Know Your City TV Launches in Kenya

Photo: Nicera Wanjiru

Photo: Nicera Wanjiru

**This article was originally featured on the Muungano wa Wanavijiji blog.**

By Jack Makau

Art has always been central to the struggle of the Kenyan slum dweller for a place in the city. From the prayer associated with the ‘theatre of the oppressed’, to puppetry, traditional and contemporary music, graffiti, film making, and, more recently, social media action, the Kenyan slum dweller story has a rich tradition of art expression.

This year, building on this tradition, Muungano is investing—alongside its perennial search for slum upgrading solutions—in film making and new media, working with Know Your City TV.

Muungano sees that the slum upgrading narrative can benefit from taking pause and engendering an understanding… What does it actually mean to live in a slum? What is it about the slum that makes it such a stubborn development challenge?

It started with a prayer

Sometimes, in the 1990s, when the opportunity presented itself and slum dwellers had occasion to meet local chiefs or government officials—and knowing full well that piety is an assumed quality of the poor—an opening and closing prayer would feature prominently.

Ordinarily, beyond the prayers, Kenyan slum dwellers in the 1990s had their rights to association and expression severely curtailed. And so the opening prayer became a skit, a safe way to set the agenda for a meeting.

The prayer would go, “Our blessed Lord in heaven, we pray for the success of this malaria awareness workshop, we thank you blessed Lord that because of this workshop there will now be an alternative to demolishing the homes by the river. We worship you because those families, your prayerful children bowed here before you, are saved from malaria and demolition. We exalt you for touching the heart of our dear chief, your child that you chose to lead us, to bring this workshop instead. We pray that you continue to give her great wisdom …”

And the closing prayer then became another skit—a way to redirect the conclusions of the meeting.  “Dear blessed Lord, maker of all things possible, we thank you for allowing our dear chief to sit and discuss with us. We pray that you give her the strength and show her your way to intervene with your higher leaders on behalf of your lowly children, blessed Saviour. We know precious Lord that you allow the writing of demolition notices and you can in your grace unwrite those notices, even without us having to visit those higher offices. Let your will be done through her hands …”

Twenty years on, and the civil space for slum dwellers is markedly more open. The slums are no longer condemned to demolition, and slum dwellers are instead enjoined with the state in a frustrated endeavour to upgrade housing, infrastructure, and livelihoods. It is no longer a question of whether the slums have a right to the city, but how that right can be achieved in settlements of seemingly intractable complexity.

The prayer is no longer necessary. Yet art is still indispensable as a way in which difficulty in the slum discussion is managed.

Photo: Nicera Wanjiru

Photo: Nicera Wanjiru

Using art to make planning possible

In June 2017, Muungano launched a local chapter of SDI’s Know Your City TV project, known as KYC TV Kenya.  Supported by Cities Alliance and GIZ, the project equips youth with video documentation resources to tell stories of the lived experiences of the urban poor, and make media that contributes to the transformation of slums and cities.

The project began with recruiting, equipping, and training 20 youth from Mukuru slums in Nairobi. The Mukuru slums sit on 647 acres and are home to 100,000 households. Earlier this year, in March, the slum was designated as a ‘special planning area’ of the Nairobi county government. This designation is a first for slums in Kenya: it recognises that existing city planning laws and procedures cannot be used to address the slums’ complicated land tenure arrangements, improve on very low levels of provision of services like water and sanitation, and upgrade the largely iron sheet housing stock.

The initial focus of KYC TV Kenya is to bring the reality of Mukuru to the fore—to be able to reach, and, using short drama and documentaries, give insights to the planning process. Using art to make planning possible.

The first set of films are supported by Caritas Switzerland, SDI, and the Stockholm Environmental Institute, all organisations that are part of the County’s special planning effort in Mukuru.

Early in September, KYC TV Kenya announced that it would release its first five films at the Mukuru Film Festival, to be held on the 4th of October in Nairobi.

KYC.TV Kenya’s first few offerings. In the fight against global urban poverty, youth from Kenya’s informal settlements are using the power of film to share the fabric of their community with the world and to give voice to slum communities.

What is KYC.TV ?

Know Your City TV puts the power of storytelling into the hands of urban poor youth. By equipping youth with video documentation skills and resources they are able to share stories of the lived experiences of the urban poor with the world by making media that contributes to the transformation of slums and cities.

Young people are at the forefront when it comes to technology. The expansion of smart phones across the Global South has made it much easier for urban poor youth to capture their surroundings and start conversations about the issues that need to be addressed when transforming slums and cities. The KYC.TV project is bridging the north-south tech divide by creating space for urban poor youth to share the stories of their communities with the world.

The KYC.TV process starts with workshops that provide basic gear, filming, and editing training to groups of youth from the slums. These skills are put to use in making short informational or music videos that allow the youth filmmakers to practice and perfect their skills. Through the filming courses, youth gain a set of skills and equipment that they can use to act as advocates for their communities, and improve their livelihood opportunities.

Photo: KYC.TV

Photo: KYC.TV

Bridging the Affordability Gap: The Nairobi Special Housing Fund

The Kenya Federation has the second oldest Urban Poor Fund in the network: Akiba Mashinani Trust. Based on its experience with community upgrading fund management, the federation and its partners in government have developed a detailed proposal for the establishment of a Special Housing Fund for Nairobi. The Special Housing Fund will establish a long-term source of affordable housing finance at the county level.

The Nairobi affiliate identified sources for financing the Special Housing Fund and recommended the use of subsidies and various incentives to help bridge the affordability gap for housing and services for the urban poor. Based on the analysis of profiling and enumeration data, the affiliate illuminated how funds currently circulating in the housing, services, and land markets of Nairobi’s informal settlements could be harnessed and leveraged to provide housing at scale for all citizens.

The Nairobi federation’s profiling and enumeration data made this case in a compelling way, by quantifying the poverty penalty faced by Nairobi’s slum dwellers. In Mukuru for instance:

  • Electricity: Households in Mukuru pay 45% – 142% more than the formal electricity tariff when connected to informal connections (called Sambaza).
  • Water: the penalty on water provision is especially high as residents can only access small amounts of very low quality water, at a cost that is 172 percent more per cubic metre than the water utility tariff.
  • Housing: a 10 by 10 foot shack, constructed using iron sheets, with inadequate ventilation costs more per sq meter than the equivalent space within Nairobi’s middle class housing.

Based on a conservative basket of services (electricity, water, toilet access, and rent) Mukuru’s annual economy is estimated at 7 billion Kenya shillings, much of which ends up in the hands of informal service providers. Beyond the monetary value, there is a far higher indirect cost associated to safety, security, time and even the indignity of accessing these services.

And while this poverty penalty presents a huge challenge, it also demonstrates the latent capacity of communities to make significant contributions for the upgrading of their housing and an ability to pay for better quality services.

Critically, much of the land in Mukuru is in the hands of owners of the slum shacks, often referred to as structure owners. Muungano’s research shows that up to 94 percent of Mukuru’s population are tenants to 6 percent of structure owners. There is also evidence that with a court injunction in place against the eviction of residents, some private landowners have resorted to entering informal agreements to transfer land ownership to structure owners in order to recoup the value of the lands.

By unlocking land value, rental incomes and the poverty penalty for water and energy suffered by the informal dwellers, the affiliate has shown how to finance informal settlement upgrading at scale.

Youth: The centrepiece of urban renewal

A recent Youth Engagement Forum in Machakos.

Cross posted from the Muungano blog

By Shadrack Mbaka and Eva Muchiri

Slum dwellers share a whole lot in common with citizens of war torn countries. There is civil strife, and the most basic infrastructure is non-existent, interrupted or destroyed. As a result, most slum dwellers are forced to adapt to the existing situation or improvise just to have access to food and shelter. Unlike people affected by war, who can look up to the future to rebuild their country, slum dwellers are often forgotten and left without any means to address issues like lack of access to services and infrastructure.

Many innovative urban planning ideas have been tested in Kenyan cities and towns. But these ideas fail to be implemented at scale. It is obvious that slum dweller communities are often ignored in the planning and implementation of slum-upgrading projects. In Muungano’s experience, better results come about when slum dweller communities are empowered to develop their own ideas and shape them into realistic and measurable plans. The key to these solutions rests with the young people of these informal settlements.









Over the last couple of months, young people from informal settlements in Nairobi, Thika and Machakos have had the opportunity to be trained in various skills such as data collection and management, mapping, advocacy, and documentation. These are skills necessary to build powerful sources of information used to engage local governments on service and infrastructure delivery in slums. Trainings revolved around youth and community media, includes research, advocacy, and development initiatives around youth and digital technology. Through these combined approaches, federation youth have begun creating outlets for the voices and experiences of youth, to cultivate revolutionary possibilities of youth activities in the digital space, while also addressing the genuine concerns that come with living in the slums.

Kevin Kinuthia, Engaging some of the young people from Mukuru Slums during the Muungano Youth Engagement Forum


In a recent campaign organized by the youth within Muungano wa Wanavijiji to mobilise youths in Nairobi, Machakos and Thika, we got an opportunity to speak to one of the federation youth members, Kevin Kinuthia, who hails from Mukuru Kwa Reuben settlement. Kevin gladly shared his perspectives with us.

“Having been raised by a single mother in the slums has really taught me a whole bunch of things and critical lessons in life. My mother always took it upon herself and reminded me how hard I need to work to avoid living in the urban sprawl all my life. She would also often challenge me to strive to be selfless and conscious of the power I have to change the lives of others.

Urban renewal depends on reformation of institutions, especially the county governments mandated by the Kenyan constitution to provide services to the people, especially the poor. It is essential for governments to involve affected communities in upgrading or development projects. Once people living in informal settlements are provided with the opportunities and informed of the importance and benefits of formulating ideas to combat their challenges, they can create the change they want to see in their communities.

As a federation, the advocacy approach is to encourage members and the larger constituency of slum dwellers to promote a change in mindset by encouraging critical thinking, creativity and innovation. If disenfranchised people can transform their beliefs and attitudes, I believe they can be powerful agents of change for their communities,” concludes Kevin.

Empowering the youth is vital. Giving them the time to develop their own ideas and providing a platform for them to showcase those very ideas is not only beneficial to their communities, but can promote social innovation, offering local solutions to local problems.


Federation Youth Explore Urban Farming in Kenya’s Slums

 By Kevin Kinuthia

My mother, Jane Nyokabi, loves growing her own food. The problem was that we lived in Nairobi, the LandiMawe (Place of Hard Rocks), as many Nairobians call it, where growing food produce was almost impossible. Urban areas have become increasingly dense and land—a scarce resource in African cities. Many Kenyans moving to cities looking for employment had no other possibility than take residence in shanties and shacks.

The inability for the majority of people—especially youth—to claim land for growing food, the high unemployment levels and the low earnings, left residents in informal settlement food insecure. Despite the high number of food vendors and kiosks in the informal settlements it is impossible for the majority to maintain a healthy diet.

The questions that beg answers are then how can slum upgrading efforts like the Kenyan Informal Settlement Improvement Project or the Kenya Slum Upgrading Program, support economic development and job creation to guarantee a stable access to nutritious food for the urban poor? Or would it be better to upgrade water and sanitation within informal settlements?

Waiting for the answers to these questions, the youth, organized into groups ought to take matters into their own hands. Youth need to shelve the need of a white collar job and engage in urban farming, but due to the continuing increase in population density of these areas, vertical gardens are the most popular choice. So when walking in Mathare, Mukuru and Kibera you may easily spot big black sacks sprouting green leafy vegetables. These are the gardens, disposed in unoccupied land, that are providing vegetables to low-income communities.

But this idyllic dream of urban agriculture does not come without complications—mainly food safety. News bulletins reported that the soil and water quality in which vegetables are grown can be contaminated with heavy metals or with raw sewage bringing short and long term health risks to the population.These reports can scare off local buyers and dwarf the possibility of expanding the reach of these produce to markets outside the informal settlement.

As urban farming increases its importance in Nairobi’s slums, there is need to mitigate environmental hazards and eliminate contaminations to ensure the produce is fit for consumption, hence making this form of trade viable. If this were to become reality, and the vegetable quality was to become stable and controlled, numerous income opportunities could open up opportunities for urban poor communities. For example, urban farmers in slums would have the possibility to link up with organic food outlets outside the settlements to market their produce. Or perhaps the Nairobi County government would decide to continue engaging urban farmers and street food vendors to shape regulation on the use of the city’s public spaces and rooftops for urban agriculture.

After so many years, I find myself in my mother’s shoes. Fearing poverty and the lack of a steady source of income I fully understand the uphill task of providing food for our city.

Knowledge is Power: Collecting Data in Nairobi’s Slums

Capturing slum profiling data. Capturing slum profiling data.

**This post was originally published on the Muungano blog**

By Milkah Njeri, Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Huruma, Nairobi, Kenya)

Born in an informal settlement and brought up in yet another informal slum in Nairobi, in itself sounds catastrophic. Having been born in Korogocho did not castigate me to a life of poverty; I had a vision to lead a normal life. Raised in a family of four girls and four boys life was not that promising but I learned to live a simple life.

In a country where half of the population lives in urban areas, one would expect pockets of slums strewn across almost every neighbourhood with high population densities. The picture is not a far cry from reality, at least in the context of Korogocho. But even if the country has seen incredible growth over the years, there is hope things can turn around.

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Being a single mother, I joined Muungano in 2001 in Korogocho. By then I used to save five shillings daily. In 2003 I moved from Korogocho to Huruma and later joined ex-Grogon saving scheme and also as an assistant secretary for ex-Grogon land and housing co-operative society with no papers, not even attending a computer class I was a among ten youths in eastern region to undergo a data capturing training in using Microsoft Access and Excel. I later on learnt data verification , since then I have learnt more and used these skills to train my fellow slum dwellers, all this achievement needed passion and patience.

My first baby steps came earlier than I expected when I started working on the Kambi Moto slum upgrading project, seven years ago in Huruma, Nairobi. The challenges surrounding the community momentum to advocate for the re-allocation of land from the Nairobi City Council back in the day to demonstrate a community led slum upgrading concept, may have differed from other informal settlements such as Kibera, or Mathare, but seldom do we as humans of informal settlements get the feeling of hopelessness in the slum communities.

The urban poor in our great country need to be empowered, and solutions have to be designed by them. Community organization, a difficult yet key element to successful Kambi Moto slum upgrading, was successfully carried out, with communities taking mostly the lead. In places where there is collective sense of purpose and willingness to be supported, the likelihood of successful community upgrading is greater.

In April 2015, I attended workshop and learnt another way of capturing data – through the ONA platform. This is an SDI managed online tool, which enables communities’ to key in; process; analyse; verify and generate information about informal settlements. I have passion for profiling, what I love most about data is that it talks about people’s livelihoods in informal settlements, and the interesting part altogether is that and when people begin to speak back to the data, collective actions and needs is inevitable. This information helps we, slum dwellers in stopping evictions which happens regularly in most settlements, and while using this information communities are well able to advocate for provision of services in their slums. This has really improved my skills and made me who I am today.

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit Zimbabwe to attend a data profiling and ONA platform workshop in Bulawayo city in June. In this session I was able to take other federation members from different countries through keying in data using ONA, this is because of the capacity, skills and experience I have gained through Muungano wa Wanavijiji.

As an affiliate of Slum Dwellers International, we visited Ngozi mines, an informal settlement located within a dumpsite area in Bulawayo central. Together as a team we supported the Zimbabwean federation in a settlement profiling and mapping exercise with other federation members from different countries, before leaving Ngozi mines, we supported the communities living there to organise the community and formed a saving scheme and saved five dollars and fifteen rands.

To date, the group has twenty five members.

One aspect that I took home after the learning exchange to Bulawayo, in particular is that forging partnerships with our governments is key in addressing issues of informality and slum upgrading. Civil society and private sector groups are also becoming important players in the urban arena. Slum dweller movements, such as Muungano wa Wanavijiji effectively reach out to communities and are best assigned the roles of community organizing, facilitating dialogue, community organising-through empowerment of community savings schemes, community prioritized need identification, project identification, project management and maintenance of community facilities, which often creates a sense of collective ownership that further drives sustainability of community projects.

Additionally, I could not help but notice that the private sector, through the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA), is increasingly interested in working with the county governments in developing low-cost housing in various counties. Muungano recently undertook city wide settlement profiling in six counties. Sets of information generated from the process have continued to empower communities to have knowledge of their informal settlements, which  through prudent discussions, slum dwellers have begun engaging their local governments on the provision of basic services and infrastructure developments. In a long time counties, have finally recognized the importance of engaging all the stakeholders in planning, execution and monitoring programs for the poor.

Governments have an important role to play in respect of addressing issues of slums, particularly by creating partnerships between national and local governments, civil society and even the communities themselves to work toward an expanded and sustained program for the urban poor.

Fat Fingers and Back of a Napkin Calculations

Kiambu Governor captures family image

Kenyan slum dwellers undertake paperless survey of 10,000 families using hi-tech digital devices. 

By Jack Makau, SDI Kenya

Over the last 15 years, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, the Kenya federation of slum dwellers has surveyed and mapped over 340,000 slum families living in 364 settlements. In its latest survey, conducted in Kiandutu slum – 40 kilometres north west of Nairobi, Muungano made a switch to use technology for collecting and processing data.

On the ground, in Kiandutu (which means, place of jiggers) 170 community members were selected to map each of the settlement’s 10,000 shacks and collect details of each family and each person living there. Instead of a paper questionnaire, the enumerators used Android 6.3 inch touch-screen tablets. According to Muungano’s chair person, Rashid Mutua, “we had a choice of smart phones or tablets , both within the same price range. We chose tablets because some of us have fat fingers.”

The tablets are installed with an Enketo web form that has all 37 questions contained in Muungano’s previous paper questionnaires. The tablets do not require an Internet connection to work. The enumerators collect data offline all day, and in the evening the data is transferred into a GIS enabled database.

Muungano’s fears, that the use of hi-tech gadgetry would exclude the participation of its mainly community women membership, were heightened when the Kiandutu community brought forward the names of 27 elderly persons to be included in the survey team.  At the end of what is usually one day of enumerator training, Kilion Nyambuga, trainer and GIS expert employed by Muungano, reported that additional days of training would be required. By lunchtime on the second day of training, the enumerators were deployed to the settlement to start data collection. Kilion reported that somehow the whole team had made the switch and were comfortable using the tablets.

Muungano National leader, Joseph Muturi, says the decision to move to a technology solution was because, “we do not have the time to collect data for one month, then spend another month putting it into computers, and another month analysing it and developing reports – all the momentum for a community action that we have generated in a settlement is lost in the time it takes to process data”.

The step to venture into the digital unknown and invest in tablets was reached in Muungano’s planning meeting for the Kianduttu survey. A simple back of the napkin calculation showed a 23 percent saving on survey materials and equipment. Ordinarily the 37 questions in the survey fit on 3 sheets of paper that cost 30 US cents each to print. Another 30 cents is paid for data entry. Each survey requires boxes of pencils, rubbers and sharpeners. The Kiandutu survey would have also required an additional 9 cameras and 12 GPS receivers. The tablets take away all these costs.

The switch is however not just a horizontal one from paper into computers, says Kilion. The community enumeration process is made far more accurate. “We are now able to ensure that all mandatory questions like the house number and the resident’s name are answered”. It was a major problem in paper surveys when enumerators returned questionnaires with key information missing. “We had the painstaking task of going back to find families whose house number was left out and we also spend weeks linking pictures stored in separate camera’s with households in the database”. He adds, “Right now we can even check the exact location where a survey was done – if a house is in one end of the settlement we can ask why the survey was done at the other end of the settlement”.

Yet, the use of tech devices does not take away any or all the intensity of doing a 100 per cent household survey in a slum.  Like in all enumerations where a team stays on after the days data collection and goes through the returned surveys, someone will need to stay on to charge the tablets, download all the data and check that the data collected is good.  There are bigger considerations though.

On one hand, not only does the purpose of the survey need to be explained to every household, but also the capture of information into a gadget needs to be explained. On the other hand, somebody who operates an informal water or electricity distribution business in the slum is just as likely, or even more likely, to resist a survey using a tablet as they would one using paper.

The gadgets themselves present a challenge in a context like Kiandutu where you have large numbers of unemployed youth who are presented with a smart device with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all other pleasures. Things that are beyond their immediate ability to purchase. Whether Muungano can persuade without necessarily policing the community and especially the youth, that they stand to benefit more by not keeping the devices for themselves, remains a test of the federation’s effectiveness in organising.

Kiambu Governor Enumerates using tablet

Kiambu Governor, H.E William Kabogo enumerates a family in Kiandutu during an event to launch the community enumeration process.

Kenya Youth Documenters’ First Blog Posts


  1. “The Floating Slum” by Eva Muchiri
  2. “Potato Riots” by Asha Ali
  3. “Giving Hope to Hopeless” by Milka Njeri
  4. “Crime in Mathare” by Kate Wanjiru
  5. “A Small Heaven or Hell?” by Mary Munyiva
  6. “A Call to All Young Mothers” by Sophia Khamis
  7. “Just a Call” by Peris Saleh
  8. “Eviction Mirror!” by Peris Saleh


By Eva Muchiri, Mathare-Bondeni

Rains seem to have awakened a certain migratory instinct in residents of Mathare. The state of total disorder has been on full display in the past couple of months as the rains pounded the slum especially after roars of flooding with sheer ruthlessness. Just as the saying goes, rain is a blessing but too much of it in this part of the capital; the aftermath shifts the other side of the cursed coin.

The area is always brushed off its glittering shinny silver lining of iron sheet houses leaving a trail of regrets and builderness of starting a new life. These are the times the residents wish the water would flow backward only for them to have a moment to collect any little thing that would ignite their hope of living.

The recent floods were never to be under estimated as they left a memory of the first day of creation. Nothing firm was left standing, not even the Bondeni rocks that were last shaken by the El-nino back in the years. Everything was left aligned to the force of gravity. It was not the first incident, but this time the incident coincidentally left a line of hope from the well wishers from the other side of life bringing forth anything appropriate to give a kick start to the mortals of the survivor series.

The problem with this side of the country is proportional to the natural catastrophe that comes as a result of geographical sloppiness of the region. The effects of the resulting flooding not only exposed fear among the residents who often bear the brunt of such a sudden deluge. People were trapped in houses for long hours as they waited for the rain to subside. Streams and waterways were submerged in knee-deep flood waters. Young children and short people were forced to pay so as to be carried and brought to the other side. The challenges faced by the residents are lack of infrastructure, poor drainage and lack of services for the poor.

As water levels rose outside, houses, shops and recreations centers began leaking inside their premises, and also sweeping away everything not sparing the wooden bridge. Some of the resident who live near the river were left homeless after their houses were swept away by the raging water, carrying with it goats and cows of a big business man called wachira in the slum who supplies the residents with the milk. Drunkards became sober and tried their very best to reach their homes as soon as the rain subsided. A couple of residents found themselves floating on water as if they were in a Jacuzzi while a sleep, they had to be rescued by some youths and taken to nearby clinics for check up. Through the Nairobi City profile done by Muungano in the year 2013, communal recommendation of slum improvement have been made by the National Youth Service works has slowly improved drainage systems which has reduced calamities like easy passage of water in streams and waterways.

It is said that slum dwellers would rather be rained on than close their daily business or lose money. It’s never advisable for people to find shelter near water masses, due to rapid rains that cause flooding and the rivers break their banks. Poor drainage can cause a lot of harm to people when the sewer lines block because of the muddy water. The chaos that results from the residents is like wildebeests crossing the Mara river that would be comical; were it not punishing in the unusual manner. It’s very sad watching your property being swept away by the heavy rains and there is nothing that can be done to at least save anything. The Muungano federation introduced farming methods to the residents which transformed them to farmers in the land near the river bank. This has helped in the reduction of flooding cases. The farm products harvested are always sold to the villagers at a fair price compared the normal market. The farm has also been a site for agricultural studies to nearby educational centers.


By Asha Ali, Machakos

Since the devolved system of county governance, Machakos has been one of the best performing counties in Kenya. However, it had its own fain share of challenges. In one morning of December 2014 as I was strolling by, in my own mental shadows walking with me, I heard some funny noises. Funny being it was both attractively curious, yet potentially harmful to my well being. Well being, meaning my current state of sanity.

Shouts, grunts, babblings, amongst other assorted rabbled noise, was what I heard from the market, with the usual haggling going on, but with a more civil-disoriented chaos. I saw, in my comical disbelief, sacks of potatoes sprawled all over the market floor, spilling their contents all over. Knowing that this must be a rejection action towards some government initiated scheme/plan which wasn’t confirmatory to the citizenry; I stood to watch the debacle, from a far distance all the same. These events usually turn out to be violent in the culminating stages of order in chaos, often witnessed during market days.

But to my shock, it wasn’t the sellers who were throwing their money away; it was the county inspectorate ‘officers’ who were actually destroying food, sustenance for mankind. All this for what: just because the said potatoes were not meant to be sold in 90kg quantity, in whatever measurements that they were meted in, by small number of retailers. The market was exclusively meant for wholesale only. This was from a by-law, enacted by the hoodlums who like to be referred to as ‘Honorable’, otherwise known as MCAs, in order to generate ‘more revenue’, by denying retailers access to the larger portion of the town market. As ludicrous as it seems, it had taken full effect, and the county council was intent on maintaining the ghastly law, even to violent endings.

In retaliation, the retailers did the natural thing that any gruntled mwanainchi did; teach the council askaris a thing or two about mixing business and its disruption. Which scholars have duly labeled it rioting, in effect made legal retaliation a necessity, considering the retailers decide NOT to use any weapons except their own hands. Maybe in their reasoning, they would be spared the usual dose of the dreaded rungus, the usual batons and the occasional pleasures of kicks and blows. One trader, Mrs. Amina Ali said, “It is unfortunate that the county government is introducing policies that are detrimental to hardworking through violence.” Well, the whole event turned out pretty docile than expected. None was actually hurt, with the chairman and two loud mouths being arrested and taken to the cooler for some ‘debriefing’. Was it a lenient path of containing civil strife, or just the basic and sudden lapse of sensible thinking for the citizenry, will never be known but that was a change in the right direction, with regards to handling civil strife in a humane way? But all ended quite amicably.

The Chairman, Mr. Isaac Mutua, and his two accomplices were arraigned in court and subsequently charged with incitement, that being a tap on the wrist, considering what was initially ‘arranged’ for them. Grateful they were, as they should have been, the whole affair taught me something.

Leniency is a trait most county governments have to embrace to if to have a peaceful and harmonious co-existence with the citizenry. The effect should recommend to the highest authority in the land. Unnecessary humiliation and injury to man is not the way to handle internal disputes and grievances. We are not back in the stone age when all was needed to quell a mob was a whack to the head and the unlawful detention of a few, and everything was back to normal. The population of today is craftier, more tenacious, and to a logic-defying extreme, more violent, if need be.

This approach will enhance human relations. The elite and the governed will have a patriotic sense of togetherness. Just like any household, all disputes are settled amicably. Through muungano wa wanavijiji , has written a petition to the county government of Machakos to come up with a standard potato  weights that will go a long way in addressing such potatoes wars.


By Milkah Njeri, Huruma

Huruma is located in northeast of Nairobi the capital of Kenya. I got an opportunity to visit a Muungano affiliated group in Huruma Kambi Moto settlement Mathare constituency.

H-town is a group of young girls and teenage mothers; it was started by two members in 2014 due to the high rate of gender based violence in the area, after mobilizing other members it was officially registered in the same year of July 2014, currently the group has fifteen registered members.

Gender based violence has been serious issue in Huruma settlement; this group is among other community based groups which is trying to address gender based violence in informal settlements.

I spoke to Anne Njeri, a mentor and a founder member of H-town group, “As we grew up gender based violence has been a way of life among young women, but we as h-town we would like to change this belief and help reduce cases of rape and violence women.”

In a recent event, one of their members was arrested, taken to court and jailed. She is currently serving a jail term at the Langata women prison for accidentally murdering her boyfriend whom it is alleged wanted to rape her.

Through the support Muungano wa Wanavijiji and Kambi moto saving scheme the group has strengthen its savings and loaning capacity .H-town is the leading model within Huruma in curbing incidences of sexual violence against young women.

Some of the impacts demonstrated by H-town include; some members have been sponsored to attend specialized courses such as driving, home economics, mentorship among others.

The group is currently offering trainings to young girls and women and through settlement campaigns that aim at decreasing cases of social violence among the Huruma community and is a model that can be replicated to other informal settlements.


By Kate Wanjiru, Mathare

Mathare is the second largest slum in Kenya after Kibera with approximately 73.3 hectares with an estimated population of 400,000 people who live in 13 villages; its just a few minutes’ drive away from the city centre. Mathare is home to some of the toughest criminal gangs in Nairobi whereby many youths steal and engage in crime to make a living.

Mathare has been greatly affected by insecurity mainly perpetrated by the youths in  a place known as Huruma in Kiamaiko. The youths of Mathare were influenced by the youths from Huruma  who have  introduced them to access cheap guns – mostly homemade guns.

In 2000 many youths reportedly joined street gangs and they would terrorize people in the community especially in Mathare no. 10 area, this incidences became too much and the community decided to take action by demonstrating  at  a nearby police station.

Many youths have lost their lives. In one year fifty youths were killed, but it was so painful to see the police shooting because they would find the youths holding illegal assembly  eg ‘base’ and ask them to kneel down and start shooting in front of their parents and the community. This was torture because before they killed them they would beat them up.

The youths of Mathare transformed after the introduction of jobs by the government for the youths ‘kazi kwa vijana’ and through educational seminars. In my hood, Bondeni there are many youths that have transformed. I got a chance to interview Kim who told me, ‘‘I was one of worst criminals,  I used to recruit young youths and taught them how to use guns and stealing from people especially hijacking cars but thanks God because I have now changed’’. Kim is now working with nongovernmental organizations like Muungano wa Bondeni to help other youths change. Kim is working in one of the Muungano developed toilets projects and saves like other members.


By Mary Munyiva 

Sometimes life seems to be hopeless when someone lives in a slum. But on the other hand “A VILLAGE OF HAPPINESS“ is part of a settlement in Kahawa Soweto. Most of the people here are ever drunkard, drug addicts, and commercial sex workers among others. Marital status contract is just for the next few seconds.

This was named so because everything you want is available such as alcohol, any kind of food you need and more so sex desire.

It has deteriorated health factor in the fact that most people are infected with HIV/TB yet they transmit it day and night. Their physical appearance looks as if they are age mates of the first president of Kenya and the most challenging factor is death almost every month.

It really paid a lot of attention to the entire community whereby a parent remains a parent. Most of their income is pickpocketing especially during the night but among them there graduates  ‘Of KUPIKA CHANGA’A’ funny enough they have been surviving with ‘TWAKS’ [pig intestines] of which

We are not sure of their health degree, when they are being cooked they do produce that sound of TWA TWA TWA that’s why they were named after that. Unfortunately, it was terminated from the source company through political influence, a neighbor MCA went to the company had the conversation which was held terminated the TWAKS.. Their lives changed since they were taking alcohol without eating.

With the effort of federation members and the community as a whole, there was a group which was mobilized called ’KAA SOBER’ and also they do contributions every Sunday of twenty shillings each and after that they go back to their normal life. We were able to join efforts with stakeholders like NACADA, SWOP among others so as to have a future generation.


By Sophia Khamis, Machakos

Often people think success comes because of luck or exceptional talent though it might be true for some but most successful people will tell you that the reason they are there it’s through persistence and burning desire to do something extra ordinary. Well this how mine all started.

Being a young mother from slums having left college early and having no experience in anything it was quite a challenge to start something up! I was in this saving scheme in Mjini Machakos having being forced by my mum to join, I not seeing any significance in it. I can vividly recall this certain date like two years ago there were visitors in our group/ chama known as Muungano wa Wanavijiji they targeted young mothers, well after some processes was one of  the lucky seven girls chosen from Machakos county, and 60 young women from 7 counties in Kenya.

We underwent trainings having a little baby “champ” it was quite a challenge but I couldn’t give up for anything because I could see it was something beneficial to me. Well I remember this one time we went through a training in Nakuru for four days after it all we were given 100/=for motorbike.

All I can do is laugh about this. It was quite a show people were mad and that is where some gave up but not for me and a few others because we had benefited and could see light in it. We started mentorship on entrepreneurship and politics, I chose entrepreneurship! It was both local and international mentorship. I remember my mentor from Australia Hanna Carlson she inspired me a lot gave me inspirational books to read! Shared life stories this made me feel so empowered as a young woman.

I took a loan from my group and started small business selling beauty products something I love doing, and today my business is my testimony.  So to all young mothers out there life isn’t going to change by knocking your heels together change starts from us! Don’t give up there is hope out there no body said its going to be easy but believe me when I say there is something for everyone you got to work for it.


By Peris Saleh, Mukuru

It’s better knowing something than ignoring it. This is know me I never wanted to be engaged in community activities or even wanted to know community affairs and how they run. I used to just sit at home watch television and that was my daily routine come rain or sunshine just day after day.

One day as I was seated on my door step I saw many people passing going to the same direction ,then one big woman came over to me and introduced herself as Doris. She asked me “Why are you seated on the door while other youths are going to the chief’s place for a meeting?” But I answered  am not interested in any meeting or knowing what people are going to do there. She asked me again “Are u in any youth group?” and I said no.

Doris was very kind to me that she started explaining to me the benefits of being in a youth group. “Its good for a youth like you to involve yourself in community work through the help of a youth group and that’s gives you the prospect of knowing what’s going on in the society. Being in a youth group helps one a lot first by keeping you busy due to the activities they are being done in the group and also you can learn a lot of things from your fellow youths.” I saw that was powerful  indeed and I needed to try this. She decided to help me to look for a group and introduced me into it.

The biggest thing of all she also introduced me to an organisation called MUUNGANO and there I learned a lot of things like: SAVINGS, DATA ENTRIES and know we are being thought on DOCUMENTATION. I really thank Doris for the empowerment she gave me not even forgetting the federation team for accepting me to work with them.

Truly an attitude can change once. Come all youth and join me in this wonderful journey of success.


By Peris Saleh, Mukuru

“We are not going anywhere! We are not going anywhere!  This is our land! This is where we were born and grew up! There is no place we are going!”


“My fellow people…”

“ YESSS!!!”

“My fellow youths…”


“Tell those who are asleep to wake up all the children, to make as much noise as they can! We don’t recognise those people! Who are they?

“Please don’t demolish our houses!”


“Don’t destroy! Have mercy on us.”

“You must go! Chirongo must go! Let’s join hands as a community to prevent this Caterpillar from destroying our houses.” (All mothers to stand in front of the Caterpillar together with their children).

“Youths…” EEEE!!!!! (screams)

“Youths…” AAAAA!!!!!! (screams)

“Let’s go and lie down in front of the caterpillar to let it first pass on us before it reaches to our houses.” (We arrange ourselves and the caterpillar went away; it didn’t dare to step on anyone.)

After the protests, the private developers never came back again to claim the land. Mukuru kwa Reuben was safe for another day. Luckily the case didn’t just end on the ground. The federation took it to court. After almost three months of fighting, we were able to stop the evictions and demolition of our homes.  We may be a slum, but we have unity and togetherness. That’s how we people of Mukuru kwa Reuben fight for our land.

However, the threat of eviction is ever present. Currently, another case of land ownership is in court. One of the larger settlements in Nairobi, Mukuru sits on a mix of public and privately owned land. These landowners have never developed the land and are only recently claiming it, forcing the current residents of Mukuru out of their homes. Returning to court, the federation continues to fight. Today we still have not heard back from the courts, and no solution has been suggested for the current eviction threat. But we’ll keep fighting. Unity is strength and there is nothing better than being together as a community!

Informal Food Vendors: Urban Food Security’s Invisible Experts

**Cross-posted from the IIED blog**

By Paolo Cravero

One in three urban citizens in Asia and Africa live in informal settlements. It’s time to consider their priorities when shaping urban food security policies.

Njoki places a flat disc of dough on a blistering, oily hotplate. Within minutes, it transforms into a chapatti she can sell to one of her hungry neighbours in Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi. It will be a long day.

“I wake up at 5am to prepare the food,” she says. “I have my first clients at 8am and I close at ten at night.”

Night-time means more customers. By then, workers on day-wages have been paid and can afford what might be their only meal of the day. But often Njoki cannot serve these customers.

“If I had light I’d work for more hours,” she says.

The lack of light is not her only concern. Across the global South, millions of low-income people – mostly women – earn a living like she does. These food vendors are vital to the food security and informal economies of their communities, where most customers lack the time, money and place to cook for themselves.

Despite this, policymakers often ignore or stigmatise people like Njoki instead of learning from these invisible experts.

Why the stigma?

Policymakers often view informal food vendors as obstacles to infrastructure development and traffic flow… as sources of unsafe food and pollution. As a result, authorities often relocate vendors, sometimes by force.

When shaping policies and legislation, policymakers focus on the formal sector. The failure of policymakers to recognise a continuum from fully legal to fully informal, means legal barriers prevent informal food vendors from meeting their potential.

Contributing to this is a lack of information. While traditional vending locations such as markets and business districts are well studied, the roles and dynamics of vendors acting inside informal settlements are not.

As a result, informal food vendors continue to be seen as problems, acting outside the law. Instead, governments should identify the priorities of informal food vendors and their customers in informal urban settlements.

A community-based approach

In Nairobi, the Muungano wa Wanavijiji, a federation of Kenyan slum-dwellers’ associations – assisted by the Muungano Support Trust, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and University College London’s Development Planning Unit – set out to fill this gap and redefine policy priorities.

The research involved vendors, their customers and the settlement’s livestock keepers in mapping activities and focus group discussions (read the associated blog and briefing paper). Community members identified challenges that go beyond a lack of access to food, such as problems with infrastructure, environmental hazards, lack of capital and contested public spaces.

Factors affecting vendors’ businesses and food safety, and therefore food security within the settlement, included:

  • Insufficient sanitation facilities
  • Overflowing sewage in the rainy season
  • Infestations of pests
  • Inadequate access to fresh water
  • Livestock food contamination, and
  • Rapid food spoilage.

Through community-led mapping – which allowed the community to coherently articulate their priorities – residents gained a sense of ownership of the area they inhabit and the challenges they face. This led to an informal settlements-based Food Vendors’ Association, founded in late 2013, becoming more active in the community.

The mapping exercise and its results also provided residents with abundant, relevant, verifiable data that local governments simply do not have. This provided a basis for the community to encourage authorities to consider urban inclusion and food security in their policy discussions. It allowed disenfranchised communities to begin building their political voice.

Logical but rare

Community-based approaches that involve people from informal settlements in conversations about urban food security are as logical as they are infrequent.

Yet a third of Africa’s and Asia’s urban populations live in low-income, informal settlements, and the urban population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion by 2050 (PDF). Informality is likely to continue expanding. It already provides up to three quarters of non-agricultural employment in low- and middle-income countries, according to International Labour Organization data (PDF).

To achieve sustainable urban food security, the knowledge and insights from local communities are fundamental. It is time for policymakers to consider these people’s priorities when shaping urban food security policies. The difficulty is that this may reveal systemic state failure to provide basic services or develop inclusive, equitable urban policies.

We Count: Settlement Profiling in Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi Settlement Profiling

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

By Shadrack Mbaka, Muungano Support Trust (Kenya)

According to the English dictionary, the word eviction is the removal of a tenant from possession of premises in which he or she resides or has a property interest done by a landlord either by reentry upon the premises or through a court action. Eviction may be in the form of a physical removal of a person from the premises or a disturbance of the tenant’s enjoyment of the premises by disrupting the services and amenities that contribute to the habitability of the premises, such as by cutting off all utilities services to a settlement.

On the other hand “exclusion” is the act or an instance of excluding or the state of being excluded from state of affairs.

This is literally the sad state of informal settlements across the Slum dwellers International (SDI) global network. On one hand, urban poor communities are legally or illegally in a forceful manner transferred from their areas of shelter and on the other hand locked out on platforms that seek to make decision in addressing issues of informal peoples’ settlements.

Planning for development has remained an important role of subsequent governments that come into power. Unfortunately, government departments entitled with this responsibility have remained myopic to the data needs of informal settlements. For instance the Kenyan 2009 census was conducted in frequencies too sparse to accurately track the rapid growth of slum areas or informal settlements. Edwin Simiyu, a spatial data specialist at Muungano Support Trust, and Emily Wangari, a community profiler from Mathare, are a bit skeptical on the functionality of national census in making slums inclusive.

“In this kind of covenant between the urban poor and their resilience to be part of the city, more often than not data analyzed and made public by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics takes a long time to be computed and presented. By the time it is consumed it’s already outdated and does not serve its purpose”, says Emily.

Nairobi Settlement Profiling

Joseph Mwendo of Muungano Training Dagorretti community on the New Settlement Profile Tool piloted by SDI this year.

Edwin points out that, “the national census data may be inadequate in the overall national planning owing to the fact that most of this data does not reflect the reality on the ground as far as informal settlements are concerned.”

Over and above, informal settlements have remained excluded in the citywide planning agenda. Lack of adequate data on slums has placed the urban poor between a rock and a hard place. In every dynamic slums have remained an eye-sore to most global governments to planning. The end result is that high costs are used to justify why cities fail to install water, sewerage and drainage facilities or plan land use for slum areas.

Slum Dwellers International has continued to support the Kenyan federation of slum dwellers to fill this data void by generating accurate data touching on informal settlements aimed at influencing urban planning, decision making and placing urban poor communities at the heart of building inclusive and sustainable communities. Over the last one and a half decades, Muungano has continued to conduct settlement profiling and community led enumerations, which have painted the dire state of informal settlements.

Citywide Settlement Profiles

Sustainable development requires continual and integrated consideration and analysis of social, environmental and economic issues, as well as their evaluation and prioritization against current and planned land uses in order for potential development conflicts among those three systems to be minimized. Planning of sustainable development alternatives and making decisions adjusted to sustainable development strategies and policies requires technologies with capabilities of presenting the actual situation of informal settlements.

The year 2013 saw SDI embark on the journey of developing a standardized tool for settlement profiles, questionnaires and data management systems with the aim of making the data faster to access and quicker to map while still lending itself to be easily updated and administered by local slum dwellers.  While standardization will mean a certain level of comparability across regions, local federations will still be able to add their own area and context specific questions to ensure that the profiling tool meets its core aim of providing urban poor communities with a tool that can measure and capture the nuances of their own communities’ development needs.

Nairobi Settlement Profiling

 Jockin Arputham, SDI President, takes a tour of Kiandutu Slums, Thika Kenya

In a recent visit of SDI President Jockin Arputhum to the Kenyan SDI affiliate, his take on settlement profiling is that, “Settlement profiles tells the global network, countries, counties and governments how much land the urban poor occupy, what level of services and infrastructure we are accorded and, most importantly, who are we going to engage to ensure our issues are addressed in tandem with the national or global planning agenda”.

Jack Makau of Slum Dwellers International holds a similar view, he says, “ Looking at the global world view, settlement data is becoming an important phenomenon and various technocrats from governments, multi-sectoral organizations and NGOs have come together to look at how best this global data can be compiled to make sense. So far we have been able to look at data touching on over 7,000 cities with informal settlements.”

Profiling of informal settlements draws primarily on repeated consultations and discussions with residents of the settlement by a survey and mapping team that includes federation leaders. This produces a rich set of data about the settlement, its inhabitants and the problems they face.  A settlement profile does not produce detailed data on each household but instead provides a detailed overview of the settlement, its inhabitants, brief history, land tenure, quality of housing, extent of provision of infrastructure and services, and the residents’ main problems and priorities.

Partnership Planning and Empowerment

Community planning has been an epitome of community inclusion in the planning and development of both social and physical development. Over the last two years, since the interment of the Kenyan Constitution and devolvement of resources to the grassroots, Muungano wa Wanavijiji has been in the forefront in engaging county governments in 15 counties on community planning, which drives the need of inclusion of the poor in shaping their settlements.

Hon. John Kihagi, Member of the National Assembly for Naivasha Constituency, agrees, “Settlement profiling provides slum dwellers, and we as leaders, an impeccable understanding of the real situation of our informal settlements. My interaction with Muungano informs me that this strategy is a starting point to help create visibility for informal settlements”.

Nairobi Settlement Profiling

Naivasha MP. John Kihagi compare notes with Jockin Arputham.

Such engagements with government departments and elected leaders have leveraged support and goodwill for communities. In Nakuru County, where Muungano wa Wanavijiji enjoys community support, Nyamarutu settlement hsa received support from the Constituency Development Fund to fast track land regularization of a 7 acre land benefitting 200 households, owing to the community’s enumeration data and strong lobbying and advocacy prowess. The federation is also working on a framework with members of the National Assembly for Naivasha and Nakuru on the need to conduct a joint settlement profile for two wards in Nakuru County.

For the last fifteen years, community-led enumeration has been one of the core rituals of the SDI network, as far as data gathering at household level is concerned. However, the settlement profile tool intends to generate very accurate socio-economic description of informal settlements. Muungano wa Wanavijiji hopes to link these surveys to citywide and county impacts.

Community driven processes are indeed exceptional planning tools to be utilized by urban poor communities and county governments to start including, analyzing and implementing the needs of the urban poor in the global planning agenda.

The continued exclusion of slums and informal settlements from the city’s planning processes, in particular the non-enforcement of existing sanitation standards, results in stark disparities in access to sanitation facilities between slums and informal settlement areas and other residential areas. Many women, for instance in Mathare Valley, have suffered rape and other forms of violence as a result of attempting to walk to a toilet or latrine some distance from their home. Sanitation facilities are inadequate and inaccessible.

Data gathering processes currently underway by Muungano wa Wanavijiji intend to empower communities to negotiate for better services from government. Rashid Mutua, Muungano wa Wanavijiji national chairman explains, “The aim of the federation is to look at every opportunity from community planning, settlement profiling, savings, partnership building and linkages to community urbanism solution models that is set to improve the quality of life for poor people by providing access to clean water, improved sanitation, and waste management services; and supporting secure land tenure and affordable housing”.

The federations’ core is;

  • To strengthen the capacity of local communities to engage with county governments and local authorities and other service providers for the sustainable provision of basic services.
  • To scale-up the delivery of basic infrastructure services for safe water, sanitation, better and affordable housing, waste removal and access to land tenure rights through collaborative efforts.
  • To support income-generation activities, and community-managed savings and credit schemes that enable households to secure funds for the improvement of physical facilities through the Muungano Development Fund.
  • Advocate for the adoption of  pro-poor policies and practices for slum upgrading and land tenure at local and national levels

Both government and civil society ought to engage in collaborative strategic planning for slum upgrading. Coordinating both government and civil society spending on upgrading is likely to limit duplication of roles and projects, increase accountability and most importantly form a platform for planning and evaluating impacts.



In Kenya, Using Tech To Put An ‘Invisible’ Slum On The Map

NPR Story: Mapping in Nairobi's Slums

**Cross-posted from**

By Gregory Warner 

If you were to do a search for the Nairobi city slum of Mathare on Google Maps, you’d find little more than gray spaces between unmarked roads.

Slums by nature are unplanned, primordial cities, the opposite of well-ordered city grids. Squatters rights rule, and woe to the visitor who ventures in without permission. But last year, a group of activist cartographers called the Spatial Collective started walking around Mathare typing landmarks into hand-held GPS devices.

In a slum with no addresses and no street names, they are creating a map of what it’s like to live here.

Their map includes things like informal schools, storefront churches and day care centers, but also dark corners with no streetlights, illegal dumping grounds and broken manholes. They bring the most urgent problems to the attention of the authorities.

NPR Story: Mapping in Nairobi's Slums

Slum mapper Isaac Mutisya, whom everyone calls Kaka, says they have actually been able to get a few streetlights built. And it’s always the map that makes the difference.

“Because it’s technology, it can shame some of the people,” he says. “Like, ‘Why didn’t you put up a light there when we told you that this area is dangerous?’ “

We think of GPS maps as guides. They are the sometimes annoying, always calm, recorded voice in our car that steers us through unfamiliar places. But maps are also public records that can help slum dwellers negotiate with city authorities.

A Global Movement

The slum-mapping movement started in India about a decade ago and more recently migrated to Africa. The idea is to make slums a reality for people who would never set foot in one.

A map can be entered as evidence in court to stop evictions. It can be reprinted by international advocacy groups to raise awareness. It can be presented to city planners, as a puzzle to be solved.

NPR Story: Mapping in Nairobi's Slums

Emily Wangari is a member of Slum Dwellers International. She invites me into her one-room house. Pigeons dance on her roof — an entrepreneurial side project of her neighbor’s son — and send tremors through Wangari’s only light bulb.

To picture the astonishing map she unfolds on her lap, imagine a satellite photo of your hometown and trace lines around all the houses and buildings: What you’d get on the tracing paper would be squares and rectangles surrounded by space — the space being the lawns and parks and roads.

But Wangari’s map looks more like a mad game of Tetris. Blocks of every shape are jammed in together with no space between, except narrow pathways following the trails of open sewers. And every year these narrow streets get narrower still, as people expand their houses farther into the walkway.

“People take that as an advantage of just widening their house,” she says. If there’s any extra public space, people take it for their own.

If Kaka’s map, the Spatial Collective map, is a map of city neglect, Wangari’s map describes life in a slum where the idea of public space has no enforceable authority. You’ll find no parks, no playgrounds, no breathing room.

Helping Slum Dwellers Negotiate

This year Wangari did use her map to briefly claim some communal space. The story is this: After years of grass-roots activism, the city of Nairobi finally agreed to pipe in municipal water and sell it at public collection points for a half a penny on the gallon. But when the city workers went to lay the pipes, the place was so crowded they couldn’t actually find enough space for their shovels.

So Wangari had to go around telling people to move parts of their houses. But then she pulled out her map, showed people where their houses were and assured them they could get their space back.

“We had to tell people, ‘Move your structure a bit so the [water] line can pass. But you are assured, of building back. Yeah, when the line passes you’ll build back,’ ” she says.

It’s the kind of guarantee that never gets granted in this slum. Amazingly, people accepted. The water line was laid. It was as if in a place where no one has a legal right to anything and everything is claimed by force, the map provided some assurance — if not of actual ownership, then at least of a shared record of the past that allowed people to plan together for the future.

NPR Story: Mapping in Nairobi's Slums

Knowing Your ‘Spot’

In the storage room of an Internet cafe that the Spatial Collective uses for its office, I watch Kaka and the other slum mappers play idly with their GPS devices. In nine clicks, they zoom out the view broader and broader to encompass Nairobi city, then Kenya, then Africa, then the globe. Kaka laughs when I point out his habit.

“It’s good to know where your spot — where your spot is in the world,” he says, shrugging.

And the more time he spends looking at his home through the lens of the GPS, the more he can’t shake the sense that the outside world is finally looking back.

“With the GPS if you mark a point, you know that there’s someone out there who will get the information that there’s a something happening here — or that there’s me here,” he says, with a sheepish chuckle.

While basic inadequacies and deep uncertainty still define the life here, he says, the days when some unscrupulous developer could send arsonists in at night and erase all traces of a community seem to be fading into the past. Among residents, there’s a growing sense that in seeing their slum from the satellite level, from 10,000 miles up, they are starting to take their city out of the shadows.