Irene Karanja

Irene Karanja

Support professional

Interview date & place: 6 May 2016, Nairobi

Interviewed by: Jack Makau & Kate Lines

Original language: English

My name is Irene Karanja. I spent 14 years of my life working with the federation. I started working with the federation when I was in second year of campus. Interestingly, it started a journey for me of a commitment to this country, because part of what I've understood about this country has been looking at the country from the point of people that are underserved by the country, and that gives me more motivation and more understanding of what policies need to be and what they need to be aligned to.

How did you first get involved with Muungano?

When I was in the university, I remember going to the chairman of the Department of Sociology and I told him that I wanted to go and volunteer somewhere. At that time, one lady who was a mother of the accountant at Pamoja Trust at that time was working for a children's home. So I told her, I want to volunteer at the children's home. Then she said, ‘oh, okay, that's really good, it would be nice for you to volunteer, but the only problem is that most of the children that we work with are actually street boys and I can guarantee they'll bully you, you'll have a hard time, so why don't I talk to my daughter who works for an organization that works with informal settlements?’ So that conversation happened I think within one afternoon, because then the next morning I was headed to Pamoja Trust.

So when I went to Pamoja Trust, I landed there. And then it was at that time that also some other people were joining Pamoja Trust, there was also Joseph Kimani who was joining Pamoja Trust at that time, so we joined together. Jack gave us the brief almost together. Then we met Jane Weru and then met the all the other colleagues.

Then, on the second day, is when Jack gave us an assignment with a colleague called Solomon and another one. The brief was, there's an eviction happening, the community had just gotten an eviction threat. So I went with my camera, with no skill of community interaction, no skill or anything. I am going to do the assignment that Jack has instructed me to do. Whereas the other colleague I think had some bit of interpersonal skills with communities, I think there's that memo that I didn't get. So me I went straight we got there and I started recording, recording. And then I did it so well, because then I was getting different angles. What I didn't realise, is that I got so engrossed in recording this community that I just kept going, and walking and walking. Then I told myself, let me walk further away from the settlement to get now a bigger picture. Because at that time we didn't have aerial photography or we didn't have GIS images, so I thought, let me draw further from the settlement to get a better angle of how it integrates to the rest of the South C estate and to the airport – I had it all together. I actually didn't realise I was taking myself to death.

So as I'm recording, I'm seeing a group of men coming towards me. But then I'm thinking, okay, when they ask me I'm going to tell them what the plan is. Because I'm becoming so good at this filming thing, I'll just integrate them in this whole video. I started realising everyone is holding something. And so the closer they get, I'm actually realising they're actually holding weapons, pangas and swords or whatever they are. So I'm like, okay, well, the grass is a bit long on this side, maybe they've come to cut the grass. So when they came, they came in the numbers and they surrounded me. Then they asked me who I am: I told them I worked for Pamoja Trust. And they asked me what am I doing: I told them I'm recording the settlement. And they asked me what for: I told them I'm working for this organization and this is what we do, this is what we want to do. But they were so agitated. And I was wondering, why are they agitated? We are here to help. I was from college, so I used to think, we help people, you know – you're professionals, so you'll help people.

Later, I was to learn, to see, and notice that the young men were under the influence of something – either alcohol or whatever they had taken – so the agitation was also getting crazier as I responded or said whatever I was saying.

So then, somebody called me, my phone rang. And I knew that it was going to be rude for me to just pick the call. So what I did is I picked the phone but didn't speak. I picked the phone and just held it on my hand. So the person on the other side of the line, someone could follow the conversations, and I think that's how the office knew there was a problem, because then they could follow the conversations of what was happening. Later, again, I was to learn it was the office that had called, because they had been called by somebody in the settlement to tell them that, we hear you have sent some two people to the settlement and I think they're in trouble so you need to come and get them.

So the old man who had been interviewing me left. He just walked away and I think signalled to these young men to do whatever they want to do with me. So now, because I've been left by the old man who was giving me a sense of safety, because these other guys didn't look good at all, they looked bad – they were looking hungry to use their weapons. And when I looked around where I was, behind me was the national park. So even though I was to run away, the rogue lions were right behind me. And then this other side was the airport – you can't just jump into the airport, you'd be arrested. So I've the airport, the national park, and my would-be killers. I guess this is where life ends for me. So I was like, okay, wow, it's been barely 48 hours of working.

Then at that time, I think what the office did – because then the office was communicating with some of the very few people in that settlement that were federation, they were very countable people that were in the federation at that time in the settlement – so what they did is that they sent, I think, two guys. Two guys came just immediately when the old man left, and then they started talking to these young men out of doing whatever they wanted to do. I don't know if they wanted to kill me, or to beat me up, or whatever. So in that commotion, somebody just told me, ‘just walk: walk away while they are still arguing with those two men’. So adrenaline tells me, it's true: walk away. So I started walking away. I just walked away slowly, slowly, then I turned, I realised that I'd made some good distance, so then I started running. Then, at some point, I found a guy who told me: use this route, it takes you to the formal estate; if you use this route, they'll get you.

So I ran, and it led me to the formal estate, and then within the formal estate there was a bus stop. And there was a bus that was just ready to take off so just got into the bus. I didn't know where the bus was going, I just got into it. Luckily the bus was going to town, so I found myself in town. And then I had the equipment with me. So I went straight to my mum who had helped me get this internship. So I told her, by the way I'm going back to college, I think this working industry, this working sector is not for me.

I think just within that afternoon I got a call from the office. Jack called me, so where are you? And I'm like, I'm just here. So I told him let me come to the office, let me return the equipment. But I always find that the fact that I went back to the office had made such a huge difference, because that's when I began to understand many things. So we all found ourselves in the office and started talking about this experience. And I remember we were with Jack and Joseph Kimani and Frances Githau and Salma Sherba. And we started a conversation. I don't think they were trying to convince me, but they got me to begin to understand the land struggle. It was 2002. The struggle on land was exactly that. There was a lot of private sector interests coming into public land, and there also were communities looking for places where they could live. There was a contest over land, and civil society organizations at that time were caught in that place where they needed to protect the interests of the public – not the interests of the public land, the interests of the public.

So I always just feel it was the best thing for me to get to understand this work, because if I never went through that, I would never have understood what a fear of eviction is. Because part of the fear I had was the fear of death. But when people are going through evictions, there's a fear of death as well. You don't know whether you will die in the process or you don't know whether you will lose all that you've consolidated over time. So there's a certain fear there that was so pivotal for me at that time to begin to understand this.

What were things like in the settlements in 2002 and how have things changed over time?

When I joined in 2002, well, I guess settlements are different. They all had different characteristics. There were settlements that were not very densely populated. You could still see spaces, and when I say spaces, it is just an appreciation that children had places to play, women had places to do laundry and still fit together, and also men, you'd have different bases where you'd find that's where men sit and talk. So you'd actually find different strata of population doing different things in a settlement, meaning that there was a lot of public space around the settlement. So they were not very densely populated. I remember Mukuru at that time Mukuru was also not that populated. You'd still walk a few metres before you'd get to the next house.

And then for settlements like Dagoretti, Dagoretti had just started becoming a bit populated. They had a very interesting characteristic because they are peri-urban, so Dagoretti was interestingly peri-urban because you'd actually find homesteads, which you don't find in other settlements. By a homestead, I mean that you'd find some clear demarcations that this is a piece of land where one family lives – so there's a main house, there's a house for different children that have probably reached adulthood or they're still in teenagerhood. And then you'd also find spaces where they have their different livestock, chicken or cows or goats – so that's all integrated. Whereas it might have looked dense, but then they had the different characteristics and organization around how they used space. So there was a general sense of enjoyment of space going on. But then, over the years, when I think about it retrospectively, the same settlements I went to five years later, the same spaces that we could see or walk on or just enjoy being a part of were all taken up by housing, and there was an increase in housing stock. And therefore there was some changes, in the sense that I think more people had either come into the cities or more of those that we found playing as children now had become adults and now they had their own homes. So there was basically densification going on.

By 2002, acquisition of spaces by urban poor was through squatting and invasions. Because there was already a lot of public land that was idle, but there was no housing stock. So people would come, find space, and construct. And that happened over time. But then over the years, part of what has happened in communities is that people had begun understanding the land market. There were those that were brilliant enough to understand that they can make these spaces more commercial. Because they've seen the pattern, that people are coming and the demand for housing is going on. Then you now begin to find that there's another layer of political ownership in slum communities, that are in the business of creating housing stock. So that when people are coming, they're not coming to squat: they're coming to look for housing. So you're coming, and you come to a settlement, and you're looking for a house between this range of rent. Which is very different from what happened by 2002 backwards. Backwards, people were coming looking for a place to stay: so you construct your own house and you live in it. But now things had started changing, and the land market had started becoming more understandable within just the spheres of political economy.

And now [we] also began seeing that even upgrading started becoming more complex to do. I used to ask myself, why is it that it was so easy to do Huruma – the model of Huruma – and replicating it was becoming a challenge? But replication was based on the fact that the political organizations of the communities had begun solidifying, and now you had more people understanding that there is a demand that is there. Government is not here, it is us and us; so let's create the housing stock, and then we'll have people come. And that becomes part of an informal real estate.

I guess an experience that made me understand that was trying to upgrade infrastructure in Mathare. I began understanding that upgrading has a lot to do with negotiating: yes, with the community, but also negotiating with another level of political leaders who were within the communities. These are the people who have innovated the art of providing housing stock, and no form of upgrading can be permitted if you don't go through these people. And I remember we had spent months and months convincing and negotiating, to the point that they had agreed, and now the other level of agreement was government. Government for them was the chief, so I remember a time when we went to have a presentation to the chief. But when we went to have a presentation to the area chief, they took a posture that they'd never seen us and therefore they wanted us to present this whole thing again to them – whereas we had spent so many months in negotiation, but when it comes now to their government representation in the meeting, they take a posture that we've never met before. So then you begin again to understand these dynamics: it’s that they don't want to also look like they gave in to this thing or this project, without consulting with government. So even them, they have to play, they have to balance this. So they weigh, and they see that the chief is agreeable, then they now swing your side. If they see the chief is not agreeable, they'll stick with the chief.

But for me, every day was always an appreciation that the struggle was real, and the struggle was based on being able to transcend all these kinds of realities. Negotiation was not about winning somebody to come to your side and understand you, but you also needed to protect them, to protect the fact that they have bought what you have brought on the table. By that time, at this level, you've already negotiated and had conversations with tenants. Because the tenants are the ones who struggle and suffer when there's lack of sanitation or there's lack of water or there's lack of all other things. But for you to deliver to the wider community, there's this few, this very critical level, that you have to go to. And you carry the voice of the people that you've been working on for the last two years. You almost can't give up, you have to keep going regardless.

The other thing that we began understanding at that time is, it's so hard for tenants to go and tell the landlords, ‘this is what we want’, because what the landlord will see is that this is an opportunity to increase rent. ‘This is what you want? Okay, I'll give you; I'll increase rent’. So the idea was how do you bring in infrastructure without necessarily making it too expensive for communities?

Because that's the other challenge – which again goes back to the point that, sometimes, when I look at some of the settlements that government worked in and provided infrastructure, it was always the settlements that were very easy to work in, [because] they were [already] semi-planned. If you look at Mombasa Ziwa La Ngombe settlement, government provided infrastructure, but it was because Ziwa La Ngombe was also really planned – you have streets, subdivision happened – so it was easy for infrastructure to be linked. But when you come to settlements that came and organized themselves, government will not select those ones. And I think we tried that – I remember a time when we had this negotiation with the World Bank, and we were saying, ‘look, communities have already collected their own data, it's ripe for upgrading, we don't need collect more data, this is data [has been] collected by communities, so pick these settlements, let's put infrastructure’. But World Bank didn't pick these settlements. They probably wanted settlements that were easier to work on.

There's, I guess, a transition that has happened over time with how communities wanting to access land have had to encounter. But also there's also development partners that come. Organizations that came and are supporting communities also must enter that similar complex reality. I remember when we did the it was also just that demonstration [that], even when the land is public land or it's real government land, you probably never will escape the fact that these communities, over time, have realised that they're not going to be evicted, so ‘there's a way that we can also be part of helping government manage this housing stock situation’. So that comes with the challenges of being able to work out, how do you look at the interest of the greater good versus the people that want to profit from the situation as it is.

What were things like in the federation in 2002 and how have things changed over time?

I remember, when I just joined the federation, there was a conversation that was very ripe about how do we know who we are? We can only know who we are if we do profiling, enumerations. We had a huge meeting and all settlements had representation into the enumeration team, so we had this huge enumeration team. We said, we'll first start by profiling the settlements, and that was beautiful, because, I remember, we would all go to one part of the city – all of us – and then we would every morning divide ourselves. ‘These ones, you will go to these settlements; these ones, you'll go to these settlements’. And we had agreed, this is what we're going to do. There were those that were going to talk about the history [of the settlement] and record the history. There were those that were going to map, so we had these long tapes that were going to map the boundaries of the settlement. There were those that were ‘security’ – but it's not conventional security as we know it, but there were those, especially the older men, their role was to go and have conversations with anyone who would contest the activities going on at that time. So, I remember, we had those marshals that would walk with us, and if any contestation happens, then they were there to talk very politely and say, this is what we are doing.

And that began building the consciousness of communities. Even in the communities we were finding, everyone started owning this move. And they were like, yes, we need to know ourselves, we are tired of evictions, we need to know who we are. Who are we? We're the federation? What's the federation? Muungano wa Wanavijiji. So part of the profiling then became a catalytic activity of being able to bring communities to join the federation and to understand what are our values as a federation? Why are we doing what we are doing? Why is it important for us to collect data? This was in 2002 and 2003, which pretty much went on year after year.

And so we collected profiles and kept collecting those profiles. And we used to do it daily. And it was fun, we did it almost for two years. We also had the seasons of rain, the seasons of sunshine, the seasons of rain, so that was also fun in itself. I remember one time, Jack and I going to convince the executive director, at that time Jane, that we need gumboots. ‘We need boots for everyone’. And she's like, what, which budget? ‘No, no, no, Jane, we need gumboots’. I think she came to Dagoretti at some point. And therefore, by the time Jane came to Dagoretti, she went back to the office singing the song that gumboots are important.

That [Dagoretti] profiling was so important. I remember it's one of the most beautiful documents ever produced, because it was people's voices recorded by people themselves. I think, for us, it was being able to facilitate it to go on.

And there was also a certain bond that happened within the federation. Because ‘people are coming to our settlement to do a profile; there'll come a time when we'll be in their settlements’. So ‘you'll come, you'll interact with where I stay, the environment I live in, my family, and everything’. So it became very intimate among the federation, that people began to know each other.

So the federation was very vibrant at that time and it still continued being vibrant. Vibrant, in the sense that they were knowing each other, knowing the identity, both as who someone is within the federation, and what the federation is about. There are stories that never come out when you're in a formal setting, but when you're conducting these activities is when people begin to tell their stories. And they are just mind blowing activities. I remember most of the women at that time telling us that they were part of another land struggle to save one of Nairobi's forest cover areas, Karura forest. And they would walk from their settlements to go there and fight for that public space not to be grabbed – at that time, of course, with the [Nobel] laureate Wangari Maathai. And they would do that. And then they would tell us about part of another struggle they were part of – they were part of another struggle, where, I think, they stripped themselves naked just to make a statement to government about evictions. There was a part of a history that people belonged to. People were activists, actually, and they were only too glad to be part of then being able to bring it home – being able to be defenders of the spaces they live in now. It was now easier for them to understand the federation and be part of it.

There's a time when the struggle was among people that were equal in what they wanted. There were no pilots that we had done to say that this is an example of what communities would want. But then came Huruma, and Huruma was just amazing – in trying to even introduce a certain dialogue within policy arenas. But over time, part of what was also maybe anticipated or not anticipated was that that would also begin to change people. Because at one point you have people that have gone through a struggle and also gotten security of tenure, and then you have other communities that have not yet gotten to that level. And that's because settlements are different. So, it means that they're no longer the same level – these ones are more talking to policy issues, because they've gone through the struggle, they've saved and been able to achieve a dream or achieve what they wanted. But then you still have others who are still in that struggle. They're getting tired. Not tired of being in the struggle, but tired of the fact that their circumstances are not changing – they're becoming more complex, it's becoming harder to do daily saving, it's becoming harder to consolidate, and that's because, of the people that have come into the settlement, not everybody buys into the federation values or what the federation wants.

Then also there's the political reality, the fact that you have now more partners in communities so you have communities now more aligned to different partners. So you've a partner who comes who's more human rights-oriented – which is still good, there's a part for human rights, but there's also that part of how are we changing our settlements? Federation is promising that part of what we are doing and we've been doing is human rights, but let's stick on this programme – we'll get it. But then people tire. They tire from years and years of this, and they're not seeing anything. So you find different organizations also working in the same community, they begin to expose communities differently, so it becomes a challenge in consolidation.

I remember one of the settlements, when we were trying to do a sanitation project and we had an exchange to Kibera. And when we came back is when you begin to understand that sometimes, [with] exchanges, the idea is that you're going to expose and bring a positive reform, but sometimes people go and read different things. If, for instance, you're a structure owner in a settlement and you've joined the rest to go for an exchange, your interest in that exchange is different from everybody else. Your interest is to see, ‘how will I benefit, if this development is brought?’ So probably your interaction with the people there, you interact with the structure owners there to find out how does this profit your housing business by allowing these people to do this project. So sometimes you expose people but they come and become the hindrance to what you want, because they've seen something that you haven’t seen, or when they went they went on a different agenda.

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

I think that the biggest main achievement is having Muungano be a movement that is real and a part of life. I don't think that you can go to, or you can work on or have an agenda on informal settlements without mentioning Muungano – without Muungano being a point of reference. The identity of Muungano was a huge achievement. And even to government. Even if they want to pretend they don't know Muungano, they really do know Muungano and its recorded. I remember, when we were doing the Housing Bill, one of the partners that had to be on the table is Muungano. And even within professional circles, I'm yet to find anybody who can pull together a piece without making a reference to the work that Muungano has done or the spirit to which Muungano bears in these communities.

There's been, I guess, the achievement at policy level – being able to bring in that voice of the people into shaping policy. [There are] still more opportunities for that voice to change many things within policy, still getting there.

I think there is the achievement of models that can be replicated, or models that can be used to shape how upgrading or engagement or advocacy's done. I think there are models that can and will always be used. So Huruma is always one model. Even though Huruma stays as it is, it has it's different lessons to everybody. As a professional you'll go to Huruma and there's something that you will get out of it. As a community member you'll go to Huruma and there's something that you'll get out of it. As a government official who is wanting to make decisions you go to Huruma and there is something for you. So Huruma is really a buffet that everyone will get something from.

Data is a political process

The enumeration model is basically communities collecting data about themselves in the way they understand themselves. It’s very different when communities are giving data about themselves to a fellow community person – it's very different to when they're giving data to a professional person. And even just the balance of you as a professional person interviewing somebody to fill an enumeration form, it's very different because on one hand you're probing to understand, but then on the other hand you're probing to get good, accurate data ­– which is very different. When communities are collecting data amongst themselves, they're not being driven by the things that drive professionals. You're not probing for accuracy, you're probing for reality. And I remember that was always a conviction that I always had. How do I stop myself, Irene, from the things that I want to hear, or the things that I want, and allow the direction that the voice of communities wants to go?

One of the frustrations I always had with enumerations is when professionals would say that the data is not accurate enough or the margin of error is too high. And sometimes that pressure can be very bad pressure, because it can pressure a professional who doesn’t understand what you're doing. It can pressure you to think that you have failed, or it can pressure you to think that communities didn't give you a good report, so you begin to fault the communities. But it’s not the communities that are at fault: sometimes communities just don't want to give data. They feel that, that is our preserve – it's not yours, it's our preserve, and we'll protect it.

I remember being put in that hard space once, seated at the World Bank office and I'm being told that my data is bad or the data is not useable. And then you're recounting that data is not numbers, data is a process. Even just being able to get this information of ten households, there's somebody negotiated with different levels of that political economy. And sometimes it’s not even us, it's the communities themselves being able to go to the ‘head man’ and negotiate for days on end. ‘Please allow us to collect this information’. That guy agrees. You go to a different level of power, and they agree, and they agree. So by the time then you come into a place to discuss this data and somebody's telling you it's not accurate enough … We are not going to compromise, because this data has more value, it has more political value than it has economic value. The other people on the other table are looking at it from the point of economic value: how do we convince the world? But for us, because our interest and our values are based on what communities want to give … I guess you can never force somebody to give you information. And if they feel that that information is not what they want to give you at that time because it is not important, then that's it. Then it means then that you who has come, then you need to begin to understand that maybe what you though was a priority is not the priority for them. So there were all these salient, real issues about communities that I always felt the other side of the world doesn't understand. And we were always judged from the same template that other research organizations are judged, and therefore we would never pass anything. Our data would never look like it can move anywhere. Which was fine; I guess the idea was not to do along those politics because if you've done those politics, you find yourself going back to force people to give you accurate data – and in doing that, if you force them, you compromise your relationship, because you're going back to tell them oh, you don't trust us now? It's such a thin line.

Good data from the federation is almost compounded. You can't take it all from a form of enumeration. There's what you can get from enumeration, but then you have to fill it up with many other sources of information, and sometimes those sources of information are reflections. Sometimes communities want to just sit and reflect: let's talk about where we are from, let's talk about what we did yesterday, let's talk about what we want to do. And by being able to be part – which is really a privilege – to be part of those conversations, you begin to understand this data that you've just collected. You begin to understand why people are not willing to give certain data.

There's also the profiles. You'll ask different people the histories of the settlement. Different people have different histories of a settlement because you have different generations in a settlement. So you have federation data that comes from different sources, and that can then begin to give that database of enumeration more meaning. So I guess then part of presenting that kind of data, it's almost like you're presenting part of the skeleton to somebody that doesn't understand. That person probably needs to come and interact with the federation more to begin to understand that.

The other form of data is when, for instance, you're just about to start an initiative in a community. And that's where again real data comes out, because then you begin now to interact with the different strata of power within a settlement. You begin to interact with the different emotions of communities as well, because communities have different emotions regarding a certain intervention. So again that becomes also another source of real data. Federation data is always real. Its real time. What you thought you knew yesterday has changed today, because something different has happened overnight that begins to change that whole architecture of the settlement.

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

There was a challenge at some point, where funding was an opportunity and also funding was a challenge in itself. There's a time when, I remember, we were comfortable in funding, we had resources, and at that time there was a bit of comfort that the federation enjoyed. But I think that when we all got tested by the lack of resources, that became a challenge in itself, in terms of us being able to see how can our federation sustain itself outside of resources? And, I remember, when resources were dwindling or were limited is when we had heightened challenges in leadership; tensions between professionals and the federation themselves. That, I remember, was a tough time.

There was also the challenge at policy level – not being able to get the protection of policy as fast as we wanted to do different things, or as fast as we wanted to move. But also, I remember, there was the opportunity when Kenya devolved, and there was excitement because then it meant that communities, wherever they were spread outside in the country, had the opportunity now to negotiate and plan and work closer with their county governments.

There was a challenge of just maintaining the rituals, especially the ritual of savings. I remember at one point it was so hard – I don't know if it still is; it was very hard – to know how many savings schemes we have across the country and whether people are saving. And what happened is that there was another transition, from saving as communities to also saving as projects, where people come together to save because they have a project to either purchase land or to do a collective use of that money.

What have been the strategies that really worked?

I think savings, as a strategy, worked. It did, because I remember initially when communities started savings on two levels. There was the level to which it was collectivising and bringing people together to one voice in a settlement. They used to say ‘We save because where our money is where our heart is’. And, true to the fact, is that it used to bring people and glue them together, and that's where their strategies also used to come from. So that worked as a political tool as well, and as an organizing tool. But then also an important role that savings played was the fact that, initially, communities were never able to access banking services. So that was a role that savings played. People were able to save within a collective and put all their money in the bank. And that was revolutionary, in being able to have a confidence that, I bank with this bank through my savings scheme. But, over time, the banking sector changed and now started devolving to where people are. So savings did work. And, I remember, and probably somebody has already mentioned, the beautiful story of Toi market being able to save and influence a product of a bank.

There was also enumeration: the enumeration was a strategy that worked. Again, it was also a political strategy that worked, because it was through the politics of being able to get an enumeration going, and being able to have a successful and complete enumeration. It was never easy: there was a lot of mobilization that needed to be done, there was a lot of resistance that you needed to go past, and therefore there's a way that enumeration was able to transcend and comb out the different levels of power. Even communities themselves began to understand, oh, this is how we are; this is how complex our settlement is.

And, I guess, there was also the part that enumerations as a strategy worked in being able to consolidate data about settlements. Because, for the longest, government never had any form of data. I remember Jack and I and a few colleagues used to go to, for instance, the Survey of Kenya – where they have all these cadastral maps of everywhere – and you would find all the information government has, only of formal areas, but not of informal areas. So, the many years that we invested in collecting data, whether government will appreciate it or acknowledge it or not, there's quite a bit of data that we made available. And when they started being more keen on working on informal settlements, there's a lot of data that they relied on that we had collected. Again, even if they will not acknowledge it, it's okay, but there's a basis to which they started, and they started on information that communities themselves had gathered.

I just find that very profound, that communities, the federation, in their struggle, have maintained their fidelity to that process. [From] ‘we are being evicted because we are not known’ to a place where they collect so much data and then they take to government. I remember, we used to go to government with Jack, and the question that we would be asked by the planners was, ‘how do we trust your data?’ So, within the formal tables, they will reject the data, but when they go back to their offices to work on data, that same data they were questioning is the same data they're going to use. We learnt that the idea is, we're not looking for them to say good things about the data; the fact that they used that data is already good enough. That worked, enumeration worked at that professional level, political level.

Academic friends, as well. A lot of the information that they've also used to understand communities or even to build up and get their own data has been founded on that data that was first collected by communities. So there's a way that federation has entered a space that nobody had ever entered, and that's because it was what their struggle was about. And we celebrate the fact that they have remained and maintain that fidelity, that we were collecting this data for this purpose, and that is what it has been till today.

Many other innovations have come. GIS came and found us, still collecting data, but it was just to strengthen that data that was already existing, and make it easier for communities to articulate themselves. And therefore every other tool that has come, has come to strengthen that value that they first placed when they did it.

Advocacy, as a tool, is intertwined with savings and enumeration, because part of why we did the things that we were doing, we were doing them to elevate a voice and a voice of a people. And therefore, that was elevated through the data that communities collected and through the savings that were able to allow them to achieve housing in Huruma, buy land for the communities that have bought land.

House modelling as well. In the years where we did house modelling, I used to find that so powerful. House modelling is where communities envision the kind of housing that they would want to live in. And, by the time they have built a real house model – using cloth and timber because it's very temporary – by the time they are getting there, they've already met, and agreed and disagreed, and agreed, and come to a conclusion with the help of an architect, that this is the size of a house that can fit all of us that want to live on this same space. So house modelling process is also a tool that works, because it begins to allow people to conceptualize space. And conceptualize or bring their dreams – not from a selfish perspective, but to a more community perspective. Because, when we started dreaming, communities would be like, oh, I want a five-bedroom house, I want a swimming pool, a tiny swimming pool. But then, when you bring communities to a place where they are able to understand the relationship between the data they've collected and the space that they have, they begin to understand, okay, the only space I have to enjoy is this space, so I need to then bring down my dream in a way that accommodates my brothers and sisters and the rest of the community.

When they build this live house model – I used to find this very fascinating – communities would go to the local government, and they'd say, ‘we want to you to come and launch this house model’. Remember, these are the same guys who were trying to refuse them to do enumerations, or the same guys that were refusing to come and agree to different activities that were going on. But when they see this house model, they want to be a part of it, they want to come and officially cut the tape – so prestigious! But what they don't know is that they are actually signing up to an upgrading. The fact that they've cut this tape, they're basically launching the upgrading. So after that, there is no way you're going to say, ‘I don't approve of this upgrading’, because you've already been a part of a ceremony that is the beginning of an upgrading.

Even for professionals and for technocrats that are in government, house models were powerful in being able to also reshape their thinking about how they see space. Because it's in them entering that model – being able to enter and understand that this is where the kitchen will be, this is where the living room is going to be; they're going to go upstairs, that's where the bedroom is; another upstairs, another bedroom – they just change. Their perspective changes from looking at this space as it can't fit everyone to a place where communities are beginning to tell them, look, if you allow us this space, this is what we can do. I don't think that there's any government person who ever came for a house modelling launch who left that community the same. The way they came, they always left differently. It's just, you can't leave that image, that ‘this is actually how the settlement can be if it's organized, and the person who is limiting that whole progression to happen is me as a government official’. So you end up going to your office different. You cannot not agree for that upgrading to happen.

I always found the tools that the federation used to be so powerful. They have a very salient and subtle way of challenging the intellects of government people. Government or professionals will not acknowledge that they're being taught and they’re being de-schooled by communities. But that's the role of federation, to have a very subtle way of being able to change a conversation, a dialogue, and change it in such a subtle way that it's actually active non-violence. You're not forcing somebody to accept, you're just exposing them. ‘Just see. Just come. Just come and see this model, that's all’. But when you leave there, even though you don't acknowledge, you will still agree, and something in your soul will make you know that these people need you to say yes – they need you to approve to what they want to do.

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

In the next 20 years, is seeing the federation being able to be more articulate: not only speaking about the issues that they have and that settlements have, but being able to be solution-givers and solution developers. Because, federation has cracked it in terms of strategies and tools for accessing and acquiring tenure. It has also cracked the housing point – how to access housing through public process, through public land and working with government; but even more so, housing through private sector when land belongs to private people. And going forward I think what they can do now is to scale that up. [We] have now significant physical changes within the country, and by the time that is happening, then you have more people within the federation, more bold, and more articulate, and more at the forefront of doing some of these things. Which I guess is happening now that the federation is at the area where it has taken back the control of its own movement.

There are other factors of life of settlements, that are beyond land and housing, that I think the federation still have a voice and has an ability to address going forward. I remember, when we began food security, it was very new; it was new knowledge or a new concept. But then when the federation was brought to a place of speaking about it, there were such amazing discoveries about the politics of food within communities. They brought a new conversation into just the whole dialogue of food and food security. And, I remember once, we worked with the Kenyan Medical Association, and the federation supported the medical association to understand how deficient and desperate health is in informal settlements. This is an association of doctors, being led by the federation to understand that, the things you guys talk up there, you've no idea, come down and we'll show you. And at that time, the federation team took some of those doctors to some of the health facilities in the settlements. It was totally unbelievable the kind of health care that huge populations are dependent on.

Going forward 20 years from now, I think there are other spheres of life within settlements that the federation will begin to take charge in. Just going slowly, the way we took time to understand the housing market or the land market and then got to develop solutions out of it. Even these other things, though they may have started small – food security, health, women and the issues women go through – I think in the next 20 years, life will be different, because the federation has had some time to look at other things that affect the wellbeing of communities in their spaces. With the federation, you're always learning new things. So I look forward to the federation being able to be a voice in almost most levels of policy that have to do with human life.

A story about witnessing the evolution of settlements

We were very good at looking for invasions. But interesting is that, even as much as Mukuru has become one of the most dense communities in Nairobi today, around 2003, Mukuru had huge spaces – open space. Then, at one point, we heard that invasions were happening, and we wanted to record how an invasion happens – how people construct, how they start, how do they even agree on who is where and who is where. So, Jack and I and our colleague Chep went to Mukuru. And we had a contact person and the contact person was already on the ground. Chep was driving us so she remained in the car. To get to the place where the invasions were happening, we needed to pass through an existing settlement. So we went, and our contact person was already in the area where the invasions were happening. We kept communicating on the phone and he kept saying, yeah, you come, you come. So we kept going, in deep, going, going, going. And then at one point we were looking for him, we were talking on phone, but we were still not getting to him, so then eventually we got to him and he began showing us around and everything.

I don't remember what happened, but word got round that there were two people in the settlement that were recording, or that were getting information about what was going on. And, because some people knew us, some people didn’t, what this guy did is that he organized for us to get protection. Because, at some point, I think there was some bit of commotion, there were people running and coming to find out, who are these people? So, in the guy's wisdom, he told us, you guys need to go, you need cover so you need to leave the settlement. But it was not practical to leave the settlement physically completely, because leaving it we would still encounter the people that are coming for us. So what we did, there was just a way that communities are very good with making someone disappear, enabling someone to escape; so, I remember being pushed into one of the houses, and in that house there were these ladies that were just talking. And I remember being just pushed in, and being pushed under the bed that the ladies were sitting on. So I went under the bed, and their stories continued as if nothing is happening. So I'm just there – and Jack, after we recalled the story later, he had a similar experience, he had also been whisked under a bed. And the idea was to stay there until the settlement has calmed down and everything is quiet. Then we can go. So I think at that point the driver was informed that she needs to also leave, and take the car or go park the car somewhere else safe. So we stayed there, we stayed put, and from where I was the ladies continued talking as if nothing has happened. And they went on and on. At some point I actually thought they had forgotten. But then later, after it had calmed, then we were consolidated. The guy who had been communicating with us came and got me, got Jack at some point. We went, consolidated the car and went.

But it's interesting, when I think about it, how we have been part of the evolution of settlements. We've actually been part of the evolution of settlements. Because there's a time that communities invaded, or came to these spaces, and built and construct these spaces, as we were seeing. And then, now, they've got into a place where there's no more space available in the city. So there was a time when there was some bit of abundance of space, but now there's no longer abundance of space. You go to the same place that we were then. Now, it’s completely different – completely commercialized, completely owned.