Nairobi's slum-dwellers help themselves

Kenya | Often ignored by their government, residents of Kenya’s largest slums aren’t waiting for officials to initiate reforms
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 1/30/16, 09:00 am

At 3 p.m. every Saturday, the children in one of Nairobi’s largest slum neighborhoods, gather excitedly with their roller skates, ready to play. Hoperaisers skating club is so well-known in Korogocho that anyone could point visitors to where club members meet.

But for the slum dwellers, the club is more than a recreational activity. It’s a rare sign of hope in one of Kenya’s forgotten neighborhoods.

Korogocho literally translates from Swahili as “shoulder to shoulder.” It’s an apt name: More than 150,000 people live in wood and corrugated metal homes within roughly 1 square mile. And it’s just one of the city’s “temporary” neighborhoods.

So far, the Kenyan government has failed to bring any sustainable solution to the many Nairobi slums plagued by high poverty and crime. Some slum residents, tired of the lack of progress, are beginning to find ways to resolve the crisis themselves.

Daniel Oyango and Joseph Kuria both grew up in Korogocho and saw how the lack of positive activities drew children into a life of crime. So they created Hoperaisers, a nonprofit band that became the first to play live music in Korogocho in 2007. The band used its music to draw young people away from the streets by giving them the opportunity to explore music. By 2010, the members’ interest in skating grew into a club that created a platform to address some of the many issues facing Korogocho.

“We found something that finally made our dream a reality, to engage more and more young people,” Oyango said.

In Nairobi, more than 2 million people live in slums—more than half the city’s population. The slums started as squatter settlements for people leaving rural areas in search of jobs in the city. But they turned into permanent homes when many residents failed to find jobs and could neither afford to go back or find better homes in the city.

With more permanent settlers, the slums grew into a profitable housing market, in which politicians and politically connected businessmen owned the rickety buildings.

“So there’s not a very strong incentive from political leadership to change the structure of the slums because they are quite literally profiting from it in many cases,” said Elizabeth Ramey of the Wilson Center Africa Program, who worked with aid programs and conducted research on her graduate thesis while living in Nairobi.

The prevalence of gangs doesn’t help either. Mungiki, one of Kenya’s prominent quasi-religious gangs, runs a monopoly of services in the slums. The gang illegally controls water sources and access to electricity, and charges residents to use them. In 2006, a violent clash between Mungiki and another gang resulted in 10 deaths and 600 homes getting burned.

So far, the government has had little success with efforts to intervene.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re doing their part,” Oyango said.

In 2001, the government initiated the Kenya Slum Upgrading Program in collaboration with the United Nations. The project intended to replace slum housing with more permanent structures. But in the end, many of the houses either went to those with political connections, or allowed people to profit by renting out their spaces for higher prices.

This familiarity with disappointment explains why Korogocho residents initially viewed Hoperaisers with some skepticism. But many have come to embrace its efforts, giving the organization a chance to grow. Hoperaisers now organizes activities including cultural festivals and training in computers and art.

Hoperaisers isn’t the only organization tired of waiting on the government to resolve problems. More than 200 elderly women across Nairobi are learning how to protect themselves against rape in a place where 1 in 4 women has experienced sexual assault. Jake Sinclair, an American, started the project with his wife in 2007 after hearing of the high rate of sexual violence in Korogocho.

Despite all these efforts, the government still needs to pitch in.

“Whatever these NGOs are doing just helps a small percentage,” said Sebastian Gatimu, a Nairobi-based researcher with the Institute for Security Studies.

Ramey agreed, noting Kenya’s dire need for political reform.

“Until you have government officials that are really accountable to their population, I just don’t see how things are necessarily going to change,” she said.

But until the government takes on a transformative resolve toward Nairobi’s slum problems, Hoperaisers continues to do what it can to make individual reforms.

“It’s not a rapid change but it’s progressing in terms of attitude, in terms of how these young people perceive themselves, and how the community perceives them,” Oyango said.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.

Read more from this writer