So Close Yet So Far… By Felix Otieno, KI Office Manager

In the year 2006 I got an opportunity to travel to Vancouver Canada to attend the third World Urban Forum (WUF 3). I had participated in the successful planning and organization of the world urban cafes in my village – Soweto East Kibera as part of build up activities, this paved the way for me to attend the main event in Canada. It was a feet worth celebrating. Back then, even owning a passport leave alone travelling abroad would make one a village ‘’celebrity.’’  So I went to WUF 3 to represent grassroots youth from slums and informal settlements. I was particularly focused on representing the voice of young men and women in my community.

During one of the sessions, I passionately contributed to a debate discussing various challenges facing youth in urban areas. I talked about my challenges growing up in an extremely deprived environment like Kibera, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. What stood out for me was the reaction of the audience after the session. Almost all of them especially those representing first world countries came to me to thank me for my bold contributions. However, I realized that they were mostly unconvinced that I was actually from Kibera. They thought I was an imposter using Kibera to attract attention. How could a Kiberan speak so fluently and coherently express his ideas and opinions? I was surprised by the prejudice.

This experience taught me one thing; nothing good is expected to come out of a slum like Kibera. On the other hand the suffering and deprivation that young men and women living in slums and informal settlements experience erode their self- confidence and esteem. Often, because of the stigma associated with it, they are afraid to identify with their environments – slums and informal settlements. These slums are characterized by: lack of social amenities; lack of clean water; open and overflowing drainage; overcrowding; high levels of insecurity; lack of proper solid waste disposal and management leading to heaps of garbage all over. Kibera in particular is notorious for its ‘flying toilets’, whereby residents prefer to do their needs in a plastic bag and fling them onto rooftops rather venture out to the nearest public toilets at night. These all combine to give youth leaving in these kinds of environments a feeling of worthlessness, hopelessness and disillusionment – ‘third class’ citizens living in a ‘third world’.

Therefore, slum upgrading initiatives like the Kibera Soweto East zone ‘’A’’ project is a commendable commencement towards not only upgrading the physical environments but also the self-confidence and esteem of young men and women residing in these slums. For now, the project would seem like a drop in the ocean as attested to by statics. Over 60% of Nairobi’s over 3.5 million residents live in slums. There are over 160 slums in Nairobi covering 500 hectares of land. Kenya’s annual informal settlement growth rate is 5% and one of the highest in the world. According to UNHABITAT this rate could double in the next 30 years.  60 % of Kenya’s work force live in slums.

Often, due to perceived government bureaucracy and corruption, residents of slums and informal settlements lack confidence in government initiated and led slum upgrading projects. In fact they have no confidence in any government led initiative or project. They believe that genuine residents who are supposed to benefit would not – simply put, they believe honesty does not bring rewards,  The Soweto East slum upgrading project was initiated around the year 2005. It was started by a lot of community organization and institutionalization of a link between residents and the government.  This was meant to entrench community consultation, participation and involvement.

11 years down the line, members of Soweto East are still waiting to occupy the new high rise buildings. Some of these residents are currently dwelling in a ‘’decanting site’’ to the south west of Kibera. The rest squeezed themselves in other parts of the slum as they await completion of construction works. The processes that have taken place in the course of this project gives residents hope that this time round the government is determined to do it right. They were enumerated and given unique identification cards, they were trained and encouraged to save in a cooperative society. Lately, they filled application forms and have been undergoing a physical vetting process to determine authenticity of the applicants. However, there have been numerous challenges and complaints from residents, despite the efforts and challenges faced by the authorities. There are rumors that wealthy outsiders could be included in the list of beneficiaries at the expense of local residents. They are afraid that a few corrupt government and community leaders could collude to exclude them. The problem lies in that some residents still find it difficult to trust the government and some of the community leaders.

Therefore, for the residents, this project seems so close yet so far away but with a promise. Youth of Soweto East can’t wait to move into the new houses. They long to live in a clean, organized and safe environment with social amenities, one that will not be a cause for discrimination and stigmatization.

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