I spent some time with the poorest of the poor in Kenya recently. Theirs is a community that has tasted victory. They understand that the struggle will be hard and long. But I was inspired by the courage and conviction that the community’s women leaders demonstrated. And I know that social justice will only prevail when the poor are organised at a local level, have their own leadership and find their own battles around their bread-and-butter issues.
“I don’t feel I am a Kenyan. I don’t see anyone who respects us slum dweller women. We are treated like dogs. We live in one room, with our children, even teenagers. We give birth there. We eat, sleep, cook and raise our children in these one-room shacks. We are forgotten.”
I am in the Mukuru Kwa Reuben slum, one of the largest in Nairobi. No-one knows how many people live here. But rough estimates put it at over 600,000 people, across 13 sections, the majority living in corrugated iron shacks measuring 10X10 feet. Most are casual workers in the adjoining industrial district. This is a parallel universe that uneasily co-exists with the suburbs of the city. Not unlike South Africa. Rising inequality is reflected in the visible and disturbing poverty.
I am meeting women from a self-help group. They had approached an innovative NGO, Akiba Mashinani, to help them build a savings scheme several years ago.
I see their strength etched into their faces, forged in the hardships of life here. Warnings of the terrors of these crime-infested slums evaporate. I feel safe here with these women activists. They are hardened warriors of social justice. Sitting under the lonely tree, we shift our chairs to avoid the blazing sun as it charts its way overhead across the poverty of the people. I feel the same solidarity I felt more than 30 years ago sitting with hostel dwellers in South Africa’s slums and remote villages, discussing building a democratic union movement.
“We do not live the lives of middle-class women in the suburbs. Here we fight for the right to a toilet. We risk our lives going to toilet at night because we can be raped. It costs 3 shillings to use the public toilet. We can only afford that once a day. More often than not we use a basin in our shack and are forced to discard its contents into the open public drain. Life is hard,” says Dorice.
The right to a toilet is a powerful political goal. “We have collected over 5,000 signatures demanding the right to sanitation,” she says. As we walk towards her home, I realise how the right to a toilet has become a global campaign for human dignity. I think of the thousands of teenagers that miss school in South Africa because there are no toilets they can use during menstruation. It is an outrage that our children miss out on education due to corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement that denies them their most fundamental right to dignity.
The pathways are treacherous. We navigate the open drains, the stench of sewage rising. “Infections, especially amongst our children, are a daily hazard. You can see the disease in the water. These are impassable in the rains. They rise and flood our rooms, bringing havoc.” I see the many health-related issues within the slum. Malnutrition is evident. Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, tuberculosis and AIDS are commonplace. Medical care is often out of reach of most residents.
I arrive at her home. It is miniscule. Bunk beds, a table and a couch leave no space to move. It is spotless. It reflects her dignity and courage. I see in her the faces of the poor I have interacted with in villages and slums across the world.
“I live here with my husband and two teenage children. There is no privacy. When my husband wants to be intimate it is so awkward. Our children are exposed to sex so young. It influences them negatively.” She points out to bricks. “When the rains come we raise all the furniture. We pray that it stops. This is not the life I want my children to live.”
There is a steely determination there that I recognise from our own turbulent history of the 1980’s and the community and workers activism of our freedom struggle. They know what they want. They have formed their own organisation, assisted by an Akiba. “We collect at least 10 shillings (approx. 9 US cents) every day from our members. Over the last three years we have saved over one million US dollars. We have bought our own land – 23 acres. We will never be evicted again. We have our land title. We will build our houses brick by brick,” she proclaims proudly. That is the role and activism that civil society needs to return to today.
Land is a highly politicised issue in Kenya. Land prices in Nairobi in particular are skyrocketing. The urban slums all border the industrial parks, historically housing the labour reservoirs of a growing economy.
Many of the slums have been developed on privately held land belonging to companies and private individuals who have acquired land from corrupt officials. They have become highly organised cartels with a brutal enforcement system that reaches down to every shack. These are linked to political elites who often use them as the vote banks.
Jane Weru, Akiba’s Executive Director, explains, “We have just approved a new Constitution and Bill of Rights. It guarantees the right to socio-economic rights. Kenyan citizens have a right to sanitation, water, quality education and health. We have a right to a home. Yet we have had to fight a bitter struggle against forced removals. This land is now valuable and the cartels are now determined to profit by displacing families that have lived here for generations. We have just won a victory when the Supreme Court which supported our right to stay. But we know that while we won that battle, the war is far from over.” I find her approach genuinely refreshing.
Winifred Maingi is the headmistress of the community school. It has 491 pupils from Grade 1 – 8. I visit the school. I feel the emotions well up inside. A knot builds in my stomach. It is heartbreaking. I enter the classrooms one by one. It has six classrooms built by donations from an NGO. The grounds inside the classrooms are hard and rocky. It is crudely partitioned. No electricity here. No computers, libraries. Two toilets, holes in the ground, serve the entire school.
“Do you receive any help from government?” I ask. They laugh. “No,” is the chorus. “We have to pay ourselves. Each parent contributes 200 shillings a month. We have to pay for everything. We have 12 teachers. We do not qualify for any subsidy because we don’t own the land on which we built our school. Many children drop out because their parents just don’t have money. And nearly half have to leave school and find piece work to supplement the family income. We have a midday meal of rice and beans for which we ask parents to contribute 20 shillings a day. Many cannot afford it.”
I ask the kids in one classroom what they aspire to be. The hands shoot up. “An engineer to build houses; an aeronautical engineer; a social worker; a technician; a nurse; a teacher.” They have dreams. Many are connected to their harsh reality. We should be creating the pathways that give them a ladder out of the poverty that surrounds us here. It is no different in slums of Johannesburg, Durban, Mumbai, Dhaka or Lagos. Inequality is rising dramatically in the emerging economies like Kenya.
We walk through the slum. It is a thriving local economy. Vegetable sellers, hammer mills, makeshift clinics, water dispensers, privately owned toilets. There is overwhelming evidence that supporting these women micro-entrepreneurs will improve their productivity and incomes and lead to immediate improvement in the health, education and nutrition of their children.
Direct cash transfers to these women will be the most effective anti-poverty programme. These women don’t need to be convinced that their children should be educated. They scrape every penny to ensure that right now.
The women point out dumping sites which have become a health hazard. “But people are so poor that they even scrounge in the dumpsite and take the rotting food. It is a hard struggle for dignity. We are seen as thieves, drug peddlers and criminals. Often it is hard to get a job here in the industries because of the stigma attached to slum dwellers.”
This is a community that has tasted victory. They understand that the struggle will be hard and long. But I am inspired by the courage and conviction that these women leaders demonstrate. I know that social justice will only prevail when the poor are organised at a local level, have their own leadership and find their own battles around their bread-and-butter issues.
NGOs like Akiba Mashinani and global social activists like me must provide the political and material support and the tools these communities need. We must make sure the voices of Dorice, Winifred and so many outstanding women activists are heard in the corridors of power. We need to remove the “middlemen” in the global conversation towards ending poverty and inequality. DM
Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT) is the financial services outfit of Muungano wa Wanavijiji (MWW) – Slum Dwellers Federation of Kenya. For more information, visit http://www.amtkenya.org/
"The surest defence against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity." ~ Joseph Brodsky