Margarete Atieno Okoth (Mama Night)

Mama Night


From: Toi Market, Kibera, Nairobi

Interview date & place: 29 April 2016, Nairobi

Interviewed by: Joseph Kimani & Kate Lines

Original language: Swahili

My name is Margarete Atieno Okoth, I am a business woman in Toi Market.

Before Muungano: the federation’s Toi Market origins

I first came to Toi in 1982. At this time the market was an open space, but the city council still bothered us a lot. At first we were trading near the road, next to Toi Primary School near the bus stop; then women traders began buying stuff further up the road and would come to the open space to resell their products. When the people selling their wares further up the road were chased away by the city council, they decided to move to what is now Toi Market. We would display our wares openly on the grass, whenever we wanted, and occupied the space. Soon more traders joined us and for a while we continued to trade without any major struggles.

Around 1992 we began to put up polythene shelters to shield us from harsh weather and the sun. Unfortunately at that time there was a man who acted as a ‘chairman’ and whenever he would come by, the next day you would find that your shelter has been dismantled. Regardless, we continued to trade and then in 1996 we decided that enough is enough; it’s at this point that we went to Riziki [a Kenyan NGO] where we were equipped with advocacy skills and training to help us understand our rights. When we first started, we met the likes of Salma [a community organizer who played a key role in Muungano’s early years] – they started training us and we began to know more about our rights. It was at the end of that year [1996] that we partnered with Kituo Cha Sheria [a Kenyan legal aid organization] – they helped us with lawyers who advised us how we could best occupy the market as traders, as well giving us knowledge about our rights because we had just occupied the land. During this period [the late 1990s] not even the president had the power to drive anyone off of a piece of land that they occupied; but still, even if you followed due process the president seemed above the law – there was little that one could do – but with the training we came to realize that even the president is human and we can sue him in a court of law.

In 1998 – to be precise it was Aprilwe began to have a lot of challenges. Then one day in June we woke up to find that the market had been demolished. The police had cordoned off the area and were under instructions to take us to another market called ‘Hawkers market’. The Hawkers market had been built by then-President Moi to benefit 192 women traders – but this was tricky for us because we were more than 3,000 traders in our market! It was a dilemma for us and at this point some members of civil society began to intervene; they engaged us and built our knowledge around land rights. They advised us that we needed to be quick about the matter because if we weren’t careful the land would be grabbed – the people who had demolished already had the plans laid out and the place fenced off with barbed wire. We decided to go to court, where we sued the area chief because we had reason to believe he knew of the imminent evictions.

(You know, in evictions in the past you could be caught unawares by fires – it was the oldest trick in the evictions strategy book. The fire would destroy possessions and livelihoods, making it difficult for people to go back and rebuild their lives. We were seen as garbage because the land was not ours – but where would we then have gone?)

In August the first hearing was held and was documented in the newspapers – Taifa Leo and Kenya Times; while we were still at the high court proceeding with the case, the newspapers reported we had won it. On the last day of the case, at the high court, there were 32 of us from Toi managing our court business. The area chief entered the court and the presiding judge asked him if he knew the people sitting in the chambers. He said yes and went further to say, ‘they are residents of Kibera and they do business at Toi, but unfortunately they are occupying private land’. Our lawyer questioned him, demanding to know who were the private owners of the land, but the chief became evasive, saying that one of the owners was abroad and he wasn’t sure of the whereabouts of the other. The judge presiding dismissed the chief’s statement to the court, saying that if the chief did not own the land he could not have given it out to us. We asked ourselves, what do we do now? We tried to seek help from our MP (of Langata) – at that time it was Raila Odinga. But when Raila gave us an audience he claimed we had politicized the issues; many people went to petition him to take up the matter, but he was categorical that the matter was before court and he didn’t want parliament to interfere with the court’s jurisdiction.

At this time we were officially introduced to Kituo cha Sheria, and it was through Kituo cha Sheria that we learnt more about human rights. We met Jane Weru – in fact it was her first case. And through training we became more aware of our rights. At first we had just been idle, but then we became aware of our rights to seek court opinion, especially on instances of injustice. On 30 August the presiding judge ruled that the case could not proceed, on the basis of a certain letter and since there was not any other available land. He was not sure how the situation should be resolved, so we left the court and began writing a petition to influence the court to issue an injunction that would buy us traders some time. Outside the court, we also began to think if we should negotiate with the landowner to give us time on the land. Some of us proposed we should ask for three years – but three years seemed like only a day, and when that time elapsed where were we to go? All the time we were drawing on the knowledge we had received from Kituo cha Sheria.

It was tricky situation since it seemed that the land had no owner and yet there we were, facing eviction. We decided to go to the media: at [Daily] Nation House, Toi market members who had signed the petition – including me and some of my fellow women traders – went to present the interests of the traders, together with those representing the disabled, and a youth representative. We told the Daily Nation newspaper that we had won the case and we were going back to the market – you know, propaganda is good for such cases sometimes. We mobilized all our members and started chanting slogans – ‘we have won!’ ‘tumeshinda!’ And all those who had gone across to the Hawkers market moved back to the Toi market land. It was at this point that our fears begun to fade away. In particular, it’s during this period that we joined the advocacy initiatives, for it is important to stand united. Jane Weru did not ease off: she continued to provide us lawyers who trained us on advocacy. When you involves yourself in advocacy you need to have a resilient heart.

We were now empowered and there was no turning back. This was our first step. It was during this time that we began constructing our market shelters to shade us from the sun, with whatever material we could get our hands on, like corrugated iron sheets. And we stood our ground, sending a strong message that we would not budge until we were offered alternative land. After three months the a lawyer came by – I remember on that day it had rained – and he asked me, ‘mama, with this cleverness and knowledge that prompted you to go to court, who really taught you?’ I was cautious not to respond, but the one who had taught us was called Ole Keiwa [A Nandi] – he was good at his job. I tipped off Ezekiel [Rema] about this guy asking questions, only to discover he was actually the judge who had presided over the case – who was impressed with the knowledge and advocacy strategies we had employed. In a way we felt like we had won the case.

We continued to squat on the land. We even continued to receive more eviction notices, which caused fear among us about people’s intentions to grab the land. During that time citizens often faced evictions, and once your structure was demolished you had to leave. It was the same with fire – the use of the fire was just one of the many strategies by land grabbers to evict slum dwellers.

How did Muungano emerge? What have been your experiences as it evolved over time?

Around 1998 we formally established Muungano. At this point we had mobilized ourselves and we were being educated and trained. It was clear to us that when you stand alone you cannot fight for the masses, and so we saw it was important for the market to come together. Then, in the year 2002, we started saving schemes in order to bring the traders even more together. In 1998, during that early time, Muungano was made up of different people from different places; but in 2002 we gathered people together [where they were] to start savings, and the savings schemes then started.

The saving scheme model was brought by Ezekiel when he came back from South Africa. The year we started the saving scheme was 2002. It was in 1999 that Ezekiel went, and he was the first person that we sent for an exchange. When he came back he brought us the report from South Africa: he told us that people from South Africa have come together to save, to collect money each and every day. Because even if it’s going to court, you need some cash for travel. So we started the saving scheme.

Then, because we are business people, instead of going outside to look for loans we started doing it together. We charged a low interest on the sums that we lent to our members, so that even those who did not have many customers could join. We didn’t leave anybody behind: we wanted everyone to be equal. The interest rate on money lent was 5 per cent. It was not just the saving scheme alone: we also wanted to bring the market people together to be friends, and that’s how we formalized our savings scheme. The first loan you could have was 1,500 KSH, the first stage; the second stage was 3,000 KSH; and the third stage was 4,500 KSH. It would also depend on other loans you had, and you could even be given 50,000 KSH if you wanted it – if you had saved a lot of money and your business was doing well. And also you could change your business from vegetables to clothes – since selling clothes brings higher returns.

So we continued, until the post-election violence which came to destroy our unity as Muungano – and when some money saved was lost. In 2007 this was one of the challenges that we faced. The group had gotten so big by that time and each one of us had saved, up to even KSH 600,000 for one person. We were about 1,400 members – we were many – because people had united across the entire market and most of them were Muungano members. Even people from outside [the market] wanted to join, but we told them no. [For example,] we sent people from Katwekera market to be trained so that they could start their own saving scheme and start giving their members loans – that was about learning exchanges.

I later went for an exchange to Tanzania and met a group of women that were together and were doing savings. Most of them were women’s groups and we advised them to stand united: they needed to form a Muungano, all need to come together – even the men, because if something came in your midst even the men will help you. But women must be on the forefront: women must have more voice than men and we should not leave men to grab all the responsibilities. They started saving within their local groups and they loaned to each other. That’s the federation we left in Tanzania; and when we went back to Tanzania we found that indeed they were still doing the savings.

I went back to Tanzania for the planning of an enumeration: at that time people from Mkago were to be evicted so we told them that even if the government will give you land [to relocate to], you must still know how many people are in that area and how many households you have. And we helped them do that – we went with Mwendo [a Muungano enumerator] and helped them count the members of their Muungano and their children and think about how they could move forward from there. The government had already shown them land and they were supposed to buy it, but without savings you cannot be able to buy land – that’s what we taught them. The difference between Kenya and Tanzania is that Tanzania’s [relocation compensation] model appeared to be much easier: the owner of the plot gets cash; he or she is paid and then if they want to buy more land with that money they can buy it; the tenant gets rent for three months and if he or she has been saving then they opt to use that instead of the rent. That’s the international exchanges I went on.

In another exchange I went to Kisumu, at a point when there was disagreement in Muungano. It was during the time when MusT was established [Muungano Support Trust, an earlier incarnation of Muungano’s support NGO set up after the federation parted ways with Pamoja trust in 2009]. People were asking, ‘what is MuST?’ They started saying that if their members go with MuST they will have to follow suit. Some didn’t understand, they just went because of influence: if some people loved Kimani and Kimani left [Pamoja Trust] to go to MuST they will just follow him, that’s how it was. It started after the Muungano elections for national president and chairman positions ­­– that’s when it started.

There was also Akiba Mashinani Trust [AMT]. Many of our members loved AMT because it helped us a lot. AMT helped us buy the Toi Muungano land. The land was 11 acres (it was 110 acres, but the parcel that was bought was 11 acres). Part of the parcel was given out [to others] since we had delayed to pay, and we were left with [seven or] eight acres. We are slowly repaying the loan for the seven acres that we were left with. For us in [Toi] Muungano, we had two different books: a savings book and one set aside for [repaying the loan for] the land. Many have already repaid. At the time we got the loan to buy the land we were very many members – we were almost five hundred – but some others withdrew, and others left because the process of land acquisition was delayed. The post-election violence also brought many problems: people feared they would not get the land. But the land is there – we have seen it – and those who have finished paying have been given the title deeds. And those who have not finished paying, when they finish they will get their title deed. I am a beneficiary: I had two land shares, mine and Jackie’s, my sister, and I gave her part of my share because she paid more money.

What have been your Toi group’s achievements over the years?

As women, in 2004 we decided to unite together through civic education – this was before the post-election violence – so as we can start doing something. We started outside-catering – in fact we even used to cook here [at Muungano House]. We used to cook for people who had parties or celebrations, even people from outside Muungano, and we were also helped by an organization which bought us utensils and pots. But later we were also affected by the post-election violence: our place of doing business was grabbed as we watched. We made some noise about it and we managed to rescue some utensils, but others were stolen.

After the post-election violence, we went back again and continued to cook. We even started helping children by giving them food – Kibera has many orphans – and we also started a day care. But it was expensive, because our income was little and many other people also have cooking ventures – some cook for hotels and there is a variation in prices. In the end we did not have a favourable set up to feed the children – you need to have a little source of income – so last year [2015] we decided to close our day care. In the same year there was a change in local leadership and it was rumoured some of the traders were living in the market; this led to the demolition of some of the stalls, although ours was spared because they knew it was a catering business – but either way the demolitions still happened and our cooking utensils were stolen. After the demolitions, we still had some of our utensils (stored outside the market) and we brought them back to our place. Security was tight, with the police on guard, but we have gone round in circles and up to now the case is still unresolved. Only in March this year [2016], we were called at night to find that our area of the market had burnt down with all of our possessions. After that fire incident our women’s group have faced lots of challenges: we have nothing left because our equipment was burnt in the inferno. And also, you know, sometimes people take advantage of such incidents and steal stuff – we didn’t even see any burnt shreds of our pots after the fire. We have been helped by good samaritans to get back on our feet – some of them contributed towards constructing our stall, brother [Joseph] Muturi contributed towards buying new corrugated iron sheets. We are finding ways of going back; we will not give up; the Muungano women in Toi are still there and are steadfast. Also, a lady from Italy bought us a minibus which benefits our group. As well as Muungano: when something occurs, let’s say during Christmas, members can be loaned up to 20,000 KSH so that people can expand their businesses. The other day, the organization managing the donated vehicle gave us 10,000 KSH on top of our savings so that we can start reconstruction – but I think we should wait until we have enough cash before we begin construction, because starting to build and then leaving it halfway is only in vain.

How have things changed over time?

With the county government, we see that there is a problem. As I am sure you are aware, city council officers are present at the market and whenever they come to collect revenue they can ask for any amount, payable per day. Often we resist, and if they do not agree with our decision that’s up to them. At the moment they have told the traders to pay KSH 50 twice a week, but they wanted KSH 100 twice a week – that was impossible for us. Because in the first place, they are not providing services in the market – the roads are bad, garbage remains uncollected, they have not contributed anything good, so is paying them all that money worth it? If you are paying for services you should benefit from them. If things are going wrong we have to tell our people that they need to be alert – and not be like those people who don’t question anything. When there are such cases in the market we intervene and weigh the options; and we encourage people to know their rights.

Muungano has also brought us together as women. Muungano supported us to even flourish in our households, for example it has empowered us to educate our children, helped us to live in harmony with our husbands – we should not yell at them even if they do wrong. The bottom line is that through Muungano, and through the exchanges we take part in, we really do learn a lot. Even though I am now married, my in-laws cannot dispossess me of my land or take even a plate from my house – what is mine is mine and what is theirs is theirs. Muungano has made us well-informed and we have opened our eyes.

Tell us about some of the advocacy you have done

I actually started advocacy in Muungano, right here. In the past, you could find that someone had built a concrete wall on a piece of land that did not even belong to him – maybe the land even belonged to government. By virtue of being a citizen I am part of government, and so we would pull down the wall. When we went to Tanzania we educated them and saw that they are making good progress, since it’s important to work with government over there. Some countries are like Kenya – Kenya was way ahead. I also got the opportunity to visit Uganda for the East African Hub, where we went to exchange ideas on our progress as federations and learn from what other countries are doing differently. This helps us to draw comparisons and measure our achievements, and through SDI these exchanges have made it possible for the urban poor to learn from each other.

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

Muungano has pushed for the halting of forced evictions – those evictions where you could be forcefully evicted if you are a tenant or just want to lead an honest life. Muungano has really taught us great lessons, enabling the poor to know their rights.

Muungano has also brought about some instrumental changes. The Railway Resettlement project, for example: the affected persons were to be evicted, but their decision to stand with Muungano enabled the railway dwellers to get alternative housing. Some have been given their units while others are still in the process of receiving. Were it not for Muungano it would have happened. Muungano also organized for some of our comrades living along the railway tracks to visit India on an exchange to learn from a similar project. This informed the plans and housing designs that are currently being constructed so that they could accommodate so many of the beneficiaries. Muungano has really educated the poor.

Thirdly, Muungano has empowered us as women. It has helped us to venture into income generating-projects, knowing very well that these would sustain our families and put our children in school. Personally, it has helped me to know that I can do anything I need to fend for myself. Muungano has really opened my eyes.

What is your message for the younger generations coming up in Muungano?

For me, I would like to share all of the Muungano rituals with them, but the thing I would most emphasise is advocacy. It’s really important to know how to lobby and demand for your rights; and it’s equally important that you know how to support for your neighbour when they have need – you can really help him or her. And for enumerations: even if someone wants to evict you, would they do that before knowing how many you are? It is important that they have accurate population figures. So I think that all these rituals are valuable. You must really save; save the little that you can. Like now I have come for this interview – would I have come if had no money? At least I can get a matatu here. Poverty can cause people to make bad choices but if you save a little you can sustain yourself.

Saving has brought us together. The young people should stop fighting and see each other as comrades – and stop tribalism. It’s clear that the Muungano we have today is not tribal. Muungano is our mother. Let’s join hands. Let’s not be divided. When we are divided we stand to destroy where we are living as well as our country. And let’s work hard ­– in the past, we would pull down a wall with our bare hands. Recently in the news there was a school in Langata West where parents, teachers, and pupils united and brought down a wall put up by a private developer around the school’s playing field, and ultimately that parcel of land was not grabbed. All that was because of the Muungano spirit. So let’s join hands; those with a personal agenda should step aside.

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

What would I like to urge Muungano to focus on? You know, Muungano has really empowered the poor. For me, through Muungano I have secured tenure and now I have a home, permanent housing. This speaks to one of the Muungano slogans: unity is our strength, security of tenure is our right. Now, I call on all Muungano members to continue to save so that we can access permanent housing and fit places to live. That’s the secret: savings must not be abandoned.

Muungano should carry on with what it has been doing, but it is essential that we do away with selfishness among us. When we consciously follow Muungano slogans, this brings development.

It’s important that we celebrate Muungano’s history so that in the future we can look back and remember, and for those who are joining us. You know, Muungano is like a supermarket: there are those that are coming in and there are those that are leaving. So this is an opportunity to continue empowering our new crop of members. And let the exchanges continue – both local and international – so that we can support and build one another. We used to be many and most [of those there at the beginning] have left, but whenever one of us has a problem let’s make the extra effort and go to them. Muungano can even procure a bus, that is a way to mobilize. Let’s even go to the rural areas like Nyanza. Unfinished business is bad practice: we have started something and must ensure that we complete it. There are still many of us that need to be made aware about [Muungano].

Who is Mama Night? What motivates you?

For me, Mama Night, I am a parent and I would like to see my children succeed. If I don’t leave behind a good foundation, will my kids succeed? They cannot. I want to make sure they and the rest of the younger generations are united. That is why when we started to save, we did not look at who had a lot of assets and who had little. The bottom line was for us to save together and achieve equal reallocation of resources. It’s for this, fundamentally, that Muungano continues to unite us and bring us together.

We are facing challenges as a nation, and despite that we are not politicians we need to ensure the equitable distribution of resources. It is not that the economy is bad but that resources are centralized among the rich and powerful and we, the poor, lack access these resources. Muungano sets an example to be replicated – that’s why you see these days that even the government has to take inventory of the people, and has to ask itself such fundamental questions as ‘if we evict this slum dweller, where will he go to?’ This has helped to – largely – reduce occurrences of brutal forced evictions, especially those that used to take place at night or during the rainy season. Even arbitrary rent increases by structure owners or landlords don’t happen so much – it used to be that if a structure owner just disliked your personality they would throw you out of your home. All these changes are because of Muungano: through its empowerment efforts the law is being more strictly followed. So Muungano must continue uniting the poor – many fingers clapping make a louder noise.