candidate.
The Mathare Community Resource comprises four shipping containers donated by supporters. Among the work carried out by Mr Gitau and his volunteers is a scheme to help children back into primary education. In the last three months 75 youngsters were rescued from the streets and returned to school. Youths are also able to learn skills such as carpentry and tailoring which can help them find a job.
But Mr Gitau has been told that the once-derelict wasteland where the project has been located for 17 years is private property and the containers will be removed on Thursday at his expense. He believes the children of the slum – where he grew up and where his own father was murdered – will be the losers.
“There is a lack of opportunity and schooling. The majority of young people do not get through primary school, let alone secondary school. Here we can get them back into school to learn something positive.
“There is a high level of crime and a gang culture. Young people end up getting involved in drug trafficking. But if they can get a job they can do something else,” he said.
His former programme director, Dr Pete Mann, said the project was on the verge of receiving major United Nations backing which would have guaranteed its future and its work for several years.
Mr Gitau’s family ran an illegal distillery in the shanty and his father was killed in a gang attack. He left school at 13 and turned to drug dealing and theft to feed his mother and 10 siblings but turned his life around after nearly dying from a cocaine overdose.
The project he established caught the attention of the wife of the European Union head of delegation in Nairobi and became a model for other NGOs in the city. Supporters arranged for him to study at Manchester University despite his only having a rudimentary education.
Immigration officials initially refused him a visa because they did not believe he was capable of studying at that level – a decision that was overturned by a judge. He graduated with a merit in his MSc in international development project management, returning to Kenya in 2008.
But Mr Gitau said his life’s work is now facing ruin. “If we could just find someone who could help us we could take the matter to court and that would buy us time and give us the opportunity to have a dialogue,” he said.
Mr Gitau's former programme director Dr Pete Mann, now a freelance development consultant, said the project was on the verge of receiving major United Nations backing which would have guaranteed its future and its work for several years. But he said this had made him vulnerable to exploitation in Kenya.
"He is a grass roots guy with a ground level view and he has stayed at that level of practice," he said. "Take away this work and you don't know what you are going to miss. Presidential election violence three or four years ago could conceivably have been much worse if he had not been there or established some influence. He is helping turn children away from scavenging and drugs which is where a lot of his influence is," he added.