In Nairobi, like in many other expanding urban centres around the world, residents of informal settlements make up well over half the population of the city.
Many of Nairobi’s informal settlements trace their origins back to the pre-independence area, while many more have sprung up in recent years, largely as a result of increase levels of migration from the countryside.
What most of these informal settlements have in common is a lack of running water, sewage systems and any semblance state-provided infrastructure. One of the reasons this situation has been allowed to go on for so long, is due to a refusal of the government to acknowledge the existence of these settlements and hence, of their many hundreds of thousands of inhabitants.
Unaccounted for and without any specific information about how many they were, for decades Nairobi’s slum dwellers were unable to speak for themselves and to defend themselves from slum clearing initiatives that left them homeless and without a source of income.
The 2009 national census, which attempted to comprehensively canvas Nairobi’s larger slums, went some of the way towards rectifying this situation. The informal settlement census results were however widely contested.
Today there are still large numbers of areas in Nairobi that officially don’t exist on paper and hence do not qualify to receive any sort government support or protection.
In the first few months of 2012, Nairobi witnessed a slew of different slum clearances and the debate was rekindled within the Kenyan political scene.
Prior to the 2009 census, around the turn of the century, two community led organisations decided to join together and make a concerted attempt to enumerate residents of Nairobi slums, in order to help them unite together as a community and demand the recognition of their basic rights.
These two organizations are called Muungano Trust [http://mustkenya.org/] and Pamoja Trust [http://www.pamojatrust.org/] and they continue with their work today, positioning themselves as important stakeholders and key negotiators for slum-dwellers’ rights.
What the two trusts did, was begin a process of community-driven mapping in which residents of certain Nairobi settlements conducted surveys that helped them gather information they could then use to carry out collective negotiations with local government.
The mapping was conducted in three stages: community profiling, enumeration and physical mapping and had as an overarching aim to highlight the settlement boundaries and plot configurations and to understand the different types of land tenure residents had and what their relationship to the landlords (who do not, generally, own the land) was.
All data collected was subsequently placed in the hands of residents, who then went over the information to double check it was correct. The findings were then discussed during community meetings, where different approaches to negotiating with local government were proposed.
To date Muungano trust has remained very active in the settlements of Mathare and Huruma, where it continues to run its community organisations and has set up a microfinance lending scheme which allows members to continue to upgrade their environment on their own terms.
In Mathare10, the trust has been engaged in a long negotiation with local government, in order to understand how to pass on land ownership onto the community. Most of the land in Mathare10 is currently owned by the Ministry of Defence, which has agreed to grant ownership to the community as a whole. Unfortunately though, in order for this to happen, a series of bureaucratic hurdles have been put in the group’s way that have meant that the whole process continues to be a long and difficult struggle.
There is also the issue of landlords to contend with. Landlords act as the middleman between the landowners and the residents and it is not in their interest to see the land put in the community’s hands. Because of this, landlords have created their own associations that attempt to slow down the progress of the resident groups.
Nevertheless there are success stories: in Huruma, a long-standing Muungano trust project resulted in over 200 housing units being created in a slum-led initiative. Although this later resulted in accusations that the trust worked primarily in the interests of one tribe excluding the others in the area, the houses are still there and stand proud amongst the surrounding mud and tin-shacks.
In recent years both trusts have extended their reach to different parts of Kenya in a quest to make a stand for poor communities around the country. What they haven’t done though, is to make any concerted efforts to join forces with other organisations like Map Kibera Trust and pool resources in order to create an even more comprehensive picture of all of Nairobi’s informal settlements.
Mapping and enumerating low-income, informal settlements is the only way by which to acquire the tools to stand up to local government and ensure people are counted and their rights acknowledged.
The official recognition of community mapping as an essential tool has largely been granted, although there are still many interests to take into consideration that are often conflicting and can prevent the full accomplishment of such objectives.
This article was originally published on urb.im in May 2012