One thing that has become very apparent to me during the last 3 months in Kenya is what my mother would refer to as the ‘make do and mend’ mentality. Following popularisation of the phrase in Britain during and just after WWII, this spirit of thriftiness and adaptability was somewhat tarnished in the UK and other countries following economic booms during the 1980s and subsequent decades. With and an economy boasting a huge service sector, why would today’s teenagers need to know how their iPod works or how to change the oil in their new car? Why, in a society built on owning the latest accessory, and with cheap imports flooding in from China, would someone need to repair any of their belongings? This is the reason that my parent and their peers now look on amazed at a generation who cannot sew a button, darn a pair of socks, or rewire a plug.
Not so in Kenya though, where ‘make do and mend’ is very much alive and well. The saying goes that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and never have I seen this so aptly demonstrated as in East Africa. One of my favourite examples of the drive to reuse is the common practice to buy charcoal sold in old five litre paint tins. Even in Nakuru, the fourth largest city in Kenya, it is possible to see people riding through the streets on bikes crafted from metal rods salvaged from gates. Once the tyres have reached the end of their life on the road they may be reused to create a catapult; fashioned into a pair of sandals; or cut into strips and used to secure belongings to the back of a motorbike.
The children at the centre never cease to amaze me with their ability to use materials to their benefit. A bundle of plastic bags wrapped in the right way can make an excellent football and the girls are able to make beautiful bracelets with nothing more than braided grasses. Last week the boys salvaged a motor from a car windscreen wiper; a battery from a phone; and some old copper wire to create a tiny fan.
Though each individual in Kenya seems to be gifted with the creativity to reprocess old items, it is not to say that Kenya lacks a service sector where people can rely on the skills of others. Even when an item seems to be beyond repair, the fundi (handyman) will add a new zip, replace a sleeve or stitch on a patch. I have been witness to footwear that is more hole than shoe returned as new by some of these miracle workers. Seeing skilled work like this carried out really makes you reconsider the potential lifespan of products. Consequently I am now hoarding old circuit boards, pieces of upholstery and old sections of pipe in the vague hope that someday they will come in useful!
Richard, Co Director, IHF Kenya