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KENYA: Slum Upgrade Is Land Grab – Nubians

NAIROBI, Sep 25 2009 (IPS) - Her neighbours moved away one week ago, but Fatuma Abou sits against the tin door of her Kibera shack with a hijab over her head, chin on her knees and a defiant expression on her face when she looks up.

One of the newly-vacated houses in Kibera's Soweto East: relocated families will eventually return to upgraded housing in the area. Credit:  George Kebaso/IPS

One of the newly-vacated houses in Kibera's Soweto East: relocated families will eventually return to upgraded housing in the area. Credit: George Kebaso/IPS

She has lived in Kibera’s “Soweto East” section for 20 years. And she intends to stay put with her three children. Abou’s story is historical as well as cultural, similar to the rest of the Nubian community in Kibera – laced with the fear of losing land rights, communal solidarity and income, all inherited from the first generation of Nubians to settle there.

In 2003 the National Rainbow Coalition was voted into office. Mwai Kibaki was president and Raila Odinga – then as now Member of Parliament representing the massive Nairobi slum of Kibera – was minister for Roads and Public Works. The government announced a plan to transform the slum into a modern residential housing estate.

Now in September 2009 the first residents, an estimated 150 households, have been moved from dingy Soweto East, about one kilometre across the Nairobi Dam valley, to a new site as part of the first phase of a project to move them into new high-rise homes.

Abou’s steeliness is a reflection of the arguments used by the larger Nubian community living in Kibera, where they claim to have lived for more than a century, which they now regard as their ancestral land.

Defending a land claim

In an interview with IPS, Issa Abdul-Faraj, and secretary- general Ibrahim Diab, dismissed the programme.

"The slum-upgrading programme is not a new thing. It began in 1962 with a planned eight phases. But sadly, in all these phases, the authorities have used Nubians to get money for the projects, but at the end of it they would give them out for commercial purposes, "said Abdul-Faraj.

The two community officials termed the upgrading a "grand plan" for grabbing Nubian land, which had continued through successive administrations since that of Kenya's founding president, Jomo Kenyatta.

They cited as an example Nyayo Highrise, another estate near Soweto East built in the 1980s under the same banner of slum upgrading, but which ended up accommodating a middle-class community.

"The Moi regime also fenced off a huge chunk of land belonging to the Nubians to build Moi Girls’ High School, just across the road. And this is the kind of thing which gives legitimacy to our asking to be left alone on our land, "adds 70-year old Abdul-Faraj.

According to Diab (53), a genuine slum-upgrading system for Kibra - origin of Kibera, which is Nubi for "a green forest" – would have involved the community, which considers itself the fifth generation living in the area, before coming up with the project.

"When our forefathers came here in early 1900 to assist the British in their fight against the German soldiers, they were given this land as a reward in 1914 after a successful campaign against the aggressors. This is the history behind Kibra and we ask that it be respected, "says Diab, echoing Abou's determination not to move to the new houses.

"Initially, the 4,198 acres were a lush green, breath-taking forest inhabited by wild animals, with clean, flowing water. But look at what’s remaining – only 780 acres of slum and filth," concludes Abdul-Faraj with a flash of anger in his eyes.

The elders have however, successfully lobbied for the remaining land to be given to them under one communal title deed: Kenyan Nubian Council of Elders Charitable Trust Deed.

In June, when the government announced that more than 1,000 residents of Kibera would be moving to new houses, some slum-dwellers – mainly landlords – opposed relocation, arguing this would deprive them of their livelihood. They even filed a court case challenging the decision.

Apart from going to court over the government-sponsored relocation programme, the Kenyan Nubian Council of Elders, representing the community nationally, has expressed doubts that the upgrading programme will achieve meaningful development.

The elders claim it is a ploy by the government to grab their land, “as they did in similar upgrading programmes in the area”.

“When our forefathers came here in early 1900 to assist the British in their fight against the German soldiers, they were given this land as a reward in 1914, after a successful campaign against the aggressors,” said the Council Secretary General, Ibrahim Diab.

Referring to Kibera by its Nubian name, he added, “This is the history behind Kibra, and we ask that it be respected.”

The elders have successfully lobbied for the remaining land to be given to them under one communal title deed: the Kenyan Nubian Council of Elders Charitable Trust Deed.

“In 2007, we wrote to President Kibaki and expressed our concern that most of our land in Kibera had been grabbed. We requested him to facilitate means for us to be granted a communal title, which he affirmed positively through an emissary,” said Council chair Issa Abdul-Faraj. “We are just waiting for the title.”

When IPS visited the site where the 150 households have been accommodated, most of the new occupants seemed content with the move, despite early hitches.

“Having a new permanent house is just like having a dream realised after many years. We never thought we would have such a life,” beamed Anne Wanjiru, a former landlord.

Wanjiru owned 10 single rooms in Soweto East, which she rented out for the equivalent of $4.70 each. She has savings which she will use to set up a grocery business to supplement her forfeited rental business. Wanjiru is among the residents Nubian elders describe as “politically correct”, and they claim this correctness was the reason they got land easily and “illegally”.

Wanjiru is concerned that there is not yet electricity or running water, but has been reassured by the authorities.

“The Kenya Power and Lighting Company crew have been here, and assured us we will have electricity soon,” she added.

Abdul-Faraj dismissed people like Wanjiru as opportunist landlords who were not genuine. He said she was one of the people likely to troop back to the slum.

In contrast, Abou is one of the landlords not ready to give up the life she has made for herself in Soweto East. The Nubian mother owns two other shacks built for her by her parents. One room rents for $4.70.

“After I gave birth to my first child, I realised I could not continue to live with my parents. They built this house for me, and the two others from which I earn my living. I am not ready to start a new life with strangers,” she says.

Many are in a predicament similar to Abou’s. Those who agreed to speak to IPS said their children were already preparing for end-of-year school exams, and did not wish to be uprooted.

But a senior ministry of housing official told IPS the government had agreed with local leaders to transport schoolchildren, so that their studies would not be interrupted.

“There should be no reason for anybody to give schooling as an excuse not to relocate. My minister (Soita Shitanda) has already agreed with the area leaders to provide vehicles to carry the children daily. After all it is only temporary,” the anonymous source told IPS.

As part of phase one of the project, the new site is a “decanting location” where residents will live before eventually returning to new housing in Kibera. But civic leaders are divided over relocation.

Lindi Ward councillor Adam Babu, a Nubi, supports those opposing the relocation, saying the use of youths and police in trying to coerce residents was in itself an abuse of individual rights, while his counterpart Samson Owino, in Laini Saba Ward – where the first phase of relocation began – blamed some of the resistance to political interference, but he also called on the government to be humane while trying to relocate the defiant resisters.

James Otieno, a renter waiting for phase two of the programme, expected to start  in November, already fears that in the high-rise estate prices could be higher than in Kibera, where food is cheap.

“Here, one can buy two spoons of sugar for as little as two shillings ($0.28). Other essentials like flour, tea leaves, cooking oil and soap are all affordable,” he said.

Rent in the new high-rises will be $7 a month; residents will also pay $4.70 for electricity and $2.80 for piped water, amenities they did not enjoy in Soweto East.

Fears that new occupants will seize the newly-vacated houses in Kibera, creating problems for the eventual redevelopment plan, were dismissed by Nairobi mayor Geoffrey Majiwa, whose city council is a major partner in the project under the Kenya National Slum Upgrading Programme.

“Together with the Ministry of Housing we have employed youths under the Kazi Kwa Vijana (“employment for the youth in kiSwahili) Initiative to protect the vacant houses from those who have intentions of re-occupying them,” said the mayor.

Kibera is Kenya’s political hotbed. The shanty area is home to members of all the country’s 42 ethnic groups, and its proximity to the capital adds to its political significance. It also straddles the more than 100-year-old Kenya-Uganda railway line, which carries goods to east and central Africa.

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