Musyimi Mbathi

Musyimi Mbathi

Academic partner

From: University of Nairobi

Interview date & place: 2 August 2016, Nairobi

Interviewed by: Jack Makau

Original language: English

My name is Musyimi Mbathi from the University of Nairobi Department of Urban and Regional Planning. I am a city planner by qualification. I also double up as a GIS consultant and a researcher as well.

How did you first get involved with Muungano?

We have come a long way: 13 or 14 years ago, when I was working with the government of Kenya in the department of physical planning, I recall this moment when Jane Weru from Pamoja Trust, with Jack Makau, coming over to my office to enquire about work we were doing in Kibera, one of the biggest slums in Nairobi and in this region. And what you wanted to find out as Pamoja Trust was what tools we were employing to understand better the informal settlements. Geographical Information Systems had not set foot in Kenya like it is today; we had rudimentary ways of understanding settlements and human settlements. I was among the pioneering team from Kenya to get further training on how to apply these tools; so here we were as a department trying a new tool and trying it out in the biggest settlement in the city of Nairobi. That was a big task, but all the same an interesting learning experience which had not been tried before. So we went structure by structure, trying to enumerate, trying to capture data and have the same represented spatially. In excess of 15,000 structures were covered in this exercise – between 15,000 and 17,000. I could boast at particular moment that I knew Kibera even better than some of residents who lived in that settlement.

So here was a tool that helped us get to know settlements much better than the communities. But that's not a good thing to say, because I believe residents ought to be empowered to know settlements better than we people who do not live in the settlements. And here comes an opportunity, through Jane Weru and Pamoja Trust, who came over to the office to find out exactly what we were doing. And from that moment henceforth, a relationship was cultivated between the peoples' federation, Muungano, and the government and the other partners, in terms of understanding our settlements better. I'm proud to say that that initiative has grown, and many more organizations appreciate it, and many more people appreciate our settlements, including communities themselves now have taken this up and applying it in good way to map out their areas, to make people understand challenges existing. And of course that's the best way to begin developing solutions to the settlements.

What have been your experiences in government, working with Muungano?

It has been an interesting journey. When I worked in the civil service – you understand about government procedures – then we were meant to go out and carry out planning in the settlements and towns with very little consultation. We were Government: all powerful, all knowledgeable. Of course we weren't knowledgeable or powerful, really. A piece of humbling experience: we went to Kibera and tried to map out simple things like land use. You could see a structure: all structures look similar, in our opinion many of the structures would fall into the category of residential; but shops looks like homes, homes look like schools, so unless you lived in Kibera you would [not] now be able to tell whether this was a small industry, a home, a school. We came up with very good plans, but to our surprise the people did not take up the plans – until I changed work locations and came over to the university, where we embraced a different way of working. Thanks to the relationship that we had cultivated [with] Muungano earlier on, we now see, view, work in slums, work in people's settlements, using a very different approach. We leave our hearts – as professionals, engineers, planners, architects – outside the settlement, sit with the people, and assume different roles: a role of trying to understand settlements better, but driven by the communities themselves.

Of course, the communities live there, have invested there, know each and every corner. Again, to many professionals that is unpalatable: they would not cede ground to communities who live in these areas, to tell them that we rely upon you as a community to tell us everything, including what to do. What's the role of the professional in this case? I think you become a better professional if you humble yourself and agree to see the world using a different lens. Because that’s the lens we have not been using before, and thanks to these benefits we get from Muungano, that planning is no longer what we think professionals ought to [do]. Yes, we will have one or two things that the communities have not experienced: we will bring in experiences from other settlements, other countries, other settings that they may not know of – so in terms of exchange of best practice, this is how best practice seeps into community planning; and from the communities, they will give us their own lived experience of the settlements. I think those two worlds can now begin to carry out real planning in the settlements, if we shed our ‘professional’ approach. ‘And they shed their point of ignorance’? I don’t believe that: I believe communities are very strong in the sense that they live, invest, understand the settlements better than us; they do not come from an ignorant point of view. They are extremely knowledgeable about their environments, so these two working ways I think can give us a good solution towards settlements in this country. And this is now emerging – we see that a lot in the work that we are doing.

What have been your experiences in the University of Nairobi, working with Muungano?

I recall one case where we had a planning exercise in Mathare, and this involved the Department for Urban and Regional Planning, University of California Berkeley, SDI, and the community in Mathare, to try and design or come up with settlement layouts and housing proposals, [and] infrastructure layouts. I remember in the first instance, people saying that they needed four to five bedroomed houses: that was their view, they have a right to four or five bedrooms. That is not a problem, but considering the limited space and the many number of people, even getting half a bedroom would be an issue, leave alone four or five bedrooms. So how was this resolved? I remember one way: through consensus. People ceded ground, and ceded ground a lot, because we ended up with solutions that offered one or two bedrooms, and for the first time people now accepted vertical developments. There was a lot of give and take: ‘Yes, we can allow the improvement of the settlement, but doing vertical developments’. I remember the issue of pollution of the river: if you have the river running at the back of your house, it’s not anything that you can say, I take care of the river. But if your house fronts the river – your main door, your main access fronts the river – then you have an obligation not to pollute the same river, not to dump in the same river, because that’s your environment, that what you see every day. Many of the rivers passing by the settlements get polluted because the houses are not actually facing the river, and when people accepted that it was important to orient and face the river, then the whole issue of pollution became not an issue anymore – because nobody wants to pollute the space, areas, outside their houses.

Second experience was in Mukuru: very unique happenings about land ownership and who was responsible for infrastructure management and governance – all around governance. We came to know that communities have a lot of dynamics within themselves. For example, we have such powerful people controlling electricity, water, including roads in the settlements. It’s amazing that in other places we take this for granted. Access to water, access to electricity: yes [they are] basic services, you are right, but not in the settlements. In the settlements we have ‘water brokers’: people who decide who gets a connection who does not get a connection. In the settlements we have people who distribute electricity from the main power lines to you and I, and [it’s] not anybody who can engage in this business, despite the fact that we know these are basic services where people have a right to access them. We have very powerful people in the settlements who decide who builds – for example – a kiosk on the roadside. Not anybody can do that: you need to pay; you need permission from the ‘brokers’. We have people who decide the cost of land and where you can actually put up a structure in the settlements.

So those are interesting and intricate ways that people live within the settlements. If we did not use a people’s approach, we would not know any of this. I do not live in the settlements, I was not born in the settlements, I only read about them, I can only see them from the sky using Google Earth tools; but there is so much that goes on behind the scenes that we do not know. The approach that we have taken today enables us to have a front seat in the settlements, because that allows us full access in terms of information, people, dynamics etc – and I believe that is one way of coming up with real solutions to the settlements.

The Muungano–University of Nairobi Urban Studio

[In a] conventional studio, a site is identified, a team of both professors and students move out to go and understand the site, pick up details and dynamics about the site – challenges, opportunities, potentials in the site – come back to class, analyse that and come up with solutions. You could very easily do that without the involvement of people who live at that site. Many of the professors working in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning have practiced before, and they know and value the importance of working with communities, working with leaders, and working with other influential actors within the settlements – if you want to come up with a realistic plan. So the studio that is currently being conducted between Muungano and universities within the country and outside the country follows the principal of valuing the potential and energy and experienced information that we have from people living within the settlements. In one way, this is bringing the settlements to the universities and the universities to the settlements. So this studio approach allows the universities again to get a front seat in the settlements, and allows the settlements to have a front seat – real one-on-one engagement – with the professionals, with the planning schools, either from Kenya or out of Kenya. So that principle is what forms the basis of the Muungano and university initiative, and the studios.

We have recent funding as Muungano and the University of Nairobi Department of Urban Planning, including the Centre for Urban Research and Innovation, funding by IDRC Canada. And the same approach we use in the studio is being applied to go through a studio process to understand dynamics of land ownership, access to infrastructure, governance, and justice in the settlements. So we allow communities to play a big role, where we will not necessarily record but where we will experience and see things through their own lens. And it is for us to interpret those, and make meaning out of those experiences. And I can assure you that the next phase of upgrading in this country will be very interesting, because it will be informed a lot by what we see and know, and has been influenced or contributed by the communities. This is the real studio now that we have.

What has been Muungano’s contribution to research in Kenya?

We might be seated here talking about Muungano in Kenya, but we value the networks Muungano has across the world, from Latin America to Asia. That experience is what has helped us understand settlements better.

Muungano has a direct connection with the communities: Muungano is about community, so in essence we are negotiating, we are dealing with, we are working with communities, one on one. Muungano brings in goodwill from communities: if the people in the settlements see us working with the Muungano, then they will believe in us; they are ready to accept as amongst their community. So we belong, because we work with, we collaborate with Muungano.

All along, for the [past] couple of years, Muungano has equally benefited from students and professors who have keen interest in working within the settlements. Every year we have Muungano and affiliate organizations taking up one or two of our very good students to support them, and they work alongside the Muungano fraternity to help improve or address community challenges that they face.

All along, we as professors have had opportunities to work with Muungano side by side, in research projects for example, and this action-oriented way of working with Muungano has helped improve learning experiences within the universities – because you see a good way where practice influences, impacts upon, teaching or the theoretical part; and theory also informing Muungano work. So this this is a very healthy working relationship we have here: both ways, we learn a lot, we benefit a lot; and we are improving the way planning is carried out in this country and this region, or anywhere where Muungano is working.

I have interacted with affiliates of Muungano and SDI in Zambia, and I see the kind of ‘university Muungano’ – Muungano Zambia of course – working together. South Africa, India, and all these places again have taken up the good side of university and Muungano linkages. I think this extends all the way to India, Thailand as well. Pretty powerful experiences here. I went to school with students from Thailand, and they were talking about university and COPI working together in Thailand, and I told them we have the same approach in Nairobi ­– where did it come from? Again an SDI affiliate. This is a global movement and I'm proud to be associated with that.

How has planning in Kenya changed over time?

For long, planning has been a preserve of government officials or other influential actors in a city. Here we are, courtesy of Muungano and SDI, in Kitui Town where we are carrying out a learning studio with the communities. And one of the key outcomes is that (1) people appreciate planning, and (2) they actually want to do real planning themselves. So out of this studio we hope to see a forum developed where people run the show themselves and engage with government about matters planning. They may not be planners, but they live in the town, they have invested in the town, they believe in the town, and they know that they have a role to play in the town. So we are looking at a paradigm shift: a new, evolving way of carrying out planning in this country, courtesy of Kitui Town. How? Through the communities we hope to form town planning forums, where we'll have an exchange between officials – the government – and the communities; healthy exchange about what is working and what is not working. This is not a forum to bash national government or county government, but it is a forum where we can exchange views and information to make our cities better, to make our cities sustainable, to provide avenues, pathways, to enhance livelihoods and better environmental status in our cities. This is emerging.

What are your hopes for the next 20 years?

We have come a long way. As I talk about the future, the next 10, 20, 30 years to come, we have come a long way. I was in this city and witnessed what eviction was all about. The first eviction that I witnessed first-hand was the eviction near Machakos County bus stop – what do you call this settlement? Mworoto. Very bad experience. I lived in the eastern part of the city and this was my way home every day, so I got to appreciate Mworoto as a settlement right in the middle of town, and then one day Mworoto was no more; and I thought to myself, Mworoto is not the structures that you see here, Mworoto is about the people – the mothers, the children, the fathers, the traders, everyone who lives there. And in one instance, Mworoto was not there. So I tried to imagine being a resident of Mworoto. That was not easy for the people of that settlement. We have come a long way. I would wish to see the next 10, 20 years, definitely learning a lot from the past, from the Mworoto experience – that that is not the way to go. A town is about the people. A town is not about the buildings that you have in it; it would not be a town if we had very beautiful buildings with no inhabitants – that's not a town, that's a concrete jungle. But a town is about the people and the concrete jungle – of course, the users of the concrete jungle. So I'm looking at the next 20 or 30 years having solutions towards people's settlements. We cannot continue living in these conditions, and I can assure you the solutions will come from the people who live in those settlements, not you or me – the engineer, the planner, the architect. Yes, we have a role to play: the communities cannot plan the engineer role, the architect role, the planner role; we will come of course as professionals, but play the lesser role.

Enhanced governance in our towns: more and more people appreciate and understand what it means to be on the forefront to decide how a town ought to grow, be managed and be sustained. That will be the urban future of Kenya. And then, last but not least, is the transparency in the whole issue of land governance. We see now an awakening about land and how it should be used and appropriated within the entire city. It is quite consoling to see people's settlements being on the forefront on land use within a city. For example, some of the best planned, best examples of use of technology to understand settlements, are within the areas that we call slums. Here, they are pioneering some of these technologies, in the city of Nairobi for example. Yes, we have neighbourhood associations, but pretty loose: if you want to see the real neighbourhood associations, go to the people’s settlements. That's the way to go. And I believe if a city can go that way – to develop strong neighbourhood associations – we will have smart cities, we will have working cities, we will have functional cities, we will have the real cities in our settings.