Kenya’s Slums Isolated Amidst Daily Violence


By James Stairs

Nairobi-  Violence in Nairobi’s volatile Mathare slum continued into a third week Monday with Kenyan authorities concerned that they may have already lost control of an already chaotic situation.

The densely-packed slum, which sits close to the city centre, has the reputation of being one of the most volatile and dangerous communities in the Kenyan capital.

A rabbit warren of poverty, Mathare is the heartland of the feared Mungiki criminal gang who have brutally waged war for control Nairobi’s poorest communities for almost twenty years.

Clashes in the slums between police and stone-throwing rioters have been a daily occurrence ever since the East African country descended in to chaos after the disputed December 27 elections.

On the Juja Road, the main artery passing the top of the slum, cars are forced in to rapid and dramatic U-turns in the street to avoiding being caught up in the riots. Flaming tire and concrete roadblocks appear in seconds, trapping traffic. Once the traps are set, witnesses say, cars are over-run by dozens of coordinated attackers. In most cases, locals report, drivers have no choice but to flee, leaving everything behind to be taken by the mob.

In front of the Moi Air Force base on the Juja road, tucked between the military base, the road and a tall stone wall sits an impromptu internal displacement camp. The tiny triangle of land, approximately 50 metres on each side, has become a refuge to an as many as 1500 people who have fled the violence that has consumed the communities below.

In scenes that have become commonplace across Kenya, inter-ethnic clashes have forced many Mathare residents from their homes and, with nowhere else to turn, into informal refugee camps. The neighbourhood attacks, residents say, are violent and come without warning. Most people are forced to flee within minutes of the first skirmishes.

In response, most communities have formed self-protection units where local men arm themselves to protect themselves and their neighbours. Even with the extra security, residents report, communities are usually easily over-run by the mobs.

As many as one million Kenyans have fled their homes in the past three weeks. Hundreds of internal displacement camps have sprung up around the country. Aid organizations describe chaotic situations where they have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of refugees. They also report that most of their resources have been directed to the massive camps in communities like Nakuru, Eldoret and Kisumu, in the country’s Western regions.

Most of the smaller, informal camps report going days, and in some cases weeks, without receiving any government or humanitarian assistance.

At the Juja Road camp, Mary Mwangiri, 46, sits in a group with members of her family. “We have been here for weeks,” she quietly says, “Our houses have burned and no one here knows when we can leave. We’d like to go home but we can’t know if it’s safe.”

Mwangiri says her home was destroyed on New Year’s Eve after mobs swept through the slum, burning homes and looting possessions. There was no choice but to run, she explained. “This is all I could take,” motioning to a small pile of furniture and cooking gear.

Humanitarian groups have visited the tiny camp but, with resources stretched and attention elsewhere, visits have been sporadic. Every day, Mwangiri says, the residents of the camp hope that they have not been forgotten. They want the humanitarian community to know that even the smallest things would help.

“We are waiting for [aid organizations] to come with food, not only so we can eat but so that we can ask them for the cartons they bring the food in to sleep on,” she says, motioning to a bare patch of dirt next to her. “Its much better than sleeping on the ground.”

On the other side of the camp the story is very much the same. Joseph Gachia, 36, has been at the camp since December 29 when, he says, the mobs over-ran his neighbourhood. “There were more than 50 of them,” he said. “They had pangas (machetes) and were chanting slogans. I ran away with my family and have been here since,” he said, motioning to a small pile of furniture covered with a tarpaulin.

In the absence of Kenyan or international assistance, the task of administrating the camp has fallen to three local women. Tina Odour, 45, Lucy-Ann Waweru, 47 and Pastor Serah Mkala, 55, have been organizing the camp as best they can since it was spontaneously formed in the aftermath of the disputed election.

They spend their days trying to document the camp residents, identifying those most in need and hoping that the violence outside doesn’t find its way into the camp. Numbers are hard to pin down as people come and go but Odour estimates that anywhere between 1000-1500 people, including more than 200 children are staying at the camp at any one time. More drop in when the food shipments arrive.

Over 20 in the camp are HIV positive, she adds, and, because of a clinic across the road the patients still have access to anti-retroviral medicines, but without enough food, the toxicity of the drugs can lead to other health issues.

Because there are no regular relief shipments, the women are forced to scramble to keep people fed. Local church and community organizations have tried to fill the gaps between official and humanitarian visits.

When the shipments do come, Gachia says, they are often disrupted by attacks from the slum below. During a World Food Program shipment days earlier, he says, a group of men arrived and stole the food being delivered. In the chaos that unfolded, he says, a man in the camp had his arm chopped off with a machete, a story confirmed by a manager at Nairobi’s Kenyatta National Hospital.

In addition to a precarious security, shelter has become a major concern for the residents of the informal camp. Throughout the week, heavy downpours have drenched the region. With no tents and few tarpaulins, many residents are forced to simply endure the rain.

The results have been tragic. Two babies, both under one-year old, died Wednesday in the camp. Both succumbed to exposure, Waweru explains, their parents unable to shelter them from the rain and cold.

The camp was soaked every night during the past week,” Waweru said Thursday at the camp. “We are so worried that people are getting sick.”

The road bordering the camp presents another danger. Almost every day, Odour explains, protesters, angry with what they say is the government’s lack of action on behalf the residents of the slums, try to block off the Juja road. As has become commonplace across the country, police, who maintain a heavy presence in the area, aggressively disperse the crowds by releasing barrages of tear gas.

On the Juja Road Wednesday, as police fired tear gas canisters at the rioters, the clouds of noxious gas, which, when inhaled, burn a person’s nose and eyes, drifted in to the camp. Pastor Sareh explains that the people in the camp, afraid to run in to the road and into the riots, panicked. “People were running around, trying to get away from the gas but they had no where to run.”

The back boundary of the camp is the fortified gates of the Air Force base, manned by armed soldiers, a tall wall runs along one side and the Juja road, where the gas was coming from is at the front. Boxed in, the terrified refugees were forced to run through the riot on the street to relative safety on the other side of the road.

Throughout the ordeal, soldiers at the Moi Air Force base have stood by as the misery of the camp unfolds in front of them. On Thursday, a commander at the base declined to comment as to why his soldiers have not intervened to help the camp on their doorstep.

The lack of engagement by Kenya’s government is a constant topic of discussion around the country. Everyone agrees that the nation was surprised by the scope and severity of the post-election violence. Those who support the government and President Mwai Kibaki argue that the country’s resources have been overwhelmed by the events and are struggling to keep up. Many who support Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement offer a darker view: Many slums are opposition strongholds, they argue, why would a government help people who are trying to remove them from office?

Until there is a solution to the crisis, Odour argues, the focus of daily life in the camps and slums will be less about politics and more about survival. She hopes the crisis will end soon but is guarded in her expectations. “I don’t think that the politicians on both sides even know that we are here,” she says, a hint of sadness inflecting her voice.

On the Juja road, Cosmos Nga Nga, 27, and Benson Kamau, 24, local activists with friends at the camp, echo Odour’s frustration.

“Who is suffering here?” asks Nga Nga, who, with Kamau helps produce a local community television station called SlumTV.

“The poor and only the poor. Rich people are not having their homes burned,” he says, his anger noticeable but controlled. “Why would they care? They’ve already either stocked up on food or booked their airplane tickets out of here.”

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