The main business thoroughfare in Mukuru lies on either side — and on top of — Kenya’s national railway line. Seven times a day a train barrels down the tracks, whistles blowing and headlights blazing to warn the informal traders and their customers to get out of the way.
Makeshift stalls of wood, mud and plastic tarpaulins are packed along either side of the line, where merchants hawk everything from kangas and radios to shoes and fruits and vegetables.
But conflict between man and machine just might have finally hit its breaking point in the Nairobi slums of Mukuru and Kibera. The Kenya Railways Corporation is planning to upgrade the line to respond to increasing economic activity in the wake of oil discoveries throughout East Africa — and is making the reclamation of publicly owned land a top priority to do it.
Communities along the tracks have responded to threatened evictions by negotiating a community-led information gathering process that will help relocate many of these informal dwellers.
The information will help determine who will be relocated and compensated, as well as how this will happen.
The first eviction notice from the Kenya Railways Corporation came in 2004. But after the affected communities performed a self-enumeration survey, led by local members of the national slum dwellers federation, Muungano wa wanavijiji, and supported by NGO Pamoja Trust, the relocation was stalled.
Negotiations with the Railways Corporation for suitable land and compensation were nudged by a visit of railway employees to an even larger relocation project in Mumbai in 2005.
There India Railways officials and affected community members highlighted how the success of that relocation was rooted in the community-led survey.
Funded by the World Bank, the Relocation Action Plan (RAP) has made a community self-enumeration survey a key plank in the process along the Nairobi railway lines.
Beginning in mid-March, members of the Mukuru community were walking up and down the tracks, satellite maps in hand, checking that structures on the ground matched the satellite images.
The arguments that ensued were inevitable.
Owners of one business stall tried to get their structures counted as two, with the hope that this would entitle them to larger compensation when such terms are eventually negotiated with the Railways Corporation.
Anxiety within the community increased in early March after the oil parastatal company evicted residents who were living on top of a newly installed pipeline — an eerie sight of flattened ground and makeshift foundations that were once part of a line of corrugated iron shacks.
Traders without a fixed stall worried that they would get no compensation at all. For the past six years Muli Munguti (38) has been selling fake designer watches and other goods. “You count that one, but you don’t count this one. It’s not good,” he said.
But community enumerators were able to negotiate these contentious issues.
Dominic Njuguna, a community enumerator and Muungano leader, says that because the community was counting itself, it was able to assuage such concerns.
Francis Gitau, a staffer at Pamoja Trust, argues that the community involvement in the process has created the opportunity for a relocation that addresses the concerns of affected dwellers along the railway line. “If we are to survive along the railway line, we need to organise structures among ourselves [through activities like enumeration],” Gitau said. “If it wasn’t for our activism we would have been relocated a long time ago.”