Joyce Mwangi, 36, was barely able to gather her belongings before a bulldozer crushed her home into rubble. She had lived in the Kariobangi shack settlement in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi for more than 15 years.
“I wasn’t expecting it. The demolitions came without warning,” said Mwangi, a single mother of four children between the ages of two and 20. “It was traumatising. We were very scared and confused. Many people didn’t have time to get their things out of their homes. Everything was destroyed. Everyone was screaming and crying and pleading for them to stop. It was like a horror movie.”
The demolitions in the Kariobangi Sewage Farmers estate, in the northeast of the city, were carried out in May and continued for days, destroying at least 600 homes in addition to shops, schools and churches. They have left more than 7 000 people homeless, despite residents obtaining a court order halting the evictions.
Videos spread through social media show distraught residents crying over mounds of debris and corrugated metal roof sheets, while protests erupted against the demolitions and the closure of the adjacent Korogocho market, on which an estimated 100 000 people in the area depend. The police responded by shooting tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition at the protesters.
Thousands of residents in Kariobangi, including many women and children, were forced to sleep outside in the rain and cold following the evictions. The state-run Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) claims ownership of the land, but residents have legal documents from the Nairobi City County that they say prove their rights to the land.
Mwangi, who slept outside for 10 days after her home was demolished, said they had to rely on food donated by concerned citizens. But “the food wasn’t enough because there were just too many people in need”.
“The Kenyan government doesn’t care about the poor,” Mwangi said. “They destroyed our homes and threw us outside in the middle of a pandemic. They intentionally exposed us to hunger and disease. They don’t care about us.”
Weeks later, there are still about 400 people from Kariobangi without shelter and reliant on food donations to survive, according to Willis Juma Olal, the chairperson of the Kariobangi Self-Help group, one of the community collectives that help manage Kariobangi.
‘Money is power’
Peter Kyalo, 42, woke up on the morning of 4 May to the sound of bulldozers crushing the homes around him. “I tried to retrieve my things from the house, but I didn’t have time,” he said. “They destroyed everything. In just a few minutes, everything I owned was gone.”
Kyalo, who is now taking refuge at a friend’s house along with his wife and three young children, is disabled and not able to work. A group of youths attacked him and cut off his left arm during the post-election violence that shook Kenya in 2007.
“All of us from Kariobangi are still crying,” Kyalo said. “We are suffering and we have no hope in our government to do what is right and relocate us. Since 2007, I’ve been waiting for this government to give me justice. So I don’t have any hope they will give me justice now.”
Forced evictions and demolitions in slums or shack settlements in Kenya are common, and are often carried out without notice and in a brutal manner. This is despite the fact that evictions without adequate consultation and the provision of alternative housing or compensation is considered illegal in Kenya.
According to George Kegoro, the executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, the privatisation of public land, including through “corrupt processes”, has contributed to the evictions and demolitions in shack settlements.
In the case of the Kariobangi sewage estate, which comprises about 12 acres of land, the community’s origins go back to the 1960s, according to Kegoro. The first to settle there were low-level employees of the City County, called the city council at the time. They were allowed to farm the parcel of land, which was vacant at the time, to supplement their income.
Residents have been paying the City County land rates since 1996. They received individual land allotment letters, which New Frame has seen, from the city government in 2008. “They were not on the land as trespassers,” Kegoro said. “They were on that land on the basis of a formal document issued to them by public authorities.”
Residents were given a verbal notice of the demolition on Saturday 2 May. But rights groups were able to secure a court injunction halting the demolition the next day.
Olal said bulldozers were already on the scene in Kariobangi on Sunday evening, but “we told everyone to relax and stay put. Even though we saw the bulldozers, we weren’t worried because we had a court order and we assumed they would respect the order.”
But the following day, residents awoke to the sound of at least seven bulldozers demolishing their homes and belongings. They were accompanied by hundreds of police officers.
According to Amnesty International, the NCWSC carried out the forced evictions in a bid to reclaim the land, accompanied by the deputy county commissioner, the area chief and the administrative police.
“There was no formal notification, so it is not clear up until now which authority ordered their eviction and what right that authority had to evict them despite holding land titles and a court order,” Kegoro said.
Olal suspects that the demolitions were carried out as a result of corrupt deals made behind the scenes between the NCWSC and various local government officials. “I think it’s obvious that NCWSC paid off the officials. They didn’t want to compensate us or deal with the process of relocation. They just wanted us out of the picture as quickly as possible,” Olal said.
“Here in Kenya, money is power. Money speaks louder than all the people combined, and that’s why our homes were destroyed,” he added.
Kegoro noted that the Kenya Human Rights Commission is discussing the possibility of seeking “legal redress” for the forced evictions and demolitions in Kariobangi.
Neither the NCWSC nor various officials in local government and the police who are said to have been involved in the demolitions responded to requests for comment on the matter.
‘Kenyan government does much worse’
Residents of the Kariobangi Sewage estate were left homeless during one of the worst rainy seasons Kenya has experienced in decades. It has caused flooding, which has killed nearly 200 people since April, and comes in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coronavirus cases in Kenya have continued to rise steadily. More than 3 800 people had contracted the virus and just over 100 had died from it at the time of publication. The country has been under a partial lockdown since April, with a nationwide dusk-to-dawn curfew. There is a ban on movement in and out of the Nairobi Metropolitan Area, as well as other cities.
The pandemic has caused scores of Kenyans to lose their livelihoods, particularly those dependent on the informal economy. Mwangi lost her job selling second-hand clothing at a market that was shuttered as part of Kenya’s Covid-19 restrictions.
An individual has provided Mwangi and her four children with shelter since her home was demolished, but only until the lockdown is lifted. “They are providing me a place to sleep, but I still have to go out all day and look for food,” she said.
For Mwangi, who is now dependent on finding sporadic work cleaning homes and washing clothes, the coronavirus is the least of her concerns. “How can we be scared of corona? I am more scared for my children. All of us are in so much pain. It was inhumane, what they did to us. How can we be scared of coronavirus when the Kenyan government does much worse than that disease ever could?”
According to Ruth Mumbi, the coordinator of the Grassroots Women Initiative Network, the majority of the people evicted from the shack settlement were young, single mothers and pregnant women who have no support system in Nairobi. The families and individuals, who Mumbi is continuing to help find shelter, were left vulnerable to rape and police violence.
According to Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority, police officers have killed at least 15 and injured 31 people since Kenya increased security measures amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“These are very tough times for people,” Mumbi said. “People are struggling to make ends meet and find food. It’s very sad that we have a government and police force that decide to displace and endanger the lives of thousands of people instead of providing security and protection for its citizens during a pandemic.”
The water ministry said the evictions were carried out to make way for the Kariobangi Sewage Treatment Plant, which forms part of the City’s urban development plans. In Nairobi’s Ruai area, hundreds of people had their homes demolished to make way for the expansion of the Dandora Sewage Plant.
For those displaced in Kariobangi, it was not only material belongings and housing structures that were destroyed in the demolitions. “In Kariobangi, each and every person was close to one another and helped each other. We were like a big family,” Mwangi said. “It was our home. Even if I searched for the rest of my life, I would not be able to find a community like that again.”
Mumbi, who was close with the residents, explained that those living in Kariobangi had “created a community and provided each other with social protections”. But the demolitions “broke everything, from the attachment to the social support they had built among themselves”, she said.
“Since Covid-19 arrived, many people have lost their livelihoods. Then on top of that, you lose your home, your community and your entire social support network,” Mumbi explained. “There is a lot of pain and desperation among the people at the moment.”
Mumbi, who has been outspoken about the demolitions and assisting displaced residents, said she and other activists have received death threats from anonymous numbers. She received a call from a man who identified himself as a police officer at the Kariobangi police station and threatened to make her “disappear” if she did not cease her advocacy on behalf of the evictees.
“These death threats tell us that there are some powerful hands involved in these evictions,” Mumbi said.
Mwangi has received similarly anonymous calls from various numbers. “They tell me to shut my mouth and that this isn’t the right time to talk. One person told me they were going to kill me,” she said. “But I don’t care.
“What makes me strong is that I know I’m doing the right thing by speaking the truth. The government didn’t have the right to do that to us. We had the papers. We had everything showing that it was our right to be there. And they just ignored all of it, even their own courts.
“I don’t even want to be called a Kenyan. I’m ashamed to tell anyone that I am a Kenyan. But you can’t choose where you are born. And unfortunately, I was born under a government that couldn’t even wait until the pandemic is over to destroy our homes and lives.
“I just want my community back,” she said.