A potentially inflammatory headline for an undoubtedly inflammatory situation: Bulldozers enter the Kyang’ombe slums in Nairobi, Kenya. But this isn’t the inauguration of some urban redevelopment program or slum upgrading initiative. It’s almost midnight, and the bulldozers are there to tear it all down. Their engines run throughout the night and into the following day. In the end, fallen homes, schools and businesses, now nothing more than an amalgamation of timber and iron sheets.
Before I proceed, forgive me my theatrics and let me betray my vested interest in this issue, in the spirit of full disclosure. On Monday, I awoke to find a frantic email in my inbox. It was from a close friend I met in Kibera, where I spent most of my days last summer working on a research project. The subject line reads, “Homeless,” a spoiler that immediately betrays the outcome and leaves no room for ambiguity. My friend and his family are among the more than 200,000 people who have lost everything, I discover.
His account includes details that have been left out of reports by independent media, telling omissions that reveal something about the state of journalism in the country; its one that dillydallies somewhere between offering detached stenography and emotionally-charged diatribes that lack a broader explanatory context.
My friend writes that he received no warning, that the electricity in the slum was shut off, that police disembarked from their vehicles clutching guns and canisters of teargas, that he hardly had time to save any belongings, that the soundtrack of the night was a symphony of screams, that he’s grateful his family is alive.
Some journalistic instinct kicks in, and I hardly pause to process before I begin sending messages to former colleagues and previous sources in Nairobi. I enter a state of search engine-induced delirium, knowing all along that I am looking for answers that don’t exist. I imagine that the parties privy to these coveted answers have sworn to maintain secrecy during some corrupt back-room deal, complete with a satiating dose of bribery and political posturing. My theory is corroborated by reports like this. I can’t confirm their legitimacy beyond reasonable doubt, but they claim that the government evicted residents because private developers acquired the land (illegally, of course) by tapping their powerful connections. For someone somewhat familiar with the customary wheelings and dealings in Kenya, the land of “TKK,” it’s convincing enough.
The government is toting the line that the slum was demolished because it obstructed the flight path of planes headed toward the nearby Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I’m not asserting that this territory is indisputably safe. But I challenge the officials who issued this statement to consider how many slums are located on land that’s less than ideal, often near road, power and railway reserves. For instance, the Uganda Railway Line cuts through Kibera’s muddy hillsides, and a steady flow of pedestrian traffic runs along and across the line. Squatter settlements emerge on these tracts of land precisely because they are otherwise undesirable. They remain vacant until prospective tenants occupy them in a desperate search for shelter. So why start with Kyang’ombe, of all slums? Surely there are other settlements that rest on land where dangers permeate tenfold.
The inhumanity of it all strikes me, and it’s what compelled to write this blog post instead of copious cover letters. For instance, Gerald Mutiso was sleeping when a bulldozer entered his home. Who considers the hours between 10 p.m. and midnight as optimal to engage in such decimation? Surely, they realized that there were families nestled within the feeble walls. The same account reports that schools, too, weren’t spared.
I will not claim to rank among the cognoscenti who are experts on economic development, humanitarian issues, slum redevelopment efforts and so forth. But my instinct (and common sense) tells me that this situation reeks of human rights violations. First, let me point out what should have been obvious to the wily power players who signed off on the demolition: Destroying one slum will not decrease the number of slum dwellers in Nairobi, in Kenya. Those who lost their homes and businesses with the demolition of the Kyang’ombe slums will most likely relocate to one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other slums that pepper Kenya. The presence of these slums is simply a manifestation of the various issues that wrack the country. Nairobi’s distorted housing market and the absence of prospects in the countryside drive tens, even hundreds of thousands of people to Nairobi’s urban slums every year. So demolishing informal settlements like Kibera and Mathare and Mukuru is an impossible task; where does the government expect their residents to go?
Based on my experience in squatter settlements, I argue that slums are thriving informal economies in their own right. Sure, there are vendors who scheme, selling jerry cans of water for ten times the market value, and they get away with it. Salesmen solicit to passersby, fanning their pirated DVDs, Bollywood and Hollywood movies alike. But in an environment where the government fails to provide basic services for its citizens, third parties also step in to provide what the government either cannot or will not. Schools, clinics and even latrines, which cost a few shillings per use, are provided by private entities. And because of these well-meaning individuals and organizations, children have schools to attend and fields to play soccer on. Restaurants (confusingly referred to as “hotels”) and shops abound, so when the political cronies and the bulldozers team up to raze homes, they destroy livelihoods as well.
For those who find themselves compelled to relocate to urban centers and unable to afford middle class housing, living in informal settlements like Kyang’ombe is the only option. Until, of course, the government does something that actually addresses the issues at hand. Barring demolitions like the one that occurred last Friday would be an acceptable start.