Mora McLagan and photographer Sam Tarling recently travelled to the Mukuru slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Here, in the first of a series of blog posts from Mukuru, she reports on the urban inequality she found there. 

Like most of Oxfam’s supporters, two months ago you could have said the words ‘international development’ or ‘aid’ to me and I would have pictured rural, not urban communities. But while the bulk of Oxfam’s work overseas is still focused on poverty in rural areas, a slow shift is now taking place, some might argue too slowly.

The face of global poverty is changing rapidly.  Poverty is now growing faster in urban rather than rural areas.  UN Habitat estimates that by 2030 about 3 billion people, or about 40 per cent of the world’s population will need proper housing and access to basic infrastructure like water and sanitation systems. To achieve this, we’d need to build 96,150 new housing units per day on serviced and documented land starting right now. 

But as an aid agency, what do we do in the meantime? With this question in mind, last month I was in Nairobi, Kenya to visit Mukuru slum and learn about one way Oxfam is responding, through a brilliant new sanitation project in schools with local partner Sanergy.

in Nairobi… the slum population now makes up over 50% of the urban population…

The majority of the urban poor in Kenya live in slums, or ‘informal settlements’. Estimates suggest that in Nairobi, the fifth richest African city and home to around 5,000 millionaires, the slum population now makes up over 50% of the urban population or between roughly 3-5 million people.

Slums in Nairobi are well-known, named and measured. They can be seen from a plane, circumnavigated on foot and even appear on a Google Earth map.  Yet they slip off the radar as far as the government is concerned.  

In fact, Nairobi’s slums form a near perfect case study of what can happen when there is an almost complete lack of basic services and investment.

Deadly water and electricity – run by profiteering cartels

With a lack of formal water supply, water cartels instead control unreliable and often polluted water pipelines.  To drink and to cook, locals are forced to purchase jerrycans of water at 5 Kenyan Shillings a pop. 

The average household uses several of these in one day, meaning that overall, Nairobi’s slum residents, those who can least afford it, are paying a huge markup on their water, far more than the richer residents of downtown Nairobi who have the luxury of a water company to depend on.  

Susan Nyambura, 9, and Yvonne Libuku, 8, clean mud from their shoes on their way home from school in Mukuru in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

As Oxfam Kenya’s WASH/Humanitarian Coordinator Brian McSorley tells me, “The recommended retail price (before you consider any further mark up that vendors add) is already 10 times what I pay for my water pipes into my house in Nairobi.”

Those in Mukuru who cannot afford jerrycans are forced to drink the piped water, teeming with bacteria and in worst cases, diseases like typhoid and cholera.  In Mukuru, a glass of water can kill.

With no formal electricity providers, again, cartels step up to deliver. They tap electricity illegally from the factory buildings that rubs shoulders with the slum periphery. Mukuru is criss-crossed with these lethal wires. They run between the one-bedroom shacks that are homes for an average of 5-6 people per household and the fire risk is horrific. Each month, at least two or three fires break out, and last year an especially vicious fire raged through one densely populated area of Mukuru.

Local grandmother Amina Choare told me what happened: “Over 100 people were killed, burned beyond recognition. Probably up to 1000 people had burns and many households lost everyone. It frightens me to live here knowing the risks that are around us, but it’s because I do not have any means to live elsewhere.  I cannot afford other places.”  

She adds that, “I do not know if the government can help us in any way, because I hear the government tells us that we live in an illegal area.”

“I do not know if the government can help us in any way… the government tells us that we live in an illegal area.” 
Amina Choare

I travelled to Mukuru with photojournalist Sam Tarling and Oxfam filmmaker Fred Perraut who have both covered humanitarian emergencies for Oxfam and visited refugee camps in various countries. 

I was amazed by how they responded to Mukuru. Both believed that conditions in the Nairobi slums were far worse than in the emergency camps they’d seen around the world. 

People fleeing drought, civil war or flooding generally receive at least an ’emergency response’ to their plight from the international community and national governments.  Toilets are built, crude sanitation is arranged, clean water is prioritised… even temporary schools are established. More to the point, in many cases the governments hosting the displaced peoples at least acknowledge their existence.  

Slums pose an entirely different problem. As Oxfam Kenya Country Director Nigel Tricks explains, “Urban poverty at this level is an on-going crisis, so many in chronic poverty need an urgent response.” 

So how do you tackle a rolling emergency that just keeps on expanding?

Oxfam uses livelihoods programme work to generate income and sanitation projects like Sanergy‘s to protect residents. But perhaps even more critically, we’re also growing empowerment projects to raise the voices of residents and get them heard by those in power. 

Lobbying the government for slum upgrading in Mukuru and the provision of basic services is essential, but any development work must be done in a transparent way that genuinely works with local people, their needs and their views. Oxfam is now focused on making that a reality.

But even this is a balancing act. As Nigel explains, “If the government invests too much, the value of the land will be bumped up.  If you put in nice roads, sewers and water pipelines then either one of two things could happen; the owners of the land may build middle class housing on their sites which is unaffordable to the existing slum residents, or, if they have more legitimate desires to develop the land for its original industrial use, they may evict the residents.  As this could happen at any time and is quite likely within the next five years, the government
and donors are not willing to risk the heavy investment in water, sewage and electricity infrastructure”. 

This is because once an area becomes improved, formalised and seen as ‘residential’ a factory owner will no longer be able to build on it.  So they are forced to oust the residents. And as Nigel points out, for those remaining landlords, “Once the value of the land rises, they may simply rent it out to richer people, so the area becomes gentrified.”

It’s a dilemma familiar to anyone living in a UK city – especially London where I am from – where inequality is increasingly expressed in the ‘zoning’ of areas of opportunity, good housing and jobs.  And it’s this challenge that will be at the heart of even the very best efforts to improve the lives of slum dwellers in Africa.  

Until it’s resolved, ‘life on the edge’ will continue for Mukuru’s 600,000 residents.

Photo details

  • Top image: Wycliffe Okath, 12, plays in a muddy alley way that also serves as an open sewer in the Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, March 26 2014. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
  • Central image: Susan Nyambura, 9, and Yvonne Libuku, 8, clean mud from their shoes on their way home from school in Mukuru in Nairobi, Kenya. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

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