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View from the bottom: the conspiracy of violence in Nairobi's slums

Nicholas van Praag's picture

Urban violence has reached unprecedented levels in many cities around the world, destabilizing whole societies and making life miserable for its victims.  It is a trend we are looking at in detail in the upcoming World Development Report which looks at conflict, violence and development.

To get a better understanding of the complicated inter-play between poverty, gangs, and bare-knuckled politics, I visited Nairobi's Mathare slum which is home to 850,000 people.  Julius, who runs the Julius Mwelu Foundation, showed me around.  I took a small video camera with me and this is my report:

Video blog: Nairobi's slums from WDR Video on Vimeo.


Submitted by Anonymous on
Congratulations Nick. I felt I was there in the slums of Kenya. Amidst the sadness, poverty, insecurity, did you get any sense of hope? In particular is getting an education in those crammed classes seen as a way out of the slum life? How is the role of education perceived?

The most amazing thing about my day in Mathare was that -- despite the wretchedness -- I came away hopeful. Not for today or tomorrow. But down the road. Your saw the kids. They study in dark, airless, packed classrooms. But they are as enchanting and curious as kids on the other side of the tracks. Their teacher, who was not in the clip, is a model of calm, strong self-assurance. She struggles everyday, against the odds, to make a difference. And you have someone like Julius, who was born and raised in Mathare. He is only 23 years old but devotes himself -- 24/7 -- to raising the hopes and horizons of his students -- a few at a time. What I came away with was a sense of the extraordinary resilience of the Julius's -- all of them. They don't give up, no matter how high the cards are stacked against them -- and in places like Mathare they are stacked pretty high.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I agree with you that Nick's report is wonderful and we must all congratulate him for giving a voice to the people of Mathare and other slum dwellers in Kenya and the rest of the world. As to your question, I felt compelled as a Kenyan with a background not very much unlike that of the children of Mathare to share a thought with you. To be sure, I did not grow up in the slums but upcountry in rural Kenya. Life was obviously better there but there are points of similarities which is what I will comment on. Even in the most hopeless of situations the poor in Kenya remain hopeful. It is something to do with faith. A belief that out there somewhere there is a good. That it will come one's way one day. This faith keeps everyone going and helps maintain some cheer in what would otherwise appear to be a desperate situation. Of course, there are exceptions. Gangs, criminals and the lure of easy money to mention but a few (no offence to research findings as to the possible causes intended). One such good is the promise of a better life in future for both the young and the old. Education plays an important role in this regard. Though uneducated, most parents living in slums would like their children to receive a good education. Education is viewed as the gateway to jobs and therefore a one-way ticketay out of the slum and out of poverty for the children who are expected (common in Africa) to take care of their parents. In this sense, education promises freedom from slum life for both the child and the parents. Unfortunately, the Kenyan education system is merit-based and after about 8 years of studying, the children you see in Nick's video are expected to compete in a national examination with children from the rest of the country including those in schools with horses as part of extra curricular activities, swimming pools, computers and access to the internet, electricity, clean drinking water and every possible luxury one can imagine. From the results of this national examinations, the best are considered worthy of secondary education in the public schools. Private education is extremely expensive and obviously out reach for the children of Mathare and other slums. As one would expect the largest percentage of children left out ends up being the very poor ones. The seeds are thus sowed for more desperation among the poor. As a Kenyan, I know that my country systematically takes away this wonderful dream of the slum's poor through its system of education. Potential future leaders are denied an opportunity to prove their worth on a level playing field with the rest of the country. Unfortunately, I do not think that this knowledge alone helps anyone. In particular, I feel constrained to resign to the belief that I cannot change the system because I am powerless despite what I have learned of democratic theory. Many Kenyans feel the same. Mathare parents and their children may believe in education and wish for it but only a few of them really appreciate where the government comes in as regards the equation which partly drives them through their difficult days. Until Kenya truly becomes a democracy, improves its system of governance and its people attain a critical level of civic education, only an odd lucky one or two children from Mathare and their counterparts will achieve their dreams of a good education and thereby obtain that needed ticket out of the slum. Until this happens, and despite democratic theory, the 850,000 voters of Mathare compare poorly to a visit by a foreign official such as from the World Bank or the IMF, the European Union or the United States in terms of effectiveness. This is why, I was really moved by Nick's video. Together with his office, I know that his video bears more weight than that of a majority of Kenya's voters and in a sense constitute a bigger constituency than the sum total of Mathare slum's voters in a Kenyan election. His video and visit to Kenya, together with that of others like him in future will help provide a much needed solidarity and push that should deliver the children of Mathare to their dreamland. Not one country is perfect but Kenya can be better, much better. Most of all, its peoples deserve better. PS: By this statement, I do not claim to prescribe a solution to the eradication of slums which is obviously a much more complex problem but to share an insight into one of the several facets of that complex phenomenon.

Submitted by Ximena HC on
I take this opportunity to congratulate Nicholas Van Praag on this video and on all the reporting he does on his job experience. It is admirable to see an international civil servant who is so passionate about the work he does. Let's hope his enthusiasm and caring is contagious. I thank him for taking so much of his time and energy to share his experiences with us, thus educating those staff who never go to the field but have an interest on knowing the realities of it. Keep up the good work Mr. Van Praag!

Thanks for your comment. I count myself lucky to get out to places like Mathere and relate what I see and learn. You work away from the front lines and that distance makes it more difficult to appreciate the importance of what you do to improve the lives of people living in tough conditions out there. But your contribution is great.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I would like to share my experience and the belief I began to have and still do, resulting from a visit I had made to a slum in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh nearly 3 years ago. The conditions of the Dhaka slum are pretty much similar to that depcited in the video, with the only difference being that there was a strong health care service provision and schooling all provided by BRAC, a microfinance NGO. I was struck by the big impact that BRAC was able to have in terms of providing basic necessary services.I believe in this context, the role of NGOs is very critical for reaching a massive population that would otherwise not have access to public services provided by its own government.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Nick's clip show how difficult life is for the poor living in informal settlement. However, in the same slum there is a wonderful work being carried out by a microfinance organisation called Jamii Bora that provides decent shelters for its members. The new 2 or 3 bedroom houses transform the lives of the slum dwellers giving them dignity. In addition, the Jamii Bora housing scheme which is expected to provide houses to 2000 families in a clustered settlement has schools -primary and secondary- and a commercial centre where trade will be carried out. Its just one of the efforts to upgrade people's'life.

Submitted by twheeler on
I like that you captured the interesting links between a security vacuum, unemployed young men and political violence. I think conflict in urban areas is slightly different in that the nature of the vigilante groups that form in the absence of public security provision very quickly become predatory, and they very quickly rent their violence out to those who can afford it (not just politicians either in Kenya, but landlords and businessmen and sometimes even the police themselves!). Often, once groups are formed and the leadership and membership within them is benefiting (socially as well as materially), the incentives to disband the group are very low - instead the incentive is to widen the range of activities to raise income: Without the strong social and traditional governance systems that might exist in rural areas, in urban areas vigalantes soon turn on those they were created to protect in the first place. They do this through crime and direct taxation for their services (as is seen widely in urban areas in Kenya where gangs make every house pay for their protection). What this creates is a latent mobilised group of young men who have become specialists in violence - if we think of DDR in reverse, this is the mobilisation part, which is often just as important as armament. Then when you have a political crisis of the severity Kenya saw in '08, the capacity for elites to wage violence against one another and one another's supporters is greatly enhanced by the existence of these groups that formed originally not for political purposes, but as a coping mechanism of insecure communities. In the end, the provision of security is not only a fundamental service and public good, but one that is tied to the stability of the country more generally.

Submitted by philo7626 on
Dear Nicholas Van Praag, When you put some facts together about Kenya.. the open wounds of violence, corruption at high levels, the future of such children, rural poverty.. the fact that Kenyan farmers are today destroying maize that the cereal board has not bought when some Kenyans are starving, and when last year 10million Kenyans were faced with starvation, 6 million of them children and that saying that in front of Parliament cost three of us an arrest and thorough beatings by police and then a court case where the republic argues we are lawbreakers.. you will see why Kenya must have a revolution. YOu will always see the good will and the wonderful people betrayed by politicians. You will feel like me how useless world diplomacy is and irrelevant in may cases.. you will I think share with me very strong reactions against what is going on in Kenya when an election is coming in 2012. Kenya's systems of governance must be changed and those voices saying so from within must be supported by all who mean it when they say that there are millennium development goals to be achieved. The problem of Kenya is simply greed and dishonesty on the part of those who govern. Many of them do not bother.. not even the local member of Paraliament to make that tour you made. I was there last year and walked there. It is not a matter of changing a slum. It is a matter of asking what are those in charge doing taking home fat salaries ( among the best in the world). It is a matter of those who care, I do not know if Obama still does, not having as they say in Spanish, any hair on their tongues telling their friends politicians the plain truth. No one should later on ask, if Kenya experiences worse violence than in 2007, as in 2012.. and of course the violence in Mathare and other places was there before and after.. where the world was when this happened to Kenya.. .we just stand and watch.. and take pride in developing another small project in the slums. In 20 00- 2006, the German government put in money to upgrade the Mathare slums.. find out who stopped this project and why. YOu will then know how much dishonesty about human suffering there is in the world. Who leads?

Submitted by Nico on
I am glad you noticed how the rise of vigilante youth groups has gone hand in hand with the general negligence on the part of the state to provide security to some of the poorest areas in Nairobi. Where there is a police presence, they often attempt to control the extortion rackets for financial gain and many of the youth groups who began as 'community protection' become swiftly recruited into the payroll of some local councilor or MP running for office. Still, one must be careful to bracket the post-election violence - especially in the urban areas of Nairobi - as simply politically instigated (As Ocampo is presently attempting to persuade his court). The nature of the violence in Mathare had a radically spontaneous edge that took hold when security forces barricaded Juja road in an attempt to isolate the pro-opposition areas of the capital while other gangs like Mungiki were infiltrating and attacking the slums under police protection. Further still, following the referendum in 2005, the community basically self-armed itself (and this was not unique) and every person was told to sleep with a machete under their bed for fear of retaliation when they voted against the President. All these factors really point to a culture of neglect, impunity and violence that have accompanied the consolidation of multi-partyism in Kenya (not to be mistaken for democracy!) and a very serious crisis of governance that is crippling the country.

Interesting in Nairobi Kenya, the mistake by us and the entire world was the fact that (but not with finality ), we were taken and known as a haven for peace and though we are home to secretariats of several international peace educating organizations, few thought of educating Kenyans on conflict management skills or even peace building drills as a course. The course was only available to undergraduates persuing diplomacy and international relations. It should also be noted that Kenyans are really focused lot but without taking necessary measures.....2012 is around the corner...i strongly believe that these children and others in secondary schools need to be taught alternatives to violence. Anybody listening? Bishop Kaminwa Eagles Peace Club-Kenya the way forward?

Submitted by Anonymous on
many youth in mathare are rising up, changing their destiny take a look at some of great stuff the youth in mathare are doing

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