The politics of urban poverty in Mathare

A panoramic photo showing the rusted tin roofs of the single-story buildings in Mathare
The view from the MSJC building

My partner and I have recently been learning more about the excellent work done by the Mathare Centre for Social Justice.  They’re a small organization which documents human rights abuses in the neighborhood, and organizes for environmental protection and better services for people with disabilities.  They’re also part of a broader network of social justice centers in poor neighborhoods across the city, including Dandora and Kibera, which run coordinated advocacy efforts to get the city to stop extrajudicial killings.  (To learn more about MSJC’s work, check out this excellent piece by Nanjala Nyabola from earlier this year.)

A few weeks ago we stopped by the MSJC office at the invitation of Wangui Kimari, their research coordinator, to learn more about how we could get involved.  There, we met JJ Chindi, their program coordinator, who’s been doing community organizing work in Mathare for some time.  JJ highlighted the center’s documentation work, culminating in this thoroughly-researched report on extrajudicial killings.  He then gave us a quick tour of the neighborhood, including a number of sites which had been recent locations of police violence.

What stood out to me the most was the sense of intentional, politicized insecurity which underpins many of the challenges of daily life in the neighborhood.  The underlying problem seems to be that the owners of the land don’t have legal title to it, and thus the tenants who rent from the landowners also don’t have legal title to their houses.  This has all sorts of knock-on implications which result in lower quality services at higher prices, with much of the price differential representing the cost of payments to the police to look the other way.  State agents thus benefit from this insecurity and have little incentive to change it.

Take water and electricity provision.  Because of the lack of titling, the city government won’t allow any formal electrical or water connections in the area.  Most houses still have water and electricity which is tapped illegally from a nearby air force base, but this means that these services are frequently interrupted, and often dangerous.  (A young girl died recently after she touched a live wire that someone left on the ground when they were making a new connection.)  There’s a cost to set up and maintain the connections, and then an additional cost in the form of payments to the police who regularly threaten to cut the connections.

This is also visible in the built environment.  There are few permanent structures with concrete walls.  Most buildings are single-story houses with tin walls and roofs.  It speaks to the danger of investing in a permanent structure if the government might come through to demolish it at any time — as well as the added expense of building a permanent structure and then having to regularly make payoffs to the police to keep it safe.  The permanent structures that do exist are mostly apartment buildings of eight stories of more.  According to the MSJC coordinator, getting access to land in a densely populated area is a real impediment to construction.  Some of the large apartment buildings were constructed on sites where fires had mysteriously destroyed the previous occupants’ homes, leaving the land “unoccupied.”

The same pattern of what might be called licit illegality is apparent in the management of the main industry in the neighborhood: distilling chang’aa liquor from sugarcane.  It’s legal to produce chang’aa as long as it’s done in a regulated factory and sold in glass bottles with appropriate health warnings, little of which appears to be the case for the Mathare producers.  The industry is right out in the open, with men chopping sugarcane and carting firewood to the riverside distilleries just off the main road.  The police are well aware of this, and come through occasionally to collect payments for protection or destroy the equipment of those who don’t pay.  Of course, people return to distilling after each raid because they need to make a living, and because there’s significant local demand for the drink.

All of this highlights that poverty is political and not just economic.  People in Mathare often lack access to stable and well-paying jobs, but they also have to pay more for basic services since the state has chosen not to provide them, and face regular extortion from police for trying to meet their needs.  There’s no shortage of NGOs trying to make up for some of these shortfalls, but this clearly isn’t a good substitute for actual public service provision by the government.  As Nanjala writes in a recent piece about another poor neighborhood in Nairobi, “Kibera is also synonymous with well-meaning but often poorly researched interventions. The settlement has become a testing ground for everything from innovations in sanitation … to political initiatives … to yoga…  These interventions make life for locals more bearable – a worthy pursuit in itself – but do little to challenge the political interests that keep the slum going.”

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