“It’s here,” grinned Father John Webootsa, unhooking the padlock on his modest room in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s roughest and most neglected slums. He disappeared inside and emerged clutching an Olympic Torch.
A British council worker donated the torch to Korogocho, a crowded neighbourhood of ramshackle shacks where pigs snuffle among roadside rubbish, and women bake chapattis at tiny tables on the street or wash clothes in plastic basins.
“People feel valueless here but the fact that the Olympic Torch was brought here means that these people have value,” Webootsa, a Comboni missionary, said as he stood clutching the shiny souvenir in the narrow entrance to his compound.
Residents did double takes as they passed through Webootsa’s wood-and-steel street door and saw what the bearded priest was holding. A pretty woman with curly hair and pencilled-in eyebrows insisted she be photographed with it.
As Kenya’s elite athletes prepare for the London Olympics, young people in Korogocho, which means ‘crowded shoulder to shoulder’ in Kiswahili, have already tasted the Olympic dream.
John McBride from County Durham donated his torch to the St. John’s Sports Society in Korogocho after he was nominated as a torchbearer by the Catholic relief agency, CAFOD. He ran his leg of the relay barefoot in solidarity with the children of Korogocho.
In late June, the 48-year-old, who has long supported the Sports Society with CAFOD, flew to Nairobi. He ran through Korogocho surrounded by thousands of young residents, many of whom had a chance to carry the torch a short distance.
McBride said he wanted “to inspire people to be the best they can.”
Father Webootsa said the torch’s passage through the slum’s pitted, narrow streets gave its people a sense of pride.
“There are many senior athletes who have never touched this,” he said. “I remember one of the men (running with the torch) said to me, ‘the world is in solidarity with us … but does Kenya care about us?’”
If Korogocho is rich in crime, drugs, and other illegal activities, it is probably because it is so poor in everything else. There are few schools, hardly any state health facilities and residents often feel a sense of embarrassment simply because of where they come from.
Here, Father Webootsa is something of a Superman-cum-Good Samaritan. He runs a micro-finance scheme to provide alternative livelihoods to residents working on the nearby Dandora dumpsite, a sludgy, stinky wasteland where bristly Marabou storks poke among the rubbish alongside people searching for anything of value.
The priest has campaigned for over 10 years for the dump to be relocated, but the issue is political and there have been many delays.
He also runs St. John’s Sports Society, which was founded in 1994 and offers training in football, boxing, netball, taekwondo, karate, weightlifting and handball, as well as lessons in life.
Peter Odhiambo plays football at the Society, and sells sweets and snacks outside the nearby St. John’s School to survive.
“I spend most of my free time in St. John’s. We are not tempted (to commit crimes) because we get training, and are taught about the importance of life and sports,” said the 24-year-old, who was among those who carried the torch with McBride.
“Many people just see the torch on TV, but I touched it,” said the Manchester United fan.
He thinks Kenyan long-distance runners will do well in London, and says the Olympic Games, despite taking place a world away, mean a lot to him.
“When I see our people running, they give Kenya a good name … It inspires us. You just think that one of these days, it could happen to you too. They started low down and now they are up there. We have hope.”
Several Kenyan athletes – like the late Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru and Odhiambo’s heroine, 800m champion Pamela Jelimo — also came from humble beginnings.
If Odhiambo wants to see Jelimo in action in London, he will have to pay 10 shillings (less than 10 pence) at a TV shack. That will get him two hours viewing, but he can ill afford the fee.
Father Webootsa hopes he will be able to show some of the Olympic events on big screens around the slum, as he did during the soccer World Cup.
He is keeping the torch in his room for now because the Society’s gym is not yet secure enough. Other London 2012 torches have been sold on eBay for thousands of pounds – an unimaginable fortune in Korogocho where more than 150,000 people live on just 1.5 square kilometres, and where muggings and robberies are common.
At St. John’s weightlifting gym – a shack made of sheets of corrugated iron held up by wooden beams with weights made from spare car parts — Emmanuel Omondi strips off his T-shirt to reveal his ripped abdomen and bulging biceps. Omondi runs the gym and works as a bouncer. He can also now call himself a torchbearer.
“It meant a lot … I was on my way to work (when I heard about the torch parade), so I told my boss, ‘there is something special, I won’t be in.’