Jane Weru

I'm Jane Mumbi Weru. I'm an advocate by training and that's how actually I came to join Muungano.

How did you first get involved with Muungano?

I used to head Kituo Cha Sheria in the 1990s. From around 1995 until around the year 2000 I headed Kituo Cha Sheria. And when I was heading Kituo Cha Sheria we had very many communities coming for legal aid. And many of them were faced with the threat of eviction. They came to us seeking for legal advice to prevent them from being evicted. So that is how I got involved in the challenges of evictions, within the city of Nairobi mainly. 

Before I joined Muungano I was just like any other lawyer. You know lawyers are trained to serve everybody else but slum dwellers in society. We are trained to serve the big companies and the people with money. So even when I went to school, I never thought that I would work for slum dwellers, because that's not what I was trained for. So for me I think it has been an interesting and exciting journey, just trying to figure out how do I use my law to serve society in a more meaningful manner. So that's is probably one of the differences before I joined Muungano and when I joined Muungano. 

What were things like back then, when Muungano emerged?

In the 1990s, I think Kenya was undergoing quite a number of political challenges. I think the story of Muungano is probably the story of Kenyans’ struggle for independence – true independence. Because we had just moved from being a single party state, Kenya in the early 1990s, I think it was the year 1991, but still the country was run like a one party state. KANU was still the supreme party and it had structures right down to the ground. On the ground, we had a very oppressive government, especially on the ground in informal settlements – we had chiefs, wazees wavijiji [village elders], and the KANU youth wingers. Communities on the ground could not do anything without the chief's interference: if you wanted to repair your house, you had to go and see the chief and you'd have to bribe the chief to repair your house. So if you were very poor and you were not able to pay the chief so that you can repair your house, your house would eventually fall because you are not able to repair it – and then when it fell, you'd have to abandon your house and that land would be taken again by the chief and the KANU youth wingers and they would sell it to other people. And then again there were other oppressions on the community level: I remember in Korogocho, the youth wingers were the people who used to listen to problems between families, disputes. If a husband and a wife had a dispute, they would go before the KANU youth winger, and the KANU youth winger would hear the dispute and if they thought the wife had run away and shouldn't have run away they would even tell her to come back, and they would even whip her for having left her family. People were oppressed in so many ways. If you were selling things on the road you had to pay; every evening the KANU youth wingers would come and you had to pay a small bribe. So life on the ground was very difficult, very oppressive. 

And on top of that, there was even the challenge of evictions. What happened around the 1990s was that [then-President] Moi, in order to be able to control his politics, started giving land to politicians. If you were a politician and he wanted to buy you he would tell you, ‘why don't you come and I'll give you some land’. So obviously the politician would say ‘I want land in Nairobi’ – because Nairobi is where land is nice and prime – so they would come, and they would be told to go to the lands office; so they would go, the maps would be removed and then they would look for the empty land; they would see empty land in Mathare, Kibera, all this empty land; and then they would be given titles over that land. But when they went on the ground they would find that the land is occupied by people. So, because at that time the government was very oppressive, they would just go get policemen and the policemen would come and carry out evictions. So that was what was happening in the early 1990s–1995. We had a very oppressive government on the grassroots and then we also had evictions happening. 

So what we were doing then is actually going to court to prevent these evictions from happening. I think from the very beginning we realised that going to court wasn't going to be of much help, because the law was against the people – the people who had these titles were very strong, so they had a lot of influence, and the law itself said that if you have a title your title cannot be challenged unless it can be proven that the person had committed fraud, so that was very difficult to prove. So we knew that even if we went to court, we wouldn't get very far with these cases, so what we realised we had to do from the beginning was to mobilize the people on the ground so that they can be able to start fighting this battle. Because we realised it was more a political than a legal battle. So that is how we started working to bring the people who were affected by these evictions together. 

One of the first evictions that we were faced with was the eviction of Kingstone village – it was about the first eviction, Kingstone village in Mukuru – and the people of Kingstone really really struggled. They refused completely to move, despite the fact that the police came with guns many times. They even removed them with guns: they would be removed, then they would come back; they would be removed, they would come back; eventually they just got tired and let the people of Kingstone stay.

So from Kingstone we started having more and more people, and Muungano now started forming. We started linking these people together and then slowly a movement began to happen. And one of the things that this movement really began to push for was the right to remain on the lands that they were in – the lands that the informal settlements were in. Basically, they said that they will refuse to be refugees in their own country – because if you're a squatter, you're like a refugee, you're not allowed to stay anywhere in your own country, you're always being told to go. So Muungano actually came and said ‘We don't want to be refugees in our own country; we want to be citizens of this country’, and they also said that they were not going to agree to give up an inch of their land – so they will resist. And that is what they did, and that is how the Muungano movement came to be.

The challenge was that obviously we had a very oppressive state, so sometimes they could be very brutal. Even when those evictions came, they would come with policemen, with guns, and they would really push people out. So it needed the people who were in those settlements to be very brave, very courageous, and to be determined to remain. So those were major challenges. I think more challenges for the people – Muungano people who were in those settlements – because they were required to be very brave and to refuse to give up in the face of a lot of oppression.

Some of the biggest actors I think when we first started, was ANCAN – the organizers – because I think they were the ones who came up with the idea that, beyond the legal strategy, we need to begin to organize. At that time ANCAN seconded someone to us, to the legal team, [Laurence] Apiyo. to begin organize the communities; so as Kituo did the legal work, Apiyo, who had been seconded to us by ANCAN, was doing the community mobilization and helping to build the movement. So those were some of the early actors. I think slowly we began to bring in others: we had, for instance, the human rights organizations – we had the Kenya Human Rights Commission, at that time Lumumba was very active so he participated a lot in that. The Catholic Church was very active through Father Alex. And we had the Land Caucus – a caucus that was created by Father Alex where civil society organization people would come together to discuss the issues that were affecting slum settlements in the city.

How did things first begin to change?

I think one of the things that Muungano did in the early days was to fight generally. In any place where there was an eviction or a threat of eviction, the Muungano people would wake up and go. And one of the things they would do was to refuse to give quiet enjoyment to the person who had grabbed the land. So they would go, and if there was a wall they would push down the wall. And it didn't matter at that time, in those early days, whether the land was in a slum settlement or not. If they heard there was land that had been grabbed anywhere in the city, they would go and they would push down walls. And this was captured a lot in the media. If you read the media around those years, almost every day you would find people went and pushed down a wall here, they did this here, they resisted here. And so the government began to realise slowly that the legitimacy of the titles they were giving were being questioned by society. Because if you give somebody a title and that person cannot enjoy or cannot develop that land, that title is worth nothing. And that's what the Muungano people would say: ‘if a title has been given wrongly that title is just a piece of paper, we don't recognize it; it's just a paper’. 

So that now began to challenge the state, and the state began to realise that unless it begins to do something about addressing these land issues, things would go out of control. So slowly they started working on the National Land Commission, after multipartyism and the new government came into power. Because those were some of the fundamental issues that were affecting society – not only the urban poor but also other groupings like the pastoralists, this illegal allocations of land. So the National Land Commission was eventually formed to look at all these illegal allocations after the passing of the new constitution. So we had the new Land Policy and then eventually we had the National Land Commission being formed to investigate all these illegally obtained titles. 

A story about land titles and petrol bombs

During the Moi era, the government used to give titles to all its buddies – anybody who was anybody would be given a title so that they can support the government. And this is what happened in Mombasa, in a settlement called Majahoni. Majohoni was situated right next to the sea, a beautiful location, so it was very prime. What the government did at that time was that it allocated titles to anybody who was anybody in the country. All the big names, all the big shots had titles, many of the big shots had titles in Majaohoni. So when we were working with Majahoni – because over the years Kituo had built quite a strong movement in Mombasa – we began to realise that the pressure on this settlement was very strong. And we could not get information on who owned the land, we only had rumours. It's very difficult to fight an eviction if you don't know who owns the land, what you're really fighting, so we agreed with the people that when we go back to Nairobi we would try and see whether we can get the titles for this land. So we came back, and we managed to link up with somebody in the Ministry of Lands, and they gave us all the titles for this particular settlement, and the information we had in our hands was really shocking – it was really hot. 

So what happened after that is that we started being threatened with bombings in our office. The first time, somebody just came and threw a petrol bomb in the reception. And we began to wonder what is this all about? We thought it would go away, so we forgot about it, and then after another week another petrol bomb – someone just came in and threw another petrol bomb. And then another came, and the third one just burnt our whole office, the office just was burnt down. Eventually the fire was put out, but after the fire was put out we didn't have an office, and so we started looking for an office to let and nobody would let us an office. We would move from one place to another asking, could you please let? For a whole year we stayed without an office – we used to operate from the National Council of NGOs; they gave us one room. Major challenge because you know all our staff were highly traumatized, everybody who went through that experience was very traumatized. So we took quite a while for us to pick up again. And people then were afraid to do this work, 'Why are we doing this work?' You know lawyers are very conservative, 'Why do we do this work that just brings us problems, and in any event we go to court we don't even win these cases so why bother?'

So actually, what we did – because we also realised that if we stayed with that information it was putting us at risk – so we worked with the National Council for NGOs and we put out an advert which said ‘this is the reason why were are being targeted’. And we put out some names; and again, now, we started getting calls at night. I remember receiving two or three calls: someone just telling me ‘Girl, be careful’. At that time I was a young girl, they could call me girl...

How have things changed over time?

I think when Muungano started, it started in a very oppressive environment, very oppressive government, and obviously the people who would organize resistance would also be targeted. So in those early years, Muungano kind of would not organize through formal organizations. People would organize, do something, and then disperse; so they wouldn't remain in a formal organization. They would come together to do an act of resistance, or resist something, and then they would disperse, because if they stayed together then they would be more easily targeted. So those were the early years. But then slowly we began to realise that we needed an organization: we needed to have a leadership, some form in order to be able to move on. At that time also, we didn't have any resources: actually when we started we didn't have any donor resource, it was just people moving on their own and doing whatever they could. But then we realised we needed resources in order to organize more effectively, and that's when then we began to mobilize resources and now began to form an organization – little organizations – and the first organizations we formed were through the saving schemes. So we mobilized resources, and started forming saving schemes using the SDI methodology. That was from the year 2000 onwards.

What have been Muungano’s biggest achievements over the years?

I think one of greatest achievements of Muungano is that Muungano managed to retain a lot of the lands that informal settlements occupied, despite the challenge. A lot of those settlements were retained. Some have gotten lost, but others have also been created. And I think one of the biggest achievements of Muungano was just creating an acceptance by the state that informal settlements are here, they are part of our reality, they are a housing solution for the poor, that housing solution is not sufficient, and that the state must begin to intervene. So eviction is not the way to go. So just that acceptance by the state. And now the state beginning to create policies and beginning to mobilize money, actual resources, in order to address the slum issue. I think that is the greatest achievement of Muungano.

What are your hopes for Muungano’s next 20 years?

I think Muungano's challenge is the challenge of continuous mobilization. Muungano has to ensure that it has greater buy-in. It has to build itself into a more influential organization. It has influence on the ground, especially when evictions happen, but I think it needs to build that constituency. It needs to build more. It has to put more work on building it's constituency.

A message for the younger generations of Muungano

In informal settlements, between 40 to 60 per cent of the children are stunted. They don't have enough food, so in terms of min, in terms of body, their potential is just – there. And I looked at it as a mother and I thought, that is really heart-breaking. And I also looked at it as a country, and as a city. With 40 percent of our children in informal settlements, so that's around 25 per cent of the city, with that problem, you ask yourself, where are we going? And even as a mother, if I were a mother I'd ask myself, so what am I giving my child? And so I feel strongly that young people should really fight for your children. You know, when you fight this struggle you're not fighting it – you're fighting it for your children. So your child has a place to live well so that they're not always having diarrhoea. Even if you feed them and you keep your little house clean, you're not able to stay without having diarrhoea because of the environment. And if they are always having diarrhoea, of course they will not grow well. Even if you are able to feed them. And there are people, even people have work. And I'm sure we can do it within this city. So for me, I feel your struggle must continue. You must fight for your children, for the young people. So you can be a fantastic mother who's working hard, putting proper food on your child's table, but still the environment is fighting against you. So your battle is probably different. In the years to come probably evictions will not be such a big issue for you, but then how do you want to bring up your children? What is the minimum you're going to accept?