Homelessness and (un)affordable housing in Nairobi

I’ve lived a good part of my life in Mathare 4A, part of the larger Mathare slum in Nairobi. Decent housing remains a pipe dream for the majority of the city's residents.

Photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash

Every Sunday morning, while I cycle along Juja Road in Nairobi, I’m reminded of the disparity in our city. There are many faces of despair and hopelessness along the road. On one side, citizens waking up from their shanties, all moving towards different places in search of mostly daily wage casual jobs. On the other are clusters of street and homeless families living along this busy throughfare. They have made the pavements, shop verandas, and walls along this road their home. They wake up every day from their “homes” and try their best to meet their basic needs.

In this same city where others spend a fortune to go for vacations to sleep in tents and camping bags, others have been subjected to this kind of life without an alternative. These families are forced to endure the March-May long rains, June-August cold and the short rains in September-November, without any option. Most of the children from these families have never had the luxury of living or sleeping in a house. All they have known are these streets they have been raised in.

I’ve lived a good part of my life in Mathare 4A, part of the larger Mathare slum in Nairobi. The houses on this side of the city tell a sorry tale. By any standards, they are not housing, but shacks made of iron sheets, plywood, mud, and a few bricks. They are built on any space available: over open trenches, piped water passing in the same trenches and illegal electricity connections passing below and over these trenches.

Several years back, open defecation was the norm along the river. This however changed as the community managed to build toilets instead. To date, toilets have been built along the river, emptying their raw waste directly into these natural but polluted water streams.

This is the kind of life I’ve grown up in. When growing up, my siblings and I would take a bath in the open fields at night. The only “shower room” for use in our area was a space between two houses with an open trench passing through. The door was a sack, and two stones were right in the middle of the trench: one as a platform for placing your bucket and the other for you to step on. The dangerous part of this community bathroom was that illegal electricity connection were rampant in this area, and so to hide these connections from Kenya Power officials, they had to be passed through this area, dangling dangerously a few centimeters overhead. This posed a significant risk for all households, and fire tragedies were our life in this part of the city—three months without a fire tragedy would be a good reason to thank the Lord. Whenever fire broke out, it relied squarely with the community to put it out, as firefighter engines would take time navigating their way in these areas. That is if they came at all.

In the early 2000s, our shanties were managed by Amani Housing Trust, an organization that had started a program to replace the corrugated iron sheet houses with brick ones. When I was in my lower primary years, I would come home from school only to find nearly all the houses in the neighborhood locked for defaulting on their Ksh 200 monthly rent (currently about 2 USD). To lock more than 3,000 houses in the whole of Mathare 4A would require the same number of padlocks, and maybe a truck to carry them. To avoid this costly approach, Amani Trust Housing operatives used large nails to lock the doors to the frame. As a result of years of this operation, most of the doors were usually tattered. To date, some doors still tell these sad stories of the past.

The issue of decent housing and sanitation are very much intertwined. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the worst that these communities face. It came and complicated an already grave situation in Mathare. Normally residents have to walk several hundred meters, and in some cases more than a kilometer, to access sanitation blocks. The 7 pm curfew came as a punishment by a government that never wanted to listen to the particular conditions the communities living in these areas go through. Police brutality, and in some cases killings, were reported, violence meted out on citizens who had gone to answer the call of nature.

In Mathare Area C (Bondeni area), a homeless man was shot dead for being outside his “home” past the curfew time. In Majengo slums, a child was shot in the comfort of their house—a stray bullet ripped through the iron sheet walls where the young one was living. Huruma and Mathare North areas, surrounding Mathare slums, have had their own shares of tragedy. Substandard buildings have collapsed in the past, killing dozens in some instances.

Successive governments have said that they have tried to solve the issue of housing in the capital. Slum upgrading projects started, only to be marred by corruption and a lot of interests and politicking. Recently, the Jubilee Government launched its flagship project: affordable housing under its “Big 4 Agenda.” Despite assurances from the government that the issuance of these housing units will be done in a very transparent manner, there have been cases of corruption and favoritism. It has turned out to be the usual scenario: the highest bidders taking the houses and using members of the same family, with different names, to register the units. These units are then sold to others at exorbitant prices, beating the logic of affordable housing. At the same time, the units are still much too expensive for the common citizens from the slum areas, who ought to be the primary beneficiaries of this project. Most of them survive on meagre daily wages which are not even enough to meet their most basic needs.

Growing up in the poorer east side of the city, I’ve always yearned for the good life I see on the more prosperous side—the western side. This is an area that is in stark contrast to our reality: these areas are mostly gated, leafy suburbs, dotted with mansions, bungalows, and high-rise buildings for commercial purposes. These areas have state of the art recreational facilities, access roads for private cars, and golf clubs with beautiful lawns. As a young man, I still fail to understand why many buildings in the business districts and other areas can go without tenants for more than a year, even where there are so many homeless people in the country. I feel the pain when going through the daily newspapers and realizing that the owners of these fine buildings are running into losses for lack of tenants, and yet they are still spending a lot of money on billboards and print media advertisements. And these perfectly good building, with water and services, are not accessible to us.

On the other side of the town, we humans are crammed in tiny, unhygienic areas. When I go through history, I’m reminded of the capitalistic route that we chose as a nation, and which our neighbors, Tanzania, chose to call “a man eat fellow man society.” Everything has been commodified for profit making. Fifty-seven years on as an “independent” country,  and we are still grappling with high levels of poverty. Home and land ownership is still a mirage for many including the middle class, which continues to be a very elusive status. A few families in Kenya control large tracts of land, which is a primary means of production. This has over time ensured that these families do business with the government, which they are already a part of. Every project being carried out by the government is viewed from a profit perspective by these families, and if no profits are accrued from it, then it’s as good as dead. This has condemned the majority of city residents to live in shacks, or in sub-standard housing, and the unlucky ones bare the cold of the night. Capitalism entrenched an insatiable greed that never seems to be quenched and has robbed communities in the slums of their dignity. Unless an overhaul of this oppressive system happens, decent housing will remain a pipe dream and a campaigning tool for the next kleptocrats. Unfortunately, in the meantime, I continue to meet the very same families, waking up in the cold on Juja Road.

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