Who is greening Nairobi?

For some years now, the people of Eastlands in Nairobi have been remaking the city in their own image of green development.

Still from greening the city video series. All videos directed by Onesmus Karanja for Africa Is a Country © 2024.

For more than 20 years, I have witnessed Nairobi’s Eastlands densify, rapidly gobbling up green spaces. While water and sanitation infrastructure fell into a dilapidated state, the city also quickly degenerated into an irredeemable ecocide quagmire. Growing up, I longed for a quality environment, dignified housing, and clean and affordable water as stipulated in Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya.

Eastlands, the former native city, has been marginalized through disinvestment for several decades, only made visible when mapping potential areas of violence, incivility, and criminality. This trend continues to reproduce uneven geographies in Nairobi. To confront this, young people have been organizing themselves informally into neighborhood-level bazes, giving them a sense of belonging, identity, and security.

Despite the obvious ecological destruction in most parts of Eastlands, the government and the private sector continue to operate in an illusionary and utopian dream of Nairobi being and becoming “the green city in the sun”—a colonial projection. Yet, they are not creating the nature spaces that the majority use.

In 2017, a “green revolution” in Mathare started through a bizarrely connected series of events. During the maiden days of President Uhuru’s “youthful” and “digital” government (2013-2015), a promise was made to deal with organized crime. This ushered in a period of unprecedented extrajudicial killings in Mathare and Eastlands at large. The Missing Voices project, which includes the labors of groups such as Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), documented the executions and/or disappearances of hundreds of youths by the police.

With no power to confront the state that had unleashed terror on them, all they could do was commemorate their fellow “fallen soldiers” by hanging their boots on power lines and other structures.

At this time, MSJC, which was at the center of the campaign against extrajudicial killings, started all-inclusive campaigns including those that targeted ecological justice and political education. During community dialogues, remembering “fallen soldiers” was mentioned as a widespread ideal. It was then that the boots were replaced by planting trees at the different spots where executions of young people took place. Now, the hanging of the boots was seen as a temporary measure, when contrasted with the planting of trees, which symbolized the beginning of new life. This was a means of ecological resistance to Nairobi’s necropolitics that determined who could live and who could not.

The trees offered a continuation of life; the fallen soldiers could live within and nourish the new life, albeit in an ethereal manner. This was viewed as an “all-win” situation for everyone, including the environment since it targeted healing while at the same time safeguarding memory against erasure.

With political education offered by MSJC and the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), young people shifted to tree planting, which later evolved into the creation of safe green spaces away from their usual bazes. Anthony Mburu (Kanare), the convenor of the ecological justice pillar at MSJC, sees the inclusion of political education as critical in conscientizing young people since it helps them link different struggles.

Currently, the Ecological Justice Network in Mathare, together with different youth groups, has been able to rehabilitate three waste sites and transform them into community parks. This commoning of spaces has encouraged groups that would not usually see eye to eye to work together. Today, these youths have embraced parks as alternative common social areas since they are shared by several neighborhoods, thus allowing inter-neighborhood interactions as opposed to the fragmented neighborhood bazes.

Most young people are driven by a deep desire to change not only their environment but their quality of life. Even though not all parks were born as a form of resistance to extrajudicial killings, they play a significant role in radicalizing youths.

Jose from Ital Youths, one of the groups managing the Mathare Community Park, says he wants to see his kids have a healthy playing ground just near the community, which he was denied growing up. Jose never stepped into a park until he was a working adult. There were no parks in his childhood neighborhood, and the few that the city had were long, unaffordable commutes from his home.

“My dream is to see thriving green spaces in Mathare where we can come and read books, relax after work, socialize, and have our evening natters, just like in Karen or Lavington. We will make it happen, and very soon we will have a children’s library here. This vision keeps me going even when things get tough” he explained.

Damaris of Green Oasis Lens (GOAL) in Baba Dogo, a neighborhood located to the northeast of Mathare, also echoed similar sentiments. To this group,  a park serves several purposes: such as a space for meetings, especially for youth and women-led organizations, due to the lack of social halls. It is also the location for kids’ mentorship programs and a site for some urban farming. Damaris also spoke fondly of how the neighborhood park served as a safe space for children during the COVID lockdown, when cases of child abuse were on the rise in informal settlements.

A self-help city

Andrew Hake described Nairobi as a self-help city. He explained how Nairobians have been using their agency to make things work in a city characterized by neglect, elite capture, and symptomatologic governance that is reactionary at best. Due to the environmental neglect that characterizes most parts of the city, different community-based organizations (CBOs) have been mushrooming in the Eastlands. In contrast, in more prosperous areas such as Westlands, the organizations usually have the prefix “Friends of [fill inappropriate at-risk location/animal] and are formed by concerned residents trying to protect some areas from grabbing or destruction. In Eastlands, CBOs and self-help groups emerge to restore what is already destroyed, reclaim what is grabbed, and, in some instances to cushion members from precarious livelihoods, through engaging in table banking and micro-scale economic activities, for example.

In recent times, these groups have been active in fighting for and restoring Nairobi’s green spaces while creating new ones. Despite these efforts, they remain excluded from governance, since engagements with the state are usually cosmetic and are used, merely, to rubber-stamp decisions.

Other reclaimed spaces have ended up attracting land grabbers who are well-connected to the local governments. Ghettos Farmers in Mathare face this predicament as their members continue to be frustrated by developers who have now seen the value of the land their park occupies after it was reclaimed from a dump site.

In some instances, groups have woken up to find their parks destroyed.

While this happens, Komb Green Solutions in Korogocho is still reeling from the aftermath of April’s flash floods in Nairobi, which reduced their more than four years of labor to rubble overnight. The lack of river embankment due to limited resources portends a grim reality for most organizations along the rivers. They shoulder the burden of climate change that is not of their making.

While some have reduced the challenging yet determined greening efforts of youth groups to depoliticized environmentalism and clean-ups, the young people involved continue to understand and speak of the underlying systemic exclusion of poor communities in urban areas.

In this way, ecological justice is now an agitation tool for the implementation of socio-economic rights rather than a medium for the mere improvement of city aesthetics. This understanding, together with the ubiquitous murals of solidarity with the people of DR Congo, Palestine, and Sudan, for example, make these parks lively spaces where various struggles and forces intersect while creating ecological and livelihood changes for the actual people who green Nairobi.

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