A safe space for youth in Nairobi

The Dandora Youth Friendly Center in Kenya offers social support, life skills, mentorship, and career development training for young people from disadvantaged neighborhoods.

MSF staff lead youth in an ice breaker session at the Dandora Youth Friendly Center in Nairobi, Kenya.

MSF community health educator William Gachigo leads an ice breaker during a training session at the Dandora Youth Friendly Center. | Kenya 2024 © Lucy Makori/MSF

Tucked in the streets of Eastlands, an area of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, a hidden treasure lies beyond the small green gate of the bustling Dandora Youth Friendly Center: a collaborative project between the Nairobi County Department of Health and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) serving young people from disadvantaged communities. 

Established in 2021, the Dandora Youth Friendly Center serves as a safe space for young people aged 10 to 24, and offers medical care and other services. This vulnerable group grapples with urban violence, substance abuse, and socio-economic challenges such as unemployment and poverty. 

To respond to their needs, MSF provides human resources, expertise, and medical supplies, and works with the local public health center for referrals and sensitization on youth-friendly service delivery.  

"Safe spaces enable you to express yourself freely without fear of contradiction, intimidation, coercion, or anything else,” explained Daniel Katavi, one of the young people benefiting from the center’s services.

Youth attend an education session at a community center in Nairobi, Kenya.
Claire Lungahi, MSF community health educator, facilitates a health education session with young domestic workers at the Dandora Youth Friendly Center.
Kenya 2024 © Lucy Makori/MSF

Comprehensive community services

Operating seven days a week, with Sundays reserved for targeted activities for specific vulnerable groups, the center provides both medical and psycho-social services alongside recreational facilities. The medical side consists of two consultation rooms and a psychologist’s room, with services provided by nurses, a psychologist, a social worker, and community health educators.

In 2023 alone, the youth center team provided 5,316 medical consultations, including for mental health, and 21,661 youth accessed the social and recreational services. Heath care services focus on sexual and reproductive health, including family planning services; HIV prevention, counseling, and testing with linkage to care; prenatal care; post-abortion care; treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and care for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, in addition to mental health counseling and referrals.   

Beyond medical care, the youth center offers a wide range of social support services, including health education, life skills and mentorship training, career development training, computer classes, and library services, as well as entertainment such as a pool table, board games, and introductions to other organizations.

MSF community health educator standing outside youth center in Nairobi, Kenya.
Niceta Wanja, MSF community health educator at the Dandora Youth Friendly Center. Kenya 2024 © Lucy Makori/MSF

Community investment in youth

A main pillar of the center is the participatory approach in designing and delivering services, in which youth play the vital role of advising the center’s management through continuous dialogue and feedback. 

“If we bring our own solutions [alone], it cannot be sustainable. Youth are creative and able to find solutions to their issues. We ensure they are actively involved in the planning and implementation of activities,” said Claire Lungahi, a community health educator at the center who oversees these activities.

Parents also bring their children to the center. “I trust the information here. I know my 12-year-old son receives health education when he comes to the clinic. He comes to study and uses the library services," parent Purity Toyo explained. 

I believe my son may be more open to speak about issues with the health care workers in the clinic than with me sometimes.

Purity Toyo, parent of youth center member

“I believe that youth should be taught the truth on sexual reproductive health and gender-based violence, since we know that they are susceptible to abuse and violence. I believe my son may be more open to speak about issues with the health care workers in the clinic than with me sometimes,” she added. 

Purity, who became a mother at 15 years old, recognizes the importance of comprehensive sexual reproductive health education for youth. “I want my son to do better. I have introduced more young people to the youth center as it has a positive influence on them, especially during school holidays, to keep them engaged. They also have an opportunity to find health services while at the clinic,” she said.

Staff in front of a sexual violence awareness mural in Nairobi.
Young artists Curtis (left) and David (right) paint the walls of the Dandora Youth Friendly Center.
Kenya 2024 © Lucy Makori/MSF

Accessible hours for workers

For youth and other vulnerable groups like domestic workers, the center’s Sunday sessions help accommodate their specific health needs. “As domestic workers, we work from Monday to Saturday, and getting permission [to visit the center] within the week is a hurdle. Having a set day on Sundays allows us to access the services quickly when we come to the hospital,” said Sylvia Wambui, a domestic worker.

MSF also works with other organizations like the Initiators of Common Awareness (ICA), a youth group based in Dandora that focuses on mental health care messaging for young people and connects them to services. “Youth in Dandora go through many challenges like unemployment, poor sanitation conditions, and other social challenges. Our intent is to ensure we find ways to overcome these [obstacles] and link our peers to a psychologist,” said Matthew Ogoti, ICA chairperson.

Despite its modest size, the center behind the green gate has become a familiar place for young people in this corner of Nairobi, addressing their unique needs and reducing barriers to health care access.