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The keys to a ghetto-free Nairobi

Updated: 2014-11-21 13:22
By Mary Njeri Kinyanjui (China Daily Africa)

Work programs, preservation of cultural heritage a few of the many solutions to revitalize slums

Construction of the Kariakor flats sprung out of the first celebrated program to upgrade slums in Nairobi after Kenya's independence. At the recent commissioning of the flats, Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta said Kenyans deserved living with dignity in hygienic places. The city administration combined slum demolitions with the construction of housing as strategies for making Nairobi a slum-free city.

Despite the fact that Nairobi's city council members in collaboration with international financiers and bilateral donors have engaged in slum upgrading projects in the Kibera and Mathare slums, revitalizing slums has been elusive due to a number of factors.

The people who live in slums include many of the city's service workers. They are security guards, casual workers in industries, domestic workers, office orderlies, construction workers, drivers, touts, traders and artisans. Their wages are low and they cannot afford the new rates for upgraded houses. Unless their wage issue is addressed through decent work programs and improved working conditions, it will be unlikely that slum dwellers will move into the upgraded housing.

The slum dwellers' worldview of "belonging" affects their behavior. A majority of dwellers in Nairobi regard their rural origin or ancestral home as their real home. This is where they go back to or are buried when they die. This worldview largely affects their investment decisions. I happened to attend a funeral ceremony of a chairman of a jua kali association (an association of workers in small businesses) in his rural home. While he lived in a slum in Nairobi, he had constructed a decent stone house in his rural home. This dual citizenship between rural and urban areas creates dissonance on where to invest scarce resources.

TV programs such as Papa Shirandula and Machachari on Citizen Television and The Househelps of Kawangware on KTN television demonstrate a desire to "catch up" with the rest of urban modernity especially in consumption habits. Wilbroda in Papa Shirandula is the face of TV commercials encouraging slum dwellers to "catch up" with modern consumer habits. Consumption as opposed to investment is the dilemma the slum dwellers have to face. While I am not against consumption, considerable efforts should be made to encourage slum dwellers to invest in housing.

The architecture of the slum environment is similar to the built environment in most of Kenya's rural dwellings. Houses in rural areas are made of mud or wood and iron sheets and recent migrants may not have much problem living in similar houses in the city. Thus, unless we address the issue of the built environment in both rural and urban areas, we may not make any headway.

Slums are also spaces where people affirm their cultural heritage. That is where one will find traditional cuisine and practices. For instance, on Aug 10, the Bukusu community in Kawangware held a circumcision rite of passage between two slums, Kibera and Kawangware. Perhaps there is a fear that slum upgrading would affect such cultural identities and practices.

Lack of public housing in the city also encourages traffic into slums. The construction of relatively cheap public houses was left to private developers in the 1990s during the Structural Adjustment Programs. These private developers concentrated on building housing for middle-income earners and office workers because they were more profitable. There are no private developers in slum upgrading projects. One only needs to see how Ruaka, a privately developed residential area, has emerged as a middle-income quarter while slum upgrading programs that started almost at the same time are floundering. If Ruaka high-rise buildings have been built within a span of 10 years, why has slum upgrading that started almost at the same time stalled?

The huge population in slums makes them sites of political capital. Politicians have gained prominence by mobilizing slum dwellers, but they do little in return in terms of investing in their welfare. Only when slum dwellers are represented by their own can meaningful developments in the slums be initiated. Their own representation will be a game changer in the upgrading of slums. They will be able to own the projects as opposed to being objects of benevolence.

In order for a slum free Nairobi to be realized, group investments such as the Kitemoto Housing Cooperative should be encouraged. The different categories of people living in slums such as traders, security guards, domestic workers, drivers and touts need to organize themselves, save and initiate their own development. The groups should be encouraged to develop into nests of human kindness that would serve as cultural, industrial and innovative districts that will preserve cultural identities and heritages as well as create jobs in the city.

The author is a researcher at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 11/21/2014 page9)

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