In a Risky Place: Women & Sanitation in Nairobi’s Slums

by James Tayler

Women & Sanitation

By Ariana K. MacPherson, SDI Secretariat

“As women we are in a very, very risky place.”  – Doris Museti, Mukuru Kwa Reuben, Nairobi

I arrive in Nairobi on Friday and head straight to Muungano House. The building is home to the offices of the Kenyan SDI Alliance, made up of Muungano wa Wanavijiji (the Kenyan federation), Muungano Support Trust (MuST; support NGO to Muungano) and Akiba Mashinani Trust (the finance facility for Muungano). Muungano House is nestled in a cluster of green just off the busy main road, which bustles with the constant rumbles and hoots of Nairobi’s traffic.

I am here to meet with a group of women living in Mukuru kwa Reuben, one of the many villages in the Mukuru belt of slums that stretches across the eastern section of Nairobi. These women have come together to address challenges they face in gaining access to safe, adequate water and sanitation services in their village.

Before making my way to Mukuru Kwa Reuben, I meet with Jane Weru and Edith Kalela of Akiba Mashinani Trust, and Joseph Kimani of MuST. Both organizations have a key part to play in the women’s campaign for improved water and sanitation services. Jane and Edith have been working on a legal case that addresses land ownership issues for the whole of Mukuru. Since the Mukuru slums are located on privately owned land, the government is not able to make any interventions to improve infrastructure or basic services. In addition the threat of eviction is steadily increasing along with the value of land.       

Women & Sanitation

Jane Weru, Executive Director of AMT, begins by describing the unique circumstances of Mukuru. “It’s a contiguous belt of slums that the SDI team guesses is larger than Kibera[*],” she begins. “These slums have a special need because they are settled on privately owned land, unlike Kibera and Korogocho.”

Jane then takes me through something of a timeline of events in Mukuru. In 2008 the need to engage became clear, and by the end of 2011 – when slum dwellers from Mukuru came to Muungano House with threats of eviction in hand – it was clear that the time had come to take action in Mukuru.

When a fire erupted in Mukuru Sinai in September 2011, the door was opened once again for landowners to begin sending eviction threats to Mukuru residents. According to Jane, the fire was very bad press for slum dwellers, and landowners took the opportunity to attempt to take back their land.  

She tells me that no one really knows who owns the land in Mukuru. AMT realized that they would need to understand the ownership patterns before they could move forward. They started investigating but were met with countless roadblocks. Eventually they were able to put together a good bit of information for cases against those landowners threatening eviction. By working with the community to mobilize and build awareness, AMT and Muungano got orders preventing any more dealings from taking place on the land while the case(s) are being sorted out, staving off evictions in Mukuru for the time being.

Women & Sanitation

The connection was made between land issues and women and sanitation a few months ago when a woman from Mukuru mentioned in a community meeting at Muungano House that water and sanitation services are very poor in Mukuru because of the fact that the settlement sits on private land, outside the orbit of government’s jurisdiction for infrastructure improvements. Despite the fact that Kenya’s constitution (passed by Parliament in 2010) calls for the right to adequate sanitation, the state cannot take action on this unless the settlement is on state-owned land. Because of this, the women are asking that the state take back the land so that improvements to infrastructure and basic services can be made. The slum dwellers, alongside AMT, claim that the land is not being put to use by the landowners who gained ownership nearly 20 years ago, and that the state should take back ownership in order to put the land to use for the good of the city.

The women are busy collecting 10,000 signatures from other women across Nairobi to support their campaign, with between six and seven thousand collected to date. In addition, AMT has begun to broadcast the campaign to media outlets in Kenya and beyond. Already, local and international journalists have begun to pick up the story, a tack that AMT and the women of Mukuru hope will put added pressure on the government to do something about the conditions in the Mukuru slums.

In the afternoon, Edith Kalela and I drive across town to meet with the women of Mukuru Kwa Reuben. In Kwa Reuben and neighboring Kwa Njenga alone AMT estimates that there are about 800,000 households – all of which would be affected by evictions were they to take place. But today, free from evictions, these 800,000 households have other challenges to contend with: poor drainage, totally inadequate sanitation services, and little access to clean, potable water, to name a few.

Women & Sanitation

We bump down a rough, dirt road, between factories shielded by tall cement walls from crowded streets lined with stalls selling everything from fruit to cell phones to sneakers. People mill about in the afternoon sun as we enter Kwa Reuben. The street narrows and becomes bumpier. I could probably reach out my window for a fresh mango. Soon we pull up across the road from a small patch of grass where Doris Museti stands waiting for us. Doris is one of twenty women from Kwa Reuben who has been mobilizing the community to advocate for improved sanitation and collecting the 10,000 signatures to present to government.

Doris leads us into the heart of Kwa Reuben. We come upon a large field. Children are playing football and chasing after tires in the dusty heat. As we walk, Doris and Phyllis Mulewa, another community leader from Kwa Reuben, inform me that this is the only play area in the whole of Mukuru.

Women & Sanitation

Continuing further into Kwa Reuben the road narrows again and the ground becomes muddy with run-off and storm water that has nowhere to go. Doris turns off the main road and into a narrow walkway, barely wide enough for two people to pass each other.  Here I get a better understanding of what it means to have inadequate sanitation facilities. Doris and Phyllis point out that the run-off between the shacks, flowing into the walkway where we stand. Women and children use these narrow, exposed spaces behind their shacks (about 60 cm wide) as a space for bathing and relieving themselves at night, when walking the distance to the bush means running the risk of violent attack and rape.

Women & Sanitation

“Getting to the toilet at night is very difficult,” says Doris, “They are closed, so you have to get an alternative. So we come to the bush, and it is very risky. You have to get two or three women to escort you. If you do not come with two or three people, it is a rape case and it will never be reported. Some women fear to escort you… As women we are in a very, very risky place.”

It’s not much better during the day. Paying for multiple trips to the public toilet facilities is out of the question for most families, leaving no choice but for children to relieve themselves in these alleyways. Later on Doris refers back to  “those houses where you can see drainage coming out like a bathroom,” explaining that, “…they are not bathrooms, they are corridors. So most people are bathing in the corridors because they don’t have bathrooms. You can tell people, ‘Don’t come out! I’m taking a bath!’”

Doris continues describing the conditions that force women and children into these corridors, “You don’t have a bathroom, you have to take a bath, the house is 10 ft. by 10 ft., you are four or three people [in the house], other people have other business in the house, so you take a bath outside… the house just smells of dampness if you take a bath in there. The water goes on the carpet, and the house is always damp. Mosquitoes are full throughout.”

Women & Sanitation

So there is no option, really, but to use these alleyways. Because of the run-off, the walkways are flooded and filthy. When it rains, it is much worse. Sewerage mixes with rainwater and floods people’s homes. Disease runs rampant during these times. “Having cholera, typhoid, is very easy,” Doris says, “We had an outbreak of cholera – it was very bad. You would hear someone is sick today, and dies tomorrow.”

Women & Sanitation

Even the few toilet facilities that exist are problematic. Doris and Helen Nyaboke, another resident of Kwa Reuben, describe the process of emptying the pit latrines in the settlement, “There are two or three men who come and empty your pit latrine. After emptying, they go around pushing the cart. It will spill everywhere. When they [find] a drain, they pour [it] there and then go back and drain again. What impact does that bring? They have emptied this toilet, they have spilled everything on the road, and then they have poured it in that drainage.” The drainage they are referring to is a shallow gulley that runs alongside the walkways. When they flood or clog, they spill over into the roads and walkways. I can understand their frustration with the system.

Doris relates this back to the diseases she spoke of earlier, “It has an effect on us and on our kids.” Referring to sewerage water and human waste contaminating walkways, Doris says, “Children don’t differentiate [between] that and cleanliness.” Another woman pipes up, saying, “And STI (sexually transmitted infection) is very, very high because we are sharing one toilet between more than 150 people.”

Sharing one toilet between more than 150 people. I ask the women about this, about sharing facilities with so many people, about bathing in their small homes with children and husbands running around. Phyllis Mulewa describes it to me, “About the privacy, you never know if someone is looking in the door or in the iron sheets [walls], because most of them have holes… For us as women, we feel this is not for us. Maybe it is for animals, but not for us. But what can we do?”

Women & Sanitation

Evelyn Apondi, a young woman in her mid-twenties, tells me that she lives in a 10 ft. x 10 ft. “cube” with eleven other family members. “It is very difficult for us,” she says, “especially when there are fathers, brothers, sisters and mothers in the same cube and you can’t bathe, because bathing is a basic need. And apart from that, there are no toilets. It has been very hard.”

Women & Sanitation

Doris and Evelyn describe what it’s like for women who are menstruating. They have to hide their sanitary towels, throwing them on top of their shacks or in the road so that they are out of the way. There is nowhere to dispose of them inside the house. Family members complain about the smell. Women are made to feel ashamed of this natural, monthly occurrence, and are forced to dispose of sanitary towels in a manner that leaves the settlement dirty, and its inhabitants at greater risk of disease.

It is the same story when a woman gives birth. There is nowhere to dispose of the afterbirth, so it is kept in a tin can in the house; “The container will remain in the house until very late in the evening,” Doris says, “What is she to do with it? She will have to wait until very late to dispose of it, maybe mix it with dirty water and then throw it out…. Nowadays, blood carries everything.”

Evelyn tells me she wants to get a job so that she can rent her own cube, have some privacy and maybe even start a family of her own, but like so many of these women, she has not been able to find steady work. “We have just been surviving,” she says.

Most of the women I speak to rely on casual work for their incomes. “You wake up in the morning and try to find a job,” says Doris. “You can sometimes find something for the day, for the week, but it is very insecure. Some women do washing. There are [lots of] small-scale traders… But it is very hard.”

Women & Sanitation

I am interested to know what these women see as a potential solution to the sanitation issues they face in Mukuru. I ask them what would make the most difference in their lives with regard to sanitation. Both Doris and Phyllis suggest the same thing: “The government coming in and planning with us. Then we will have sewers and everything… Then the structure owners will be forced to do something. If the government plans for us – if they plan for residential rather than factories, and if people build their houses in order, then we can have proper drainage and proper roads.” =

I recognize this proposal from my discussions with Jane Weru earlier in the day. They want the government to claim back the land from the current landowners and re-plan the whole of Mukuru as a mixed-use area, serviced by bulk infrastructure connected to the rest of the city. This would mean widespread access to basic services and increased security of tenure for Mukuru’s residents. Doris comments on the threats of eviction that she and other Mukuru residents have faced in recent years as land values in Nairobi continue to rise:

 “We are here, and then that person – after 40 or 30 or 50 years – they are claiming back the land. Where do we go? We are not trees. Imagine you have a place, your home – how can a person come to build in your home? You have grandchildren here, they have children, and then you want to chase them out. Where do we go?”  

Women & Sanitation

These women have lived in Mukuru for at least fifteen years. Most of them were born here. This is their home and they want to improve it – to work with the government to make Mukuru a safe, secure place for them and their families to live. But because of the landownership issues, Muungano, AMT and MuST cannot move forward with sanitiation improvements in Mukuru. So instead they have proposed a precedent-setting pilot project in Mathare, another settlement north of Mukuru that is settled on government land. The hope is that this project will set an example for the kind of upgrading that could take place in Mukuru once the land ownership issues are sorted out.

According to Irene Karanja, director of Muungano Support Trust (MuST), the first phase of the project will assist 800 households residing in three clusters of Mathare settlement. The total population of these three clusters is equal to roughly 2620 households. At present, the residents of Mathare have two sanitation options: they can either pay a large fee to private businessmen to connect to the informal sewer system, or they can pay to use the few community toilets, many of which are unsafe and unsanitary.

Because local businessmen own the informal sewer system, the costs for connecting to the main pipe are unaffordable for most Mathare residents. It costs USD $46 for households within 30 meters of the river to connect to the informal sewer line, and up to USD $170 for the families furthest from the river. Because of this, families elect not to pay the high connection fees and instead dump sewerage into the river.

To combat this, MuST has proposed a solution that seeks a low-cost, sustainable and scalable model for sanitation in informal settlements. Specifically, the project seeks to find:

a)    An environmentally sustainable model which seeks to demonstrate to the State how to manage human waste without contaminating natural resources

b)   A model that is able to leverage resources from the State while at the same time utilizing community contributions for the development of a permanent sewer solution. The main innovation here is finding low-cost financing for sanitation upgrades. 

c)    A model that demonstrates that state investments for any trunk infrastructure targeted at the poor increases the integration of poor communities into the formal systems of the city.

More information about the proposed project is forthcoming. Please watch this space for more information.

[*] Kibera is generally regarded as Nairobi’s largest slum.