A year on from launching lawsuits, slum dwellers are taking their demands for toilets and housing to the health ministry
Marching in the shadows of skyscrapers in Kenya’s most prominent financial district, a group of slum dwellers force cars to a standstill as they protest against the slow government response to their legal action for improved sanitation and land rights.
About 100 female residents of Mukuru, an informal settlement in south-east Nairobi, travelled across town to wave signs and sing songs in a bid to grasp the attention of a government that has for decades failed to recognise their existence.
Last year, two separate lawsuits were launched by Mukuru’s community leaders: one claiming ownership of the land the slum is on, and another demanding access to sanitation facilities. Women risk sexual violence when going to the toilet in Mukuru, residents say.
But more than a year after filing the lawsuits, neither case has had a hearing date set, and the slum dwellers worry that they will continue to be marginalised despite a widely praised new constitution in 2010, which enshrined the right of all citizens to sanitation and shelter.
Carrying placards with slogans saying “Say no to flying toilets” and “[health secretary James] Macharia we demand your attention”, the slum dwellers waited outside the health ministry for three hours before speaking to Kepha Ombacho, director of public health.
“It’s about dignity: if you don’t have money to go to the toilet, you won’t go to the toilet. You’ll have to use a plastic bag,” says Dorice Bosibori Moseti, 32. “If I have ownership of my land I can have a toilet in the house, I can apply for personal water, my house will be an adequate house, not the house that I’m living in now. We have to pick water up from outside, which is expensive … It is safer to have a toilet inside the house.”
In March, about 15,000 female residents of Mukuru signed a petition urging the government to conduct a public inquiry into the sanitary conditions of their settlement. But community leaders say their petition was only officially received two weeks ago, and no government action has been taken.
After meeting a group of Mukuru residents, Ombacho signed a letter, seen by the Guardian, that promised to forward the petition to the Nairobi county government.
Edith Kalela, advocacy officer at Akiba Mashinani Trust, a Kenyan NGO that supports slum upgrading, says more attention on the health of slum dwellers is needed.
“Nairobi should pay attention to the sanitation situation in informal settlements because children, women, men work in industries where they interact with every other citizen. I think we should take it as a city-wide problem and not just an informal settlement problem – sanitation relates to everyone,” Kalela says.
But the government has yet to make meaningful commitments to upgrading informal settlements, and a lack of political will is central to the problem, Kalela adds. “[The government] does not even recognise that there are people who live in informal settlements. They do not understand that there are over 300,000 people who live in Mukuru. They do not see the importance of sanitation and the impact it has on the whole city and everyone.”
The constitution promised to devolve government to a more local level. But with the unclear and often overlapping role of central and regional governments, civil society groups are taking the lead on health, sanitation and housing in informal settlements.
“In the absence of government action and provision of basic services, the greatest role has been played by civil society groups and community-based organisations,” says Peter Ngau, director of the centre for urban research and innovations at the University of Nairobi.
Sumananjali Mohanty, Oxfam Kenya acting country director, says: “Kenya has made progress on support to people living in informal settlements in Nairobi in the past decade, but there is significant scope for these efforts to be scaled up. Government efforts include the introduction of a social protection policy, which includes social safety nets such as an urban food subsidy programme and cash transfers.
“In addition, the Small and Micro Enterprises Act (2012) has ensured some support has been given to small business owners, many of whom are living in Nairobi’s informal settlements. There has also been a notable increase in local authorities’ efforts to engage civil society in decision-making.”
Civil society groups are concerned that the government is cracking down on them, with a controversial 15% cap on foreign donations being considered by lawmakers.
Moseti says: “The constitution says we have the right to water, sanitation and adequate housing. But if you go to Mukuru, you can see there is no adequate housing, we don’t have a clean environment, water is very expensive, sanitation is poor. What is the constitution doing for us? Nothing.”