Service above self: José Njuki-Imwe Ngunjiri, The Fire Advocate in Nairobi, Kenya
For decades, thousands of families have been rendered homeless and goods of unknown value destroyed in fires that have ravaged Nairobi’s Mathare slums. Mathare is one of the oldest informal settlements in Africa. It has more than 500 000 households and basic amenities such as food, shelter, water, healthcare and road infrastructure are a mirage to the residents. Poverty compounds the already dire situation. José Njuki-Imwe Ngunjiri from the Rotary Club of Nairobi North is a fire survivor and a fire fighter by profession. He knows all too well, what a horrific fire tragedy can do to a person, let alone a whole community. José is a social change enthusiast, entrepreneur, mobiliser and a fire safety advocate with a wide range of experience in community mobilisation. At the tender age of four months, José survived a fire that razed down his family’s house in Eastleigh. He attributes his survival to his nanny who ran into the burning house to save him. His face and left hand were burnt severely losing all his five fingers. “As I grew older and got to learn what happened on that day, I was told that our nanny ran very fast into the burning house,’’ José says.“ She broke down the door, dashed into the house and grabbed me from the bed. She also suffered severe burns on her arms but her quick actions saved my life.”
With this experience at the back of his mind, José was always fascinated by fire fighting and learnt the importance of being a first responder to a fire. His love and desire to become a fire fighter was rekindled when he visited the Tom Mboya Fire Brigade Station with his son. “My son was always curious with the burns and scars on my face and hands and wanted to know what happened to me. Upon narrating my story to him, he wanted to visit a fire brigade station to interact with those that saved my life. In retrospect, that visit changed my life.”
In 2017, enrolled for a nine-month Firefighter I certification at the International College of Technology in Thika. “I chanced upon an advertisement that was calling for interested persons to register for a fire training course. It was a nine-month programme and I immediately registered to be a part of it. That is how my journey as a fire advocate started.”
Enthusiastic about fire fighting and safety, Jose, in 2017 attended a fire symposium run by Africa Fire Mission (AFM), his current employer. AFM is committed to increasing the capacity of fire departments in vulnerable communities through training, empowerment, support and encouragement.
His passion for fire safety and the joy he derives in having skills that could be beneficial to other members of the community landed him in Mathere as a fire advocate. According to the fire advocate, the major causes of fire outbreaks in the slum are; illegal electrical connections, distribution of faulty gas cylinders, use of lanterns and Koroboi among others.
José’s work involves imparting skills on how best to handle fire. He conducts fire drills, talks about the dangers of illegal electricity connections, safe use of lanterns and Korobois and demonstrates on what steps to take when facing a fire disaster.
Above all this, he has empowered the community to directly call the fire department during a fire outbreak instead of relying on community leaders and politicians.
The efforts of his organisation have reduced the number of people being displaced during a single fire calamity from about 400 people to 250. Due to the poverty levels in the slums, the people rendered homeless by the fire need substantial help to get back to their feet.
To help this vulnerable group, José went out of his way and started a campaign of collecting household goods including beddings and cloths from friends and well-wishers for distribution to those displaced by fires. For transparency and accountability, he has partnered with the chairmen of the Nyumba Kumi initiative in the slum for distribution. His recent efforts in responding to a fire that engulfed Mathare 3A and 3C in June 2020 saw him reach out to 40 households out of the 78 affected by the fire.
“I really thank God for this opportunity that enables me to make real tangible difference in the slum. Apart from empowering the community on how to properly handle fire, it gives me immense joy to be able to help families get back to their feet after a fire misfortune.”
His vision is to see a fire-free Mathare with legal electricity connections and improved public knowledge of fire safety in vulnerable areas in Kenya. With only three skin banks in the world, José is in the process of advocating for the establishment of a skin bank in the region, in a bid to help fire survivors like him who need skin grafting.
Source: Steve Wakhu, Rotary Club of Nairobi North