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Homelessness threatens a third of a million people as government moves
to demolish shanties built in Nairobi under Daniel arap Moi

Jeevan Vasagar in Kibera

Tuesday April 20, 2004
The Guardian

Meshack Onyango was at work when the bulldozers came, but his neighbours rescued his mattress and paraffin stove before the demolition crews ploughed his ramshackle home back into the red earth.

The tin roof of his shack was stripped off by thieves before thewrecking started, but he counts himself lucky to have saved a fewpossessions.

More than a third of a million people living in the slums around Kenya's capital, Nairobi, now face a similar fate as the government prepares to clear shanty settlements which have encroached on to the borders of
railway tracks and on land reserved for road building. 

The Onyango family's home was demolished along with 400 other tin-roofed mud shacks because it stood in the way of a planned bypass, which cuts a 60-metre-wide strip through Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa.

"They came at nine in the morning when I was at work and my wife was at the market," Mr Onyango said.
 "The bulldozers were accompanied by police so people could not stop the demolition, or they would be clobbered.

"We slept in the church that night, and now we're at my brother's house because I don't have money to rent my own house." 

Mr Onyango, his wife and their four small children now all live with his elder brother in a shack the size of a British greenhouse.

Strings of tinsel are the only decoration and bedsheets are hung up to subdivide the space into a living area, kitchen corner and bedroom.
There is no toilet or bathroom, no running water or electricity. 

The residents of Kibera must bathe outside their shacks and hundreds of people can share the same outside toilet.

Kenya's government, which came to power in December 2002, is tackling the legacy of President Daniel arap Moi, under whose rule large tracts of public land were illegally grabbed for private profit.

Slum landlords built on land earmarked for roadbuilding or packed houses in next to railway lines and under pylons.

But the attempt to reclaim public land has hit some of Kenya's poorest people hardest. Waves of forced evictions have driven people from their homes.

"I'm afraid of the government now," Mr Onyango said. "I'm just a poor person - where can I go to raise my complaint?"

The forced evictions were halted last month following protests from the UN and the Vatican, but Kenya's roads minister, Raila Odinga, insisted last week that any homes built on land reserved for roads or other public utilities would be demolished.

The government has plans to clear a swath of the slums by building new housing estates on the outskirts of Kibera. But that project is aimed at just one area of the slum, a shanty village called Soweto; it will not help the hundreds of thousands facing the threat of eviction from public land.

"Basically we have a problem of coordination," said Jack Makau, a spokesman for the Pamoja trust, which campaigns for slum dwellers' rights. "One part of the government is involved in upgrading the slums, but another part is undermining that by evicting people." 

The gulf between rich and poor in Nairobi, one of the world's most unequal cities, is starkly illustrated by its neighbourhoods. 

In the leafy suburb of Karen there are fewer than 360 inhabitants per square kilometre, according to the 1999 census; parts of Kibera have more than 80,000 people in the same-sized area.

The shacks are packed together eave-to-eave in the slums, with narrow alleys where children play in the mud, and chickens peck at rubbish heaps.

Nearly two-thirds of the city's population is crowded into slums like Kibera and the population pressures are only expected to get worse as the rural poor continue to seek work in towns.

Africa is urbanising faster than any other continent, and the challenges faced in Nairobi's slums will soon become commonplace across the region.

In Kibera that urban future seems filled with fear and uncertainty. The doors of the shops and homes that cluster on the edge of the railway line are all now painted with a red X. The rash of crosses, identifying buildings for demolition, looks like a warning of plague.

But at her grocery shop Grace Nyanyau is stoical. "I have been here for 10 years, and I will stay until they come to demolish it," she said. 

"I have nowhere else to go."