Reflections from Mukuru Sinai: Evictions are not the answer

by James Tayler

Slum areas along the Mukuru Pipeline

Map of slums along the Mukuru pipeline.

**Cross-posted from Muungano Support Trust blog**

By Irene Karanja, Executive Director, Muungano Support Trust, Kenya

The more I listen to the voices of the poor and to the remorseful government’s reaction to the fire in Mukuru Sinai on Monday, I see a wide gulf between these voices.

The situation of all cities and urban towns in Kenya have a similar archipelago of slums with large densities of poor citizens who live in perpetual fear of evictions or, in such cases as Sinai, fatal accidents.

Its sounds both right and sensible to look at a short-term solution to pay a year’s rent for the victims and then the prevention of another tragedy can be done later. However, the experiences of many countries is that displacement is not a solution. The solution is to improve existing settlements with upgrading programs that address very fundamental issues of the city, such as land tenure and access to basic services for the poor.

It would be strategic for the government to sit back and reflect on aggregating the costs of slum upgrading instead of making small pieces of solutions that do not necessarily lead to a bigger solution. Maybe to make this picture clearer I will quote my post-graduate lecturer who said “It’s more expensive to buy cigarettes one-by-one than to buy the whole package. The cost is not one-twentieth of the cigarette box, it’s much more than that,” -Prof. M. Smolka. 

In order for government upgrading programs to successfully run in Kenya, many things have to change in major affiliated agencies in government. This task will not be a comfortable or easy. For example, in the Mukuru belt of slums, land ownership patterns are a maze of confusion. Land is owned by layers of owners who may or may not be known to residents. In major slums in Kenya, thousands of families have lived on the same parcels of land for more than 40 years. New generations, up to the third generation, have been born on these parcels of land. For upgrading programs to take place, security of tenure for these Kenyans must be resolved sooner rather than later. The poor must be freed from the insecurity of the tenure situation.

A train rolls through Kibera

In 2004, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, the Federation of Slum Dwellers of Kenya, challenged the authorities traditional ways of thinking, which asks: “What should we do to remove these vijijis?” Through the support of Slum/Shack Dwellers International, local authorities attended an exchange to India to learn from the Indian government how to resettle the poor within the confines of their access to the livelihoods and services.

Upon returning to Kenya, a journey to resettle 10,000 households residing on the railway reserve in Mukuru and Kibera began. Communities in these two large slums voluntarily got involved in the enumerations of all affected households as well as the mapping of all the structures.

A group of slum upgrading experts comprising of the community members, sociologists, lawyers, engineers, surveyors, architects and community organisers, sat with the local authorities and the Kenya Railways Corporation to design a solution for resettlement. The resettlement project has been approved by government and the financeer (The World Bank), an implementation starts this year.

The unfortunate outcome of this disaster is the general call for slums to be removed immediately from dangerous places – which is largely where slums are situated, thanks to scarcity of available land – without any serious thought given to where slum dwellers might be relocated to, and how this would effect these communities in the long term. Finding alternatives to eviction and relocation is possible, so long as the people on the ground are brought into the process, and the political will is there. Let’s make sure, then, that evictions do not take place now in the guise of helping the urban poor.