Kenyan women sue for ownership of Nairobi slum
Mark Anderson in Nairobi
theguardian.com, Wednesday 2 October 2013 13.37 BST
Fear of sexual violence in communal sanitation facilities prompts group to launch legal claim against private landlords
Strolling through the dirty red lanes of Mukuru, a sprawling informal settlement in Nairobi's industrialised south east, Dorice Bosibori Moseti, 31, stops and points to a small cluster of toilets, which she says she won't use after dark for fear of rape or violence.
"We have to go in the bushes near our homes and we are still very afraid," she says. "Living in Mukuru is difficult for women."
Moseti, who has lived in Mukuru for 12 years, is part of a small group of female residents who are planning legal action on behalf of the slum's estimated 400,000 inhabitants in an attempt to take ownership of the land upon which they reside. "We have money; we want to upgrade," Moseti says. "We are Kenyans and we have the right to have our land."
Building on squatter's rights litigation filed last September by Kenyan NGO Muungano wa Wanavijiji, the women are launching their own legal proceedings against Mukuru's landowners – private companies and individuals.
They say private ownership of the land has precluded the building of adequate sanitation facilities, forcing female slum dwellers to walk long distances to use toilets, risking sexual violence. Moseti hopes the lawsuit will lend support to Muungano's initial proceedings by illustrating the human consequences of private ownership of slum land. Both cases are expected to begin by December.
This legal action comes as Kenya's wealth gap is spiralling out of control. Nairobi was recently ranked Africa's fifth-largest hub of the super-rich, with 5,000 millionaires, while 60% of the city is estimated to live in more than 100 informal settlements.
Moseti works part-time cooking, cleaning and washing laundry to pay her 1,000-shilling monthly rent (£7) and 300-shilling electricity bill (£2.10). She rarely ventures out of her home – a one-bedroom shack in a small compound she shares with 10 others – preferring to invite her friends over to watch Nollywood movies. Moseti says her son had stopped attending primary school and began scouring Mukuru for plastic waste to sell on the illegal market. So she sent him and her daughter to live with their great-grandmother in the countryside.
Moseti says she has about 8,000 signatures from female slum residents. They all agree to testify in front of the national lands commission about the hardships of life without adequate sanitation in Mukuru.
"We've had cases where an individual or five people have come together and said: 'We want to sue these people for a specific portion of land.' But in this case it's the whole settlement, which is 450 acres, so it will be a first in history," says Edith Kalela, advocacy officer at Akiba Mashinani Trust, a Kenyan NGO that supports slum upgrading.
Kenyan governments have repeatedly come under fire for failing to improve slum dwellers' access to sanitation, and lessen sexual violence in slums, despite promising to do more.
The formation of Kenya's land commission and the passing of the country's new constitution in 2010 are seen as progressive steps towards wide-ranging reforms that supporters say will reshape how the government views Kenya's poorest citizens.
Many in domestic civil society groups are optimistic that Mukuru residents will wage a successful campaign to reclaim their land, mostly because of the perceived power of new legislation.
"The new constitution and national land policy [forbid] eviction of any people from current abode without being given an alternative abode," says Peter Ngau, director of the centre for urban research and innovations at the University of Nairobi.
Despite new legislation, Kenya's slum dwellers continue to be forced out of their homes, and Mukuru's residents worry that they could be made to move at any moment.
Historically, many land titles in Kenya have been acquired through corrupt means; it will take a sizeable shift in political will to undo the profiteering of the past.
"The culprits are people highly connected to the system, which means we expect some level of resistance," says Otsieno Namwaya, Kenya researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Mukuru people have based their case on corruption and they have documents to show ownership changed hands over the years," Namwaya says.
Sitting on her bed in her home, Moseti says she is optimistic about the lawsuit, despite knowing that the companies she is challenging are politically connected, which in Kenya has for a long time meant immunity from government persecution.
"What we want is not what the government or the companies want," she says. "So all this must be brought together and we must come up with one agreement. It will take some time."