If it’s broke, fix it

Taking mending to the street doctors

Gambiology’s Fred Paulino | Photo by Beth Freitas

Is the art of repair no longer a thing of the past? From the sunbaked streets of Kenya to the creative cafés of New Zealand via a colourful Brazilian workshop, we meet the street fixers who can mend anything

Enter a world where nothing is junk

and rubbish is a raw material.

In the hot air beneath a corrugated roof in the Kamukunji neighbourhood of Nairobi, eight men sit on low stools, hammers in hand. They beat the metal objects between their legs – one, a metal bowl that he turns with his feet, another the shiny silver lid to a box he’s building. 

These are Kenya’s jua kali artisans. The name means ‘hot sun’ in Swahili, referencing where many, when not sheltering beneath a tin roof, spend much of their working day. Kamukunji is one of Nairobi’s oldest jua kali ‘clusters’, and specialises in metalwork.

In this area alone, 

thousands hammer, weld, cut and drill

materials that often came from, and might otherwise end up on,

the scrapheap.

They work manually, barely a machine in sight. These artisans know their craft, and will turn their hand to anything that’s needed. “Some of my favourite things to fix,” says jua kali artisan Njuguna Ndicho, “are wheelbarrows, all types of trolleys, house doors and windows. But many other things too”. His Facebook page displays buckets, boxes, beds, and a solar popcorn machine.

It is just these sorts of objects – plus endless toasters and t shirts, clocks and car parts, lamps and laptops – that parts of the world are flinging so mindlessly onto the scrapheap. We are throwing away the damaged and abandoned, the malfunctioning and the no-longer-latest-model to the tune of 2 billion tonnes a year. Our waste is clogging up landfills, or releasing the most toxic chemicals known to science when it’s burned.

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For Kenya’s jua kali, rubbish like this is a raw material. Edwin Likuyi is a jua kali artisan based in Kakamega, in the west of Kenya. When he’s not melting down scraps to be turned into spoons and cooking pots, he’s turning old motorbike wheels into shiny silver chairs and tables, and magicking up spare parts for anything a customer comes looking for. “Jua kali workers are like geniuses,” he tells me. “When we see something, we can modify it – and that means we can make anything. And we can always find ways to make anything better than the original.” 

Jua kali workers are like geniuses. We can make anything. And we can always find ways to make anything better than the original.

Outside Kenya, there is a global army of volunteers that are battling the tide of waste by offering their skills at one of the world’s 2,200 Repair Cafés. In school halls, libraries, community centres and (actual) cafés in more than 30 countries, people bring in everything from furniture to food processors to be fixed by generous local tinkerers.

Cally Stockdale (pictured below) volunteers at Nelson Repair Café, one of New Zealand’s network of 34 Repair Cafés. She is a trained saddler – a skill that extends her reparative superpowers to Moroccan camel leather seats, antique lawn green bowls boxes, and defunct roller blades.”

“A young man, about 20, walked in with some in-line skates that didn’t work,” she describes, smiling. “Together we hunted around for something I could use to replace the clasp. He was thrilled! And off he went, skating down the road.” 

Learning the skills needed is as important as the will to mend. Stockdale was trained in leather work and, as she puts it, is “a great old fuddy duddy. The knowledge base that you acquire is purely wisdom through age and trial and experience”. And Ndicho, who has now worked full time as a jua kali artisan for over 20 years, picked it up as a child: “When I was in primary school,” he says, “I would collect scrap metal during the holidays and the jua kali artisans who were my neighbours would show me, little by little, how to mend things.” 

Fred Paulino is a Brazilian scientist, artist and researcher whose work centres on the Brazilian concept of gambiarra, which roughly translates as ‘kludging’: the DIY practice of repairing things in an improvised, makeshift way, with whatever is available. Think plastic bottles in place of broken bulbs, and Pringle pots replacing pipes.

He, too, picked up his mending habits early in life. “I was born with this interest,” he says, “in collecting stuff from the streets and going to junkyards. This hoarding type of feeling. Maybe it was the aesthetics, maybe the act itself.” His compulsion has led him to become a ‘gambiologist’ – a term he has coined for a scientist studying gambiarra – and the founder of an artist collective called Gambiologia.

‘Kludging’: the DIY practice of repairing things in an improvised, makeshift way, with whatever is available.”

Today, backing onto a tropically green garden in a village outside Belo Horizonte, is Paulino’s home workshop. As we talk, he points his webcam towards its stacks of colourful, unexpected objects, plucking torches made from Nutella packaging from a high shelf, holding up an LED-adorned hat and gesturing towards his many, many types of glue. 

“Gambiarra is sometimes seen as a synonym for what I would call Brazilianness,” Paulino explains, “because we are seen as people who have this ability to solve problems, and we were born with these needs. Around 13% of people are below the poverty line, without access to up to date infrastructure. So it comes from a need for survival, somehow.” 

It is difficult to divorce the idea of repair from that of necessity. Stockdale describes how New Zealand’s relative isolation and historical reliance on imports bred a generation, now aged 55+, who learned to take care of their possessions. “Many in this age group are brilliant at sewing, mending, knitting, quilting, fixing stuff on the farms, fixing cars. It’s known as the ‘No. 8 Wire’ mentality, which was the gauge of the wire that was used for farm fences and to fix anything that could be fixed, to save money and time”. Now, at the Repair Café, the volunteers – most of whom are older – try to pass on their knowledge to those who haven’t had to learn the art of repair. “Much of our ethos is around showing people how to fix stuff and create some self-reliance,” Stockdale says. 

For Ndicho and his colleagues, the drive to do this work is the need for employment. “Jua kali creates a huge opportunity for young and willing youths to build both their career and their earnings”, he explains. Kenya’s jua kali sector more broadly – including many types of informal employment – is the country’s main job creator, accounting for more than 90% of new jobs. 

And yet, the need to survive doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for finding joy in the creative act of repair. Dr Rebecca Collins, Senior Lecturer in Human Geographer at the University of Chester and co-founder of a mending initiative called the Popup Patch Challenge, says that there’s something more to mending and making than just the practical. “Our desire to mend isn’t necessarily to do with environmental concerns, or even the imperative to repair something that’s broken. It can be simply because it’s enjoyable and good for our wellbeing”.

Fix our worn out objects,

and somehow we tend to our own frayed edges. 

Similarly, Paulino emphasises that, having worked with people from different backgrounds and various age groups through Gambiologia workshops, the urge and ability to work with materials is universal. “Everybody who starts to do it, loves it,” he explains, “because it takes us back to our ancestors. We have forgotten that, as human beings, we are used to dealing with materials and how they can help us feed ourselves, keep ourselves warm. People love it because it’s in our DNA. It’s part of our nature.”

Ndicho’s popcorn machine, Stockdale’s rollerblades, Paulino’s brightly lit baseball cap – these are objects that represent far more than the functional. Their new life is an act of creativity, something Stockdale sees “a huge amount of out there. The last two years have moved many people to work away from offices and allowed some of this creativity to surface, alongside gardening and building projects people are doing that increase their skills. All of this can be used to contribute to the culture of mending and repurposing.”

Could this mean there’s a new dawn for repair on the horizon? A world away from the clanging of Kenya’s metal workers and the bustle of Brazil’s streets, the powers-that-be – namely, the law courts – look to be moving in the right direction.

Could this mean there’s a new dawn for repair
on the horizon?

One of the more absurd consequences of the West’s rampant march towards cheap production and overconsumption has been that manufacturers have made products that are built to break, and can’t be fixed independently. The Right to Repair movement is hitting back and has had some success in Europe, where manufacturers are now legally obliged to make spare parts for some products available to consumers. Other countries are pushing for the same, including a concerted effort by Repair Café Aotearoa New Zealand. The next step is for it to cover more appliances and make parts available for longer.  

The Right to Repair is good news, but laws alone won’t make the change that’s needed. We need to see broken objects with new eyes; to look through the repair-tinted glasses of those who see nothing as junk, just an opportunity to create a better world. “You look around at places that are unhealthy to live,” Likuyi says, “that are full of scrap, with rubbish thrown everywhere. But we can repair things, bring them back to use. If you give me two years there, you will not believe your eyes when you come back. It will be a very good place for us to live.” 

Indeed, as Dr Collins says, “there are a huge number of ways in which the extremely privileged, global north countries can and should be recognising the wisdom and the expertise that exist elsewhere in the world. The faster that can be recognised and acted upon, the better.”

Can we channel the spirit of gambiarra, of jua kali or the No. 8 Wire, and give our failing food processors another chance at life? Maybe they can live on as a popcorn machine.

What’s so good about this?

Whether on a stall on a rainy university campus or under the hot shade of a tin roof, the vibrancy and can-do culture of the world’s street fixers is keeping alive something that we need today more than ever before. Fixing objects can fix the planet’s future. 

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