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 to meet their program coordinator and learn more about how we could get involved.  The coordinator highlighted their 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.”

Links I liked

Lately I’ve been sending out link-roundups via my monthly Africa Update newsletter.  I thought I’d have a go at cross-posting them here as well.  Here’s what I found interesting in July.

West Africa: Aliko Dangote is building an oil refinery of staggering size in southern Nigeria.  Peugot will start assembling cars in northern Nigeria in 2019.  Here are 23 things to know before you to to Freetown.  Read about the Ghanaian paradox of rapid economic growth with continuing inequality and high unemployment.

Central Africa: A new report shows that conflict minerals legislation in the US didn’t reduce conflict in the DRC, but rather increased infant mortality rates as miners were thrown out of work.  Decentralization in the DRC may be changing the way that ethnic coalitions work in politics.  This was a strong piece of analysis about why the Congolese government has incentives to sign contracts for oil but not to allow companies to actually start drilling.

East Africa:  Read all about East Africa’s heroin coast.  Eritreans has been told that there will be time limits for national service, which currently involves a forcible recruitment process of unlimited duration.  Hostages are more likely to be released from Somali pirates when negotiators pay the pirates’ expenses, but not necessarily the whole ransom.  Peace deals in South Sudan keep failing because the SPLM still thinks it might win a military victory.  The latest edition of the Otherwise podcast addresses extrajudicial killings in poor Nairobi neighborhoods.  30,000 Kenyans are now homeless after the government demolished their houses in Kibera to make room for a new road.

Tweet from Shailja Patel reading "We don't need more roads. We need safe, efficient, zero-emissions, mass transit. We need good, humane, green, high-density public housing. We need universal access to renewable power, clean water, sanitation, free healthcare, free education."
Shailja Patel on the recent forced evictions in Nairobi

Southern Africa: Zimbabwe is re-opening its Literature Bureau to promote works in indigenous languages.  Lisez la légende retrouvée de Yasuke, un originaire de Moçambique qui est devenu le premier samouraï noir du Japon.  Angola has given legal recognition to a gay rights group.

A large suspension bridge with yellow, red and green lights projected on it
Africa’s longest suspension bridge is now open in Mozambique (via James Hall)

Politics and economics: You can now read the 2018 African Economic Outlook report in Kiswahili, Hausa and Arabic.  This was a refreshing take on Chinese investment in Africa, including the observations that many Chinese firms are risk averse and demand multiple types of insurance before they’ll take on new projects.  Don’t miss these engaging summaries of African researchers’ perspectives on peacebuilding, and this alternative economics reading list featuring work by women and people of color.

A map of Africa showing various legal limits on presidents' terms in office
Infographic on term limits via Facts About Africa

Taxes: Rwanda is using satellite data to increase collection of property taxes.  Read this in-depth post about how the Lagos state government launched a “wicked, satanic” attempt to change its land valuation practices in order to increase tax revenue.  Al-Shabaab is surprisingly good at collecting taxes.  This was a gripping read about the politicized dismantling of South Africa’s tax agency.

Women’s rights:  The mother of a Kenyan teenager who died after having a backstreet abortion is suing the government for not making the procedure accessible, as the Constitution requires.  Rwandan men are offering more support and autonomy for their wives after participating in workshops led by other men about the importance of women’s rights.  In the DRC, pharmacists often deny birth control to women who aren’t married.  Nigeria has its first tech accelerator exclusively focused on women’s start-ups.

Impact evaluation:  IDS is running a workshop on engaging evidence and policy for social change in January.  Submit your studies to the new African Education Research Database.  This was a good interview with Evidence Action about the political processes of scaling up pilot projects.  JPAL has published a new set of guidelines for measuring women’s empowerment.

Tweet from Dina Pomeranz reading "Amid lots of heading debates among development economists about many methodological issues, one debate seems glaringly absent: why is our discipline still so dominated by researchers without roots in developing countries, and what are we doing to change that?"
Important questions from Dina Pomeranz

Research:  “The uncomfortable truth is that some Western scholars too readily dismiss the intellectual labor of Global South partners to research assistance and facilitation.”  If you’re an African scientist, you can submit preprints of your work in local languages to the new open-source archive AfricArXiv.  Read this passionate critique of the idea that “there is no data in Africa,” then go check out the freely available data from the Sauti za Wananchi survey in Tanzania.  If you’re looking for survey research support in Kenya, one of my partner’s colleagues just founded Kenya Research Aid Services.  I’ve donated to send Rebeccah Wambui to present her work on reducing road deaths in Kenya at the International Youth Science Fair — please consider supporting her as well!

Arts and literature: This looks like a lovely documentary about the West African poets Syl Cheney-Coker and Niyi Osundare.  Here are five Sudanese books you should read.  Stream the forgotten films of Sudan online.  This piece considers the ethics and logistics of returning stolen Ethiopian artwork to its country of origin.  Don’t miss these African Instagrammers documenting the continent’s hidden hotspots.  Congratulations to Makena Onjerika for winning the 2018 Caine Prize for her short story “Fanta Blackcurrant”!

Stunning photos from Kenyan artist Kabutha Kago, via Alvin Abdullah

Twitter: Interesting people I followed recently include Yvonne Oduor (Kenya), Caroline Njuki (Kenya), Halimatou Hima (Niger), Zaahida Nabagereka (Uganda), Namata Serumaga-Musisi (Ghana), and Akosua Adomako Ampofo(Ghana).

Traffic equilibria in the US and Kenya

A lane of a Nairobi road is taken up by a herd of cattleTraffic on Ngong Rd, Nairobi

As an American in Nairobi, I get asked regularly if it’s difficult to switch to driving on the left side of the road.  It’s actually surprisingly intuitive!  (Aside from the fact that I still regularly hit the windshield wipers when going for the turn signal — they’re on opposite sides of the steering wheel in a right-hand drive car.)  However, it’s taken me more time to transition to a different equilibrium for how drivers interact with one another in traffic.  I’d argue that the US has a rules-oriented equilibrium, whereas Kenya has a attention-oriented equilibrium.

In the US, drivers generally follow the rules of the road, and assume that others will do the same.   This is supported by the presence of other technologies that make driving more predictable, like stoplights at intersections, and sidewalks which keep pedestrians out of the road.  All of this reduces the cognitive load of driving in the US.   The roads are designed to help people drive safely, and you can generally assume that other cars will be where you expect them to be on the road.  Conversely, this also means that it’s easy to be a distracted driver, and it’s more difficult to react quickly when something unexpected does occur.

In Nairobi, drivers are less likely to follow the rules of the road — but they do seem to pay closer attention to the movement of traffic around them, and assume that others will do so as well.  It’s a useful response in a city whose roads are full of pedestrians and the occasional herd of cattle, where traffic rules are sporadically enforced, and where many major intersections only recently got stoplights.  The best way to safely navigate all of this is to constantly assess what other people on the road are doing, and plan one’s own reactions accordingly.  This skill is particularly likely to be put to use at matatu stages, where it’s common to have an enormous bus pull out in front of you at speed with no signal, in the apparent belief that you’ll definitely notice where they’re going in time to give way to them.  Given the risk in traffic moves like these, I’ve really expected to see many more accidents than I have done during my commute, and it seems to me that an increased level of attention is substituting to some degree for other traffic safety procedures.

To be clear, attention to traffic flows isn’t at all a sufficient substitute for traffic enforcement and improved urban planning.  Kenya has one of the highest rates of traffic deaths in the world, and pedestrians are especially at risk, since many people in cities like Nairobi still get around on foot, and there’s very little pedestrian infrastructure in most neighborhoods.  The government often prioritizes the construction of new roads over meeting other needs of urban citizens.  The attention orientation is not an optimal solution, but a second-best response to a number of other policy failures.

Come work for Mawazo!

Interior of an office space, with white brick walls and a checkered floor.  There are large yellow lamps hanging from the ceiling, and a sign saying "Ikigai" on one wallThe view from our office at Ikigai Nairobi

Exciting news: we’re hiring a Programme Associate at the Mawazo Institute!  The PA will support the Programme Manager and executive team in implementing the PhD Scholars programme and helping Mawazo to grow over the coming year.

Learn more and apply online through the Duma Works portal.  And please circulate this opportunity widely!

Introducing the 2018 Mawazo PhD Scholars!


I’m thrilled to announce the Mawazo Institute’s inaugural cohort of PhD Scholars!   We received 170 applications for the 10 spots in this programme, demonstrating the high levels of demand for research funding and training amongst Kenyan PhD students.  After a difficult selection process, we chose ten exceptionally talented women.  Go read about their backgrounds at the Mawazo blog!