In Nairobi’s Huruma slum, John Mucheru is taking in thieves and prostitutes, and is making honest individuals of them by making jewelry. John is himself a product of Huruma who grew up as a skilled teenage mugger, he was headed to an early grave when his artistic talent was spotted and he was offered a job designing jewelry.
The outcome is Zakale Creations, where the 41-year-old Mucheru today employs 30 young people who would otherwise be contributing to Nairobi’s crime rate.
They work in a ramshackle workshop at the end of a compound bordered by gritty tenements hung with laundry and scavenged by chickens. The young people sit at long tables all day listening to a radio and turning recycled items into art: bottle tops, copper wire, cords from tires, soda straws, aluminum pots, seeds, bones and buttons. They make toy animals, bead necklaces and earrings.
“We are also recycling people,” Mucheru says. “Hookers and robbers gain a new life they never expected.”
Milton Obote began thieving when he was orphaned at 9. He stole dictionaries and Bibles from his primary school. He graduated to holdups. With handmade toy pistols called mbonos — “at night they look real,” he remembers — Obote and his gang would board public buses and rob passengers of watches, money and mobile phones.
When he wasn’t stealing, Obote played soccer in a youth league run by Mucheru. One day the older man urged him to make jewelry. Now Obote is a production manager at Zakale, which means “to use again.”
“There are no jobs for young people in Nairobi. That’s why they turn to crime,” he says. “Most of them come from my situation — they were gangsters and drug addicts.”
Ruth Ngendo, one of the transformed prostitutes says, “This job keeps me away from stealing, from being idle”. I get up in the morning, I prepare myself, I come here. I’m not corrupted. I can put a plate on my family’s table. And I enjoy beadwork.”
Zakale Creations survives on the slimmest of margins. The work that keeps these young people off the streets of Nairobi depends on orders from overseas. A Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision, sells Mucheru’s jewelry under the Heavenly Treasures brand in its Christmas catalog.