A Voice For the Voiceless

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The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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Sad Day in Kibera

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 28th, 2011 | Africa

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I have been busy trying to write a comprehensive and critical analysis of the opportunities within the Relocation Action Plan and within the community response to it.  I had almost forgotten about the Ngazi ya Chini election that was held yesterday in Kibera.  Until my director came in and asked if I had heard about it yet.  Rival groups started arguing, things escalated, police were called in.  One man was killed by police fire, and others were treated for various injuries.  Hakijamii’s Program Director suffered minor injuries.

I’m glad I didn’t ask to go.

A survey of the main news sources in Nairobi didn’t report much.  Scratch that…they didn’t report anything.  I found this one article on it, but the article is vague as to the issues leading up to this election.  What about why they had called an election?  What about the seven years of anxiety leading up to this November’s evictions?  What about the serious strain and life-changing decisions Kenya Railways and the Government are forcing on 10,000 people?

More attention needs to be given to this.  More thought should be given to the obvious social and psychological strains this is causing.  With reporting like this, no wonder the Government isn’t be held accountable to the Constitution.

The Railway Dwellers: Mary

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 25th, 2011 | Africa

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On Thursday, July 21st, I went to Kisumu Ndogo for a second time to meet with Ngazi ya Chini.  Kisumu Ndogo is an area in Kibera that functions on its proximity to the railroad.

Kibera: Kisumu Ndogo
Kibera: Kisumu Ndogo

People work off the line; they live off the line. It is a mainstay of their livelihoods.  Yet, this thriving community is set to be fractured.  Everyone on 100 feet of either side of the railroad will be displaced.  Large metal poles mark the 100-foot (or 30 meter) point.  These poles are signs of certain doom for people living on one side, and they are handy fixtures for drying clothing for people lucky enough to be living on the other side.

Kibera: Boundary
Kibera: Boundary

I was taken around to speak to some of the affected people.  I asked them each for permission to film the interview, but many were skeptical of me and insisted I didn’t.  I tried a different tactic of asking my questions first, and then requesting again that I could at least take a photo.  They all obliged to the photo after the fact.

Many times I have tried to imagine what this would mean to me.  If the US government came by one evening, with a piece of paper, which dictated that, my home/business/school/church was in the way of a new highway system.  The thought of moving makes my head hurt already.

Then I try adding in factors.  I have lived in the same home for 20 years.  I have built it with my bare hands, and it is the source of my income.  I am a widow with two children, and I also support my sister’s three children.  My income feeds us, clothes us, pays the rent, and pays the school fees.  I live in a community built on habits and conveniences.  I have no reliable means of travel, and a matter of kilometers is a barrier to movement and business.  One customer is the difference between eating that night and not.  I can’t afford to live anywhere else in the city, which has left me behind.  A city that has a cost of living greater than that of my entire neighborhood’s monthly income.  I am receiving promises from a government that is not concerned with living up to them.

But even then I can’t imagine the feelings of insecurity or apprehension that these people know.

Their stories are very similar, but each left a lasting impression; each put a human face on this abstract group of railway dwellers.  Each is being told that they cannot sustain the lives they have built up.  And each unknowingly emphasized the lack of consistent information shared between those planning this expansion and those who will be affected by it.

 

Hard at work, Mary quietly stepped out from behind the glass of her butcher shop to speak to me.  She had been chopping up cubes of steak for a convenient sell, and they were displayed prominently behind her window, enticing the passer-bys with the promise of dinner.  Her hands were stained with blood, and she shyly smiled when she realized she was still clutching the large knife in her hand while she softly spoke.

Kibera: Mary
Kibera: Mary

Kibera: Butcher Shop
Kibera: Butcher Shop

The butcher shop is about 10 meters from the tracks, and her family has run the business since 1991.  600 shillings ($6.64) a day is enough to provide some basics for herself and her 21-month-old child, as well as other family members.  The family depends on this business, and without it, they will suffer.  Mary spoke of her fear of resettlement; the fear that even though she will be taken away from her neighborhood, her home, the customers will stay behind.  She doesn’t just fear it; she knows it will happen.

She seems tired, but not completely without hope.  Since 2005, they have been threatened with eviction, and six years of anxiety is a lot for a 26-year-old breadwinner to handle.  She has seen movement and growth in Kisumu Ndogo since May 2010, the second time the railroad people came by to assign them a number.  But besides that brief contact, no one has been by to speak to her.  No one has made an effort to help her understand.

Mary didn’t speak much English, but as I thanked her and began to walk away, she quietly said, “Please help us.”  That message I understood perfectly.

Speeding Up…

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 22nd, 2011 | Africa

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Meetings are picking up around Nairobi for me, and posts are in the works to explain all of them.  Yesterday, I met with Ngazi ya Chini and was able to speak to some people who will be affected by the relocation (unfortunately they were a bit camera-shy, but I snapped some photos after the interviews - with permission of course!).  Today, I met with a group called Soweto Forum, dedicated to righting the injustices of the government’s slum upgrading program.  After that, I met with the Executive Director of Pamoja Trust and gained a bit of perspective on the entire project, including the Relocation Action Plan and how the railroad expansion is actually going to unfold.

Additionally, my director, Iain Guest, will be on his way to Kenya in ten short days, and I have been getting to know this beautiful country better - including a short safari in the Maasai Mara last week and a day trip into the Rift Valley tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to sharing all of the above.  But in a little bit of time.

Also of note, Pamoja Trust released a progress report on the relocation, which included a timeline for the remainder of the project.  The construction phase (that would be demolition) is set to begin in November OF THIS YEAR.  That’s pretty soon for my scale, but considering the first eviction notices were handed out in 2004, it must feel like the end of the longest waiting game ever to all the railway dwellers.

I leave you with these interesting and related stories.  My flatmate this summer has listened to my railroad jabber all along, and she kindly sent me these two about life along the tracks:

People in Indonesia using the railroad for its healing powers.

This market in Thailand:

And a project I have been obsessed with before Kenya was even a possibility in my mind.  Little did I know this area, Kisumu Ndogo, would become my most familiar area in Kibera, and the remnants of the photo project are still around.  See more here.

Mukuru

Kristen Maryn | Posted July 20th, 2011 | Africa

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The railroad expansion will affect an area much broader than just Kibera.  Kibera gets a lot of attention for various reasons, but it is important to remember the other populations, which will also be displaced.  This includes communities in Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, and Mukuru, a settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi.

On July 14th, the secretary of Ngazi ya Chini picked Sally, the Hakijamii intern, and me up from the office, and we started the drive to Mukuru.  Mukuru is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside of Nairobi.  The population estimates for the entire area range, but normally fall around the half million mark.  From what I can gather, Mukuru is Kiswahili for “dumping site,” and that is exactly what Mukuru started as – and to a large extent, still remains.  The area started as a quarry; as Nairobi developed faster than its means, due to the mining, the site was deemed as unfit for development, so instead it became a garbage dump.

The trip back to the car
The trip back to the car

As abandoned resources grew, people scavenged the dump more and more and began building their homes in the area.  The Mukuru settlement was born.  The area is still heavily industrial, and the buildings now center on the railroad, the old quarry, and manufacturing sites.  Large lorries carrying dirt and rocks, apparently for a purpose, frequent the roads, though that purpose remains unseen for the casual visitor.

Land of Industry
Land of Industry

The settlement faces the same issues as the others; tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS are common, life expectancy hovers around 40 years, the population density is something like 50,000 per square mile, and the average income is around $1 a day.

The Walk
The Walk

Mukuru
Mukuru

We were dropped off at a roundabout near the settlement in an industrial area, and there we waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Waited long enough for this mzungu to sunburn under a winter sun (granted, that is not new to me).  We eventually realized we had been plopped down on the opposite end of the settlement from the community meeting, so we began to walk.

I followed the lead of the community, using the railroad as a path.  The other options were to walk through standing wastewater or on dirt frequently used as a makeshift toilet, so the threat of moving for a rumbling train was worth it (only two come through a day – a figure the government wants to increase).  The further into Mukuru we walked, the closer the structures crept toward the railroad.  Especially once we made it to one of the market sections of the settlement, the railroad and the market became inextricable.

Market Central
Market Central

More Vendors
More Vendors

I was not as comfortable in Mukuru as I have been in other areas (can you really be comfortable in the settlements, as an outsider?).  Maybe it was because my community liaison is not a member of the community (he is from Kibera), or maybe it was because the slum was so far out of Nairobi, it didn’t seem to be frequented by visitors.  I normally use children as a benchmark, and the children of Mukuru tended to either hide from my gaze or glare at me suspiciously.  It also didn’t help that adults yelled things at me more than I had encountered anywhere else in Kenya, and one woman conveniently tossed her trash into the sewage at my feet.  The community, though, was thriving and lively, and it was easy to see how entrenched the railroad has become as an everyday part of life.

Children of Mukuru
Children of Mukuru

The meeting took place in a community of Mukuru called Sinai, an area where the buildings relax their grip on the railroad.  Within the first ten minutes of the meeting, a bare engine rumbled by, shaking the corrugated metal siding and drowning out the voices of the facilitators.  Just part of the reality of life here.  The participants in the meeting were impassioned and emphatic, and it was obvious this would be one of the livelier meetings I had attended; few people were able to speak uninterrupted.  I received brief translations, and it became apparent that Mukuru had not mobilized behind a single leader, and there was discontent about the current status of organization.

Pamoja Trust plays a murky role in the relocation, as it was a key contributor to the writing of the Relocation Action Plan (read as: they were hired by Kenya Railways), but they also play a key role as rights protectors in the settlements.  Things get even more complicated because certain members of Pamoja have shifted around and created a new organization, charging themselves with responsibilities too cannily similar to be pure coincidence.  Opiata, the ED of Hakijamii, told me afterwards that it would take months to catch up on the intricacies of these organizations’ interplays and roles.  Needless to say, the community seems divided, and my experience at the meeting was cut short as the two groups came to a head and fighting broke out.  Sally was quick to react when the tension started rising and ushered me out of the building.

My overall impression was simply that the community does not seem ready to move at the pace that is necessary to respond to the RAP.  Implementation is imminent, yet they cannot rally behind a figurehead, or even yet, an organization.  Kibera faces similar issues, but not nearly so polarized.  From what I have read on successful inspections on World Bank programs, unity is necessary, and a lot of the settlements’ strength rests in their sheer numbers.  Thousands of people are hard to ignore, especially when they speak with one voice.

 

**Also of note, due to government cutbacks, Hakijamii is losing a long-time and committed international donor.  They have to restructure and reevaluate programs for the next three years, which could have a terrible ripple effect in the settlements.  If anyone knows any organizations active in securing economic, social, and cultural rights in developing nations, send them our way!

Kenya Bound

Kristen Maryn | Posted May 16th, 2011 | Africa

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I leave for Nairobi in a little less than two weeks, and it feels like the prep work is just beginning!  There is so much to absorb…the culture, the organizations, the issues, and what my role will be within that matrix.  I am thrilled for the opportunity to serve as an AP Peace Fellow and follow in the footsteps of Christy Gillmore and Louis Rezac.  The relationship forged between the Advocacy Project and Hakijamii is strong, and I am excited to become a part of it.

Hakijamii, the Economic and Social Rights Centre, was founded in 2004 and has grown to support around 120 organizations in and around Kenya.  By addressing some of the major disparities in the community, Hakijamii aims at empowering and supporting local communities, and it is now an integral part of the advocacy effort to acquire basic rights for those communities.  Hakijamii is actively involved in education, water and sanitation, and land and housing.  Kenya just recently drafted and promulgated a new Constitution in late 2010, which is meant to address some of the major inequalities rampant in the current system.  Whether or not it will work is still up in the air, as there has been marked debate about whether or not the new Constitution is even being followed.  Among the changes is a new National Land Policy, which is designed to provide more security for the community and require more accountability on the part of the government.  But so far, not much reform has been noticed.  Eminent domain without compensation seems to remain a favorite power of the government, as people are forcibly evicted regularly.

Estimates are that around 60% of Nairobi’s population live in slums, namely in one of Africa’s largest, Kibera.  A recent proposed project of the Kenyan government is the widening of a railroad that runs through various slums.  The enlargement of the railroad corridor would mean clearing out the thousands of homes adjacent to the railroad.  This project, funded by World Bank, would mean utter loss for thousands of families.

My role within this organization is still in its formulation period.  I am going to Kenya fresh off my first year of law school at Georgetown, and I am excited to put the beginnings of my legal education to use, supporting Hakijamii however they need, particularly in advocacy.  I am working with Hakijamii and AP to formulate a work plan that will make the best use of my ten weeks.  I am really excited for this opportunity and really believe that with Hakijamii’s strengths and practices, I can be instrumental to supporting their mission.

I am looking forward to sharing my experiences with Hakijamii through this blog.  Support for their efforts is necessary and welcome, particularly through knowledge and awareness.  For more information, here are links to the Hakijamii website, Louis’s blog, and Christy’s blog (from their experiences last year).

Fellow: Kristen Maryn

Hakijami


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