Homelessness threatens a third of a million people as
to demolish shanties built in Nairobi under Daniel arap Moi
Jeevan Vasagar in Kibera
Tuesday April 20, 2004
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
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."