From: Rhodah, Nakuru
Interview date & place: 5 April 2016, Nairobi
Interviewed by: Jack Makau & Kate Lines
Original language: Swahili
My name is Sammy Njoroge Njuguna. I come from Rhodah village, one of the biggest informal settlements in Nakuru county.
Who is Sammy? What motivates you?
Where I come from there are lots of challenges, and these push me to aim higher, to change the circumstances now. But I am also grateful, because we have had achievements which can clearly be seen. Through these achievements other people also get inspired, giving them hope. If it is matters to do with school, we strive to ensure everybody gets an equal opportunity and parents are able to pay school fees. Or we help people out of their rent arrears in the community. Early marriages and unplanned pregnancies are also challenges in our area; we have been discussing how we can tackle such issues, and help affected people and our youths. We would really like to see a community that relies on itself and operates big projects, like community banks – if we have projects like these, then we will even be able to educate other communities.
How did you first get involved with Muungano?
We heard of Muungano in 2002. We were working together with another organization called Naheko, which was more concerned with housing issues and garbage disposal. At one point, some people came from Nairobi and introduced us to Muungano, but we were not sure we wanted to join, because they wanted to introduce us to daily savings and we were already in a monthly savings group. Later, they took two people to Nairobi and Mombasa for an exchange, but this did not convince us either and we were not yet fully willing to join. In 2003, we went to Nairobi. There were fifteen of us: three from every group, forming a committee with Naheko and Muungano. We all agreed that if we were to join Muungano, we would still be channelling what we saved to Naheko. This is how Muungano begun here in Nakuru. The members of Naheko were older and most of them were landlords, so they were less interested in saving; that is the point when we opted to start saving, an activity which could benefit most of us.
What were things like back when you joined Muungano?
Issues were mostly to do with land. Most members in Naheko were landlords, so even if we wanted to buy land, these people could opt to buy big chunks of land, which the normal people could not afford. On one occasion, the municipal council at that time proposed that the area should be a special planning area. This was a good idea, because it would benefit the people in Naheko and Muungano. And more generally, this idea proved to be effective because it would also bring the people together. So, when Muungano came, they started working with those who had nowhere to settle. And, with time, we resolved to also become landlords instead of tenants; this was mainly because we saw other landlords benefiting from what they acquired from their tenants.
How have things changed over time?
There have been lots of changes. In 2003, we bought some land, and many people saw that Muungano was indeed the way forward, and not Naheko which had turned out to be more of a cooperative entity. Cooperatives are made up of directors, professionals, and auditors, who needed to be paid from our own money; but in Muungano we have learnt how to do our own internal auditing, and when there is a problem we are able to detect it early enough and address it promptly without having to necessarily pay individuals for that.
First, it is important to understand that Muungano is made up of all the individuals that live here. It hasn’t established itself as a corporation. Now, people have started noticing our presence, because some of our members have gained the courage to speak boldly for themselves. In cases where decisions have to be made concerning the community, members from Muungano are consulted on the way forward. This is because Muungano comprises everyone, including the poorest people in the community. For example, right now there is an issue concerning the budget, and Muungano members are going to be called upon to contribute.
We have become independent, in that we can now do some things even without the help of the government. We can now sit down with government officials and come up with a way forward for this county, and they see sense in what we are talking about. I consider all these as major achievements on our side.
I have mentioned the budget process: we were called upon to address issues to do with housing, where we contributed. Without involving Muungano, there would be no development in this county, especially for poorer people. At times, these organizations meet with other groups so that they could also be updated with what is currently happening within the community.
Nakuru County has eleven [local government] constituencies, and we have spread to many of them. Now we are roughly 2000 active members. Although Muungano began at the municipal level, we have managed to expand our reach as far as Naivasha, and the movement is doing well. Members in Naivasha had a project where they successfully purchased a piece of land for their members. In other areas, like Subukia, the movement is still doing well – they have started saving collectively. A lot of awareness is being created on matters to do with land. Before, someone could only get a title deed if they had a piece of land more than 100 x 50 feet, but this has now changed. Before, the municipal council was strict on the type of houses that we could build, but now they allow us to construct mud or iron sheet houses as long as we comply with the architects drawings – this was not the case before, where they wanted us to comply with the Vision 2030 housing requirements. The council has also asked us to engage with them in our housing projects.
What have been Muungano Nakuru’s achievements over the years?
My group started way back in 1999, but got registered in 2000. We had many leaders in power before I got elected. In 2003, we managed to get some land, but since then there have been lots of challenges. We started with only 25 people. The main problem was that many poorer people who happened to get some land would think that they were now well off, and soon they would start missing meetings.
Previous leaders also had many financial scandals – they were accused of colluding with some members and embezzling funds – and so people lost trust in one another. When the leaders asked members to repay loans, the members rejected this, demanding that the leaders repay first. Then, serious misunderstandings arose between the leaders and members, and that’s how the earlier leaders stumbled and started leaving, one after another, to join a newly-formed group. Because of all this, members became afraid to contribute, the amount of savings went down, and soon the group collapsed. It took some time without us meeting, until it came to a point where I asked those people who at least had gotten land if they were comfortable with the situation, or if they were open to the idea of us developing the land. I suggested to them to adopt a merry-go-round system, which would help us develop the project. Of the 20 people with land, most were uncertain about kickstarting another group, and the turnout was very low for our initial meetings – actually, we were only five; the rest had various reasons for not attending – but we continued meeting and initiated a merry-go-round, and with time the number grew to seven, nine, until today we are about 400. When the group grew to over 80, we decided to form subgroups under the same name and currently we have seven sub groups; now, around 300 members can benefit from the plots [that had previously been bought] and most of them are in the process of building houses. I consider this a big achievement, because out of the five members we initially had, we now have grown to 400. Three of those five members have been effective leaders. From the seven sub groups, we also have representatives, and I think this is good growth. We thought of joining with other groups, but later on found out that we do not share the same vision, and so uniting with them would only lead to problems. When we started networking, we didn’t have our own groups and so we joined with other groups, and because they didn’t have leaders we gave them some of our leaders, but the networks did not last long – everybody moved into the groups that we had started.
One of the other things we have managed to achieve is to bring the community together, through understanding that we face common problems. Through this, we are able to share our problems and come up with solutions. In some instances, we have spent time with elected leaders and other people from the government, to share and come up with viable solutions to these problems; we have learnt many things from our interactions with them, including matters to do with governance.
People used to think that we were mad when we talked about governance issues. On our own, we are able to achieve a lot, but uniting with the government has led us to achieve much more. For example, when we realized that there were some marginalized areas, we proposed for these areas to be governed independently. Luckily, the areas were separated and made into a smaller part of a larger local government administrative unit. Now, that goes down in the history of Muungano as a big achievement.
Probably, people will tell you the main challenge they face has to with housing, because they have to pay rent every month and yet they don’t have a stable source of income or a business to rely on. They may want to save in order to get better housing facilities or land, but they lack a source of income that could help them. Because of this challenge we started table banking, for the purposes of saving and giving loans; then from there we graduated to join Akiba Mashinani Trust, and that has been of great help – we can now borrow from them and lend to our members.
We also thought of having some projects to help our youths, and we proposed a motorcycle-taxi project, whereby we owned a number of motorcycles which we lend to the youths. The idea was that these motorcycles would help them carry out businesses, and from this project they were able to enhance their living standards. Another project that we also thought of was getting [cooking] gas cylinders for our members, as a way of improving their living standards. Members were able to pay for their gas cylinders through weekly instalments of about 200 shillings, which they agreed to and felt happy about. Also, when the country migrated from analogue to digital television broadcasting, most people could not afford to buy digital gadgets, so we went ahead and bought appliances, and gave them to our members after they agreed to repay in instalments. This was another way of improving the living standards of our members. We also have another project that involves buying household items like mattresses for our members, as a way of improving their lives.
What have been Muungano Nakuru’s challenges over the years?
The first challenge that we have faced mainly touches on issues to do with leadership. Most leaders in power have some hidden agendas. Some people think that if you are a leader then you are automatically entitled to free things. Some leaders don’t assume their full responsibilities – at times they will call for a meeting but they themselves fail to attend. Such issues pose challenges within the movement, causing some members to leave and, in the long run, causing some groups to become inactive.
We have also faced challenges dealing with new members to the movement. Some new members come from different groups, and so it hasn’t been easy for them to understand how we, the lower classes in society, manage to operate big projects worth 5 million [shillings]. So they question the activities we are involved in within the community. Another issue concerns new members who join Muungano but are of a better-off class than us; when they join they try to implement things our members don’t agree with, and this leads to conflict.
As time went by, we tried to build a good rapport with the government and some political leaders. Initially, the problem was that most of the time when we approached a political leader, they would think that all we wanted was money; but nowadays, we go to them and they listen to our ideas and project proposals.
Another challenge is that many settlements in Nakuru are not state-owned, but are privately owned. If you come up with an idea to fight for ownership rights, most people will not support you because they think that they are living [in the slum settlements] because that is all they can afford. Private land has been a challenge to develop because of resistance by the people living there – for instance, if you propose to build roads so as to facilitate easy movement, or to set up electricity to reach the whole community, they will resist, fearing that this will lead to loss of the land or to rent increases.
Muungano Nakuru’s residents associations: what can other groups learn from you?
As Muungano movement, we have worked towards a Muungano residents’ association. This is because we have agreed to stay together, irrespective of whether one member is a landlord or not, as long as we have something that we share in common as a community. The best thing about a residents’ association is that it accommodates every person; but it is Muungano members who are the main stakeholders of the resident associations.
The way we have structured the resident associations is that we have created different committees which are responsible for every group. For instance, the youth committee is responsible for the youths, and the women’s committee deals with women’s affairs. There will also be a committee for education, which will be spearheaded by a specific group. However, many women have not come on board because they think all this is waste of time. That might be for various reasons – they are maybe busy with their small businesses and lack time to attend the meetings. So, you will find that few women attend the meetings. This poses a challenge: we hope they will change their minds and become active.
At some point, most people will get involved together, even though we are of different classes. Some may be landlords, others tenants, but when there isn’t a landlord association we can live harmoniously in the community – this can be achieved when we live together, because we share the same problems, like poor roads and inadequate water supply.
The form of a resident association is mandated in Kenya’s constitution. And actually it started with us here in Nakuru because there was insecurity, and so the elders – people in the community – had to provide security for their families. We thought of better ways to control the situation and, when the situation normalized, we realized that some of our children are not going to the schools that are there in the community because of financial problems, so we began to follow up on issues to do with bursaries in order to help them. When we joined hands, we assigned different tasks to different group leaders – for example, pressing issues to do with schools had a leader, issues to do with roads also has a leader – who addressed all matters raised for improving people’s lives in the community.
Where I live, in the residence association, we have started designing women’s empowerment programs with the help of Muungano members, but the elected leaders have to consult us before making any decisions. They have to get the views of the community, even in passing a memorandum. Not all people can join Muungano, but the people from the residents’ association become part of Muungano, like us, when we meet with them.
What are your hopes for Muungano’s next 20 years?
First, we have been aiming to bring everybody on board and share our vision with them. We see this as a strategy that can help because we never stay in power forever, but if we have a vision, our successors can carry on with the task. What I would really like to see – which is what we are trying to achieve now – is to appoint many leaders amongst us, so that the activities and the meetings can continue even in one person’s absence. This will also help others to stop imagining that we in leadership positions have some hidden agendas. Some people also think that our interests within the movement are not fully taken care of because we are outside Nairobi – we hope this will soon change.
Many members of Muungano want to know where we are heading, so that if we get financial help we will be able to know how to put it to good use. We also want to set up structures through which to educate people on how to make and manage money by investing in profitable activities. If we have such measures, and get external financial support, we can move forward with ease. In general, I think if we take that route then we will have changed the lives of many. Muungano has really helped us to get land and proper housing, which is very good. Now, we are thinking that if it could continue helping us to expand the saving groups by equipping us with some financial management knowledge, then the lives of many will definitely be transformed. I am trusting Muungano to help us accomplish this, so that we will expand in numbers with members who understand the problems we face and can sit down together to brainstorm on how to come up with solutions to them – and beyond being concerned only with land and proper housing, projects that are going to benefit the whole of the wider society.