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KENYA: Nairobi People’s Settlement Network Interview

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
An overview of Kibera slums in Nairobi, Kenya, 30 January 2007.
NAIROBI, 30 August 2007 (IRIN In-Depth) - (September 2007) Formed in 2005 to act as an umbrella organisation for slum-based community groups around Nairobi, Kenya, the Nairobi People’s Settlement Network (NPSN) is at its core a human rights organisation concerned with disseminating information—from government housing policies to international human rights treaties—in order to “give people the tools of knowledge to agitate for their rights” throughout Nairobi, Kenya’s eight municipal districts. Representatives from each of the districts meet twice a month to share best practices on slum upgrading issues and to plan cohesive campaigns regarding everything from water and sewerage, to land tenure, to protection against eviction. IRIN sat down with NPSN’s chairman, Humphrey Otieno, and secretary, Samuel Njoroge, both of whom were born, and currently live in, one of Nairobi’s estimated 130 informal settlements.

QUESTION: Why was NPSN formed, and what are its main objectives?

Humphrey Otieno: If you look at most of the objectives and the constitutions of the individual federations and CBOs [community based organisations]within the informal settlements of Nairobi, there is a lot of talk about having a networking component. But in reality none of these groups was really networking. And so we came to realise that we were sharing common problems: the problems of housing, the problems of land, the problems of basic services, the problems of forced evictions. We saw the fact that we were not networking as a major challenge. So we started visiting other slums around the Nairobi area and began to seriously ask ourselves, “Why don’t we come up with a network so that we can be doing things as a team?” Because if we do things as a team—as a Nairobi face—then the government will listen to us. So we chose three representatives from each of Nairobi’s eight constituencies and tasked them with identifying and mobilising community groups within their constituencies.

Right now NPSN is mapping CBOs throughout the informal settlements. Our thinking is that if you live in a certain geographical area, then you should be a member of a CBO. In this way we can give information to CBOs and they can give it to the people. That said, our overall aim is information dissemination, and we want this information to reach individuals at all levels, whether or not they are part of a CBO.

Q: To address inequality and conditions that exist in informal settlements, you need the involvement of actors from across all levels—international NGOs, local governments, donors, etc. Who do you find it most challenging to work with?

Samuel Njoroge: Our biggest challenge right now is working with the government. The problem is that whenever we as a group take initiative—leading land tenure workshops or sensitising the society on human rights issues—the government by default sees you as a threat.

HO: In fact they say that you are “inciting the community”. Another big challenge is that since Kenyan independence [from Great Britian in 1963] we have not had a clear and level playing field where the community and the government can engage. The people see the government as the “other side” and vice versa. There is a dialogue gap between the people and the government. So we as a network are trying to bridge this gap, because we need to work together. The government needs to come to us so we can articulate to them the issues affecting the community. At present they don’t come to us, or, when they do, it is to arrest us.

Q: Have you been arrested?

HO: I’ve been arrested twice for giving information on eviction policies.

SN: I’ve been arrested for holding a meeting.

Q: You were both arrested at meetings?

SN: When we organise a capacity-building session or hold a rally and the police arrive, the first thing they ask is “Who organised this?” And you know the community will point to you.

HO: And as a leader you have to be responsible.

SN: You can’t allow the people to be arrested, so you give yourself to the government.

Q: How do you think you are going to get the government to become more sympathetic to your organisation? Are there any government people who work with you?

HO: Just the other day we were at the Statehouse pushing for eviction guidelines [formal policies of the procedure for evicting slum dwellers and squatters]. We are currently doing a one million signature campaign to petition the government to adopt these guidelines. Because of things like this you can see an improvement in relations, because now they are calling us to their meetings on land housing policies. We have also seen that the rampant evictions that were taking place have stopped all of a sudden. The government has also realised that NPSN exists, and that in itself is an achievement.

Q:What is your major hurdle regarding land tenure?

HO: Almost everyone everywhere talks about land tenure. If they are not talking about land they are talking about a house -- and you know you cannot build a house on the air, you have to put it on a land. So even if you talk about housing it still brings you back to land. Getting land tenure for informal settlement residents is a big problem. The main reason is that no proper government land policy exists. It is still being prepared and still waiting to go through parliament.

SN: This year is especially tricky because of the upcoming [presidential] elections [in December]. In an election year, we see the government trading land for votes, yet they won’t give you the certificate to certify that the land is yours.

Q: In terms of immediate needs for people living in slums, what is the biggest priority: larger houses, better sanitation?

HO: You know in the people’s settlements the normal houses are 10x10. You have your bed, your kitchen, your sleeping area, your children all in the same room. And when you want to enjoy your marital rights it becomes a problem because you have to chase the children out to play so you can have your time alone. At the very least you need a have a house with a sitting room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a sanitation facility. According to the land we have, it would be impossible to build outward. But if you build upward, there will be enough space. So if I have 10x10 going upwards I can build. It will enable my children, me and my wife to have enough space for simple human dignity.

Q: Yet when schemes like this are undertaken to build better housing, case studies from around the world have shown that it is the middle income class who move into these houses and the very poor are often left out. Why does this happen? How are you addressing this problem?

HO: For housing schemes to work there needs to be affordability, availability and accessibility. First of all, when building housing blocks you end up evicting someone and relocating them, often far away, while the building takes place. We are trying to organise a process whereby we bring down one shack or one small block of shacks at a time, and then put up a house in its place, and then repeat the process.

Q: So instead of building a whole giant block at once…

HO: We build one at time, slowly by slowly. In terms of relocation, we don’t think you need to be relocated if you are having a home built. If you agree with your neighbours that while your house is being built you live with them for a few months then you can remain in the area, you can participate in the construction of your house, and it will make you more aggressive to get it done.

You don’t go out and bring people in to construct the houses, you use the same people to procure materials and construct the houses. Now you will be helping the people who cannot pay fully for the houses to contribute, and through their labour they will be able to do their part.

The problem occurs when people are not given a chance to identify how they are going to go about helping themselves—and to then plan how they are going to go about doing it, to implement, to monitor and to evaluate. The upgrading is not a problem, the process is the problem. If you come into a slum and clear an area and tell people to move without telling them how they can move back into the houses, you are creating a problem. The process creates fear in the people.

SN: Another problem is that the government comes and constructs bungalows with six to seven rooms that people in the slums cannot afford. When you are paying 500 Kenyan shillings [US$7.50] for rent per month and the government builds a bungalow and wants to charge 10,000 shillings per month, how do you expect these people to live in these houses?

HO: What we need from the government is just for them to come and sit with us and have a conversation. Why are you relocating us? Is it for the community or for the government? People will not refuse to move if you sell the idea to them. This all comes back to appropriate and accurate information.

Q: What are your federation’s greatest strengths and weaknesses?

HO: Our greatest strength, of course, is the people. We have the masses. Another strength is information. We now have information, and through the people we are sharing this information.

SN: One growing strength is the way people are prioritising issues and beginning to create joint efforts: We are taking problems at the community level and pushing them to the national level.

HO: Our greatest weakness is funding. We need to reach as many people as possible. We want to reach the people in urban centres throughout Kenya so we can speak in one language, because when their rights are being violated we also feel the pinch. In Nairobi it is easy to coordinate. When there is an eviction somewhere you put the word out and in five minutes you have a crowd of people at the scene. But reaching someone in Isiolo is a problem.

Q: Who do you get funding from at the moment?

HO: Mainly from Dignity International, [Finnish Human Rights NGO] KIOS, and the Center for Housing Rights and Eviction.

No UN?

HO: No UN.

Q: Why not?

HO: We are aiming for UN.

Q: Which agencies?

HO: UN-HABITAT and UNDP [UN Development Programme]. But we are welcoming anyone within the UN. But what we are trying to do is give the power back to the people, so they can take initiative to solve their problems and not wait for people like the UN to come and say, “You know people are dying here, because this-or-that data.” We don’t want to hear about the data, we want to help the people.

We know that very nice words are being put on paper, but when you go to the ground nothing is happening. We know that the UN has been giving the government so much money. But what is this money doing? We have not seen the results. We only see people coming with posh cars. We only see people sitting in big hotels.

Q: How many times has someone from the UN—from any department—come to one of the NPSN’s meetings?

HO: Never.

Q: I am the first person from the UN who has ever talked to you directly?

HO: Yes. And the most frustrating thing is that some of the projects we do and initiatives we’ve launched end up in UN documents, and I wonder how they’ve got there. These are things we have done ourselves—they have not supported us—but we end up seeing our work in their reports.

Q: That is how I tracked you down—through a UN report.

HO: But they only give us a paragraph. We want our issues to be given in detail. Of course we don’t object that we appear in a UN document, but we want to be the one to give the information.

SN: And we normally invite them to attend our meetings, and the human rights days that we have organised. With no reply.

HO: How can you keep giving the government more money? They already have the resources—it’s like adding a drop of water into the ocean. Why don’t they just give the community groups and the federations a chance? If they gave us a period of one or two years, they would see a great result. We will only build trust. We don’t even want them to give us funds at first. Why don’t they at least attend our activities so they can hear what the communities are saying and then make their decisions whether to fund or not? We want to see action. We want to see tangible things. Why should the government be asking for donor funding if they are not doing anything?

SN: And why should the donors be working through the government?

Theme(s): (IRIN) Urban Risk


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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