Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-KENYA: The Threat of Demolition Looms in “Africa’s Largest Slum"

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Mar 10 2004 (IPS) - When the World Social Forum took place in India during January, Kenyan activists who attended the event pledged to highlight their country’s housing crisis. This issue has hit the headlines again now, with the planned demolition of buildings in one of Nairobi’s poorest areas.

Since last December, authorities have been pulling down structures built along railway and power lines, on the grounds that this property was illegally allocated for development. Some of the first structures to go were mansions worth millions of Kenyan shillings – many of them owned by key members of the government under former President Daniel arap Moi.

Now, the bulldozers have come to Kibera, a shanty town which is home to about 700,000 poverty-stricken people. It is often referred to as Africa’s largest slum.

The first phase of demolitions in Kibera took place in mid-February. About 9,600 people have been left homeless – and the sight of families sleeping outdoors has become a familiar one according to Dalmas Owino, Chairperson of the Kibera Rent and Housing Forum.

Slum dwellers claim that the February demolition caught them unawares, as they had not received any notice from government. Officials have now given them 40 days (from Feb. 29) to vacate illegal premises before the second phase of the operation is carried out. Several residents have approached the court to have that deadline extended.

“Some of us have been here for over thirty years. Our children and grandchildren have grown up here and we know no other home. Is it really possible for such a person to move within days?” asks Joachim Ngugi, who lives in Kibera.

“It is not that we are refusing to move, but surely the government should give us more time? It should also let us know where we are going to from here.”

If the demolitions go ahead, they will leave about 190,000 additional people homeless. Human rights campaigners say this has particularly dire implications for AIDS orphans.

“It is a fact that the government has a right to reclaim its property, but it should go slow and consider vulnerable groups like the orphans who have nowhere else to go. These orphans are victims of the effects of HIV/AIDS, who before anything else need shelter,” says Mike Arunga, Head of Information at the East Africa branch of the Shelter Forum. His organisation works towards policies that promote decent shelter for the poor.

The situation of Leah Kanini is a case in point. After having lost her parents to AIDS-related illnesses, she took on the responsibility of caring for her five siblings. The 15-year-old sells peanuts to support the household.

On Feb. 16 Kanini returned home to find the family’s shack flattened by a government bulldozer. When IPS spoke to her this week, she was feeding the other children in a makeshift room, with walls made from pieces of cloth. “I do not know what to do, I do not know where to go,” she said, her voice bitter.

A recent study by the Kenyan office of the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) showed that a third of the people who took AIDS tests at an AMREF counseling centre in Kibera were HIV-positive.

Research carried out in 2002 by PACT Kenya, a community development organisation, found that infection rates in the shanty town were as high as 40 percent. The United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organisation put national HIV prevalence in Kenya at 9.4 percent.

Many are placing the blame for Kibera’s crisis firmly at the door of government, which they accuse of failing to plan for rapid population growth in the 1980s.

“During this time, the country’s population growth rate was four percent, one of the highest in the world. Informal settlements like Kibera became inevitable,” says Arunga.

The UN Human Development Report for 2003 says that 23 percent of Kenyans live below the poverty line of a dollar a day. In light of this, a shack in Kibera is the only option available to many. It costs about eight dollars a month to rent a tiny mud-walled dwelling in the shanty town. Sanitation services are over-stretched, or non-existent.

Human rights campaigners say government should have consulted the residents of Kibera before formulating their demolition plans.

“These demolitions are very unfortunate and have adverse effects. They involve the very core of people’s lives and these people have a right to know of government’s intentions so that they (can) plan their lives,” observes Olita Ogonjo, a Programme Officer at the Maji na Ufanisi (Water and Development) organisation.

Maji na Ufanisi has joined the Kenya Human Rights Network in calling on government to make arrangements for relocating people who have lost their homes. But, these pleas are falling on deaf ears.

“We are not resettling anyone. They will have to move, whether they go to court or not. It is a well known fact that building on road reserves, by-passes, under electricity lines and near railway lines is completely illegal,” Samuel Mugo, Chief Public Relations Officer for the Ministry of Roads and Public Works, told IPS.

“There is no meeting that will take place between the government and residents. They have been served with a notice and they better obey it before action is taken,” he warned.

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