Nairobi's Leaking Roofs

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It started with a drop of water that landed on top of the white headscarf of her head when she was cooking sukuma wiki (kales) on her rusty, green stove. She didn’t feel that drop. But when several drops landed in her plate ten minutes later as she was eating, she realized that her roof was leaking.

No worries. I will just move to another corner of my room. She told herself. She didn’t have many options in her ten square feet room that doubled up as a living room, kitchen and bedroom. Whenever it rained, she simply shifted location to an area of the room that the raindrops had spared. Until Monday 8th 2020.

On Monday May 8 2020, Naomi Wangari Kamau, an elderly lady in her seventies, watched helplessly as the massive cold teeth of bulldozers razed her house to the ground. She couldn’t believe it.

Her lamentation rose into the putrid atmosphere, ‘this is our home. We have been forced out and our houses demolished.’

As the TV crews gathered to cover the demolition recorded, she proceeded to call out to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta to come to their rescue.

Naomi was among at least 5,000 residents of a locality in Kariobangi North, a low-income neighborhood in the eastern part of Nairobi. The simple structures housing these residents were supposedly located on land that belonged to the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company. But the residents begged to differ, insisting that the land had been allocated to them in 2008 by the defunct Nairobi City Council. We even have allotment letters. They said. Unfortunately, their voices didn’t matter to the authorities and the bulldozers that rendered them homeless within hours.

This wasn’t the first such demolition in Nairobi. Click here to view Amnesty International's photo essay of demolitions in Nairobi.

Sixty percent of Nairobi’s five million people live in informal settlements. These two words – informal settlements – provide a linguistic sanitization of their slum dwellings. Here is the brutal truth of a house found in an informal settlement in Kenya: its walls are either made of mud, timber, tin, or iron sheets. It’s roof is mostly made from iron sheets. It’s floors are mostly cemented but sometimes earthen. That’s it. One room comprising of four walls, a door that can collapse after one strong kick and a window. Plus the roof. A mostly leaking roof. Because it’s just one room, its often partitioned by a curtain that separates the living room area and the bedroom. Any of the room’s four corners serves as the kitchen area.

Many of these informal settlements are built on land that doesn’t belong to the residents legally. Such illegal abodes are often the only homes that they can afford to live in, until those cold-teethed bulldozers come calling.

In 2013, these bulldozers descended on City Carton, an informal settlement where about 400 families were living. They were left homeless. Three years later on Friday 08th July 2016, those bulldozers descended on Deep Sea, an informal settlement that had been part of Nairobi’s residential fabric since 1963 when Kenya attained independence.

When the bulldozers finished crawling through Deep Sea, many of the slum’s 12,000 residents were homeless. Their leaking roofs lay smashed and tattered at their feet. What next? Where do you go after this? Where do you find another roof? The one lying at your feet may have been old, rusty and leaking, but at least it was firmly in place, above your head, keeping away 99 percent of the water when it rained. The 1 percent that made it into their single rooms of houses, only came in drops that brought with them the aroma of the skies from whence they had come. They had learnt to live with those leaking roofs and the raindrops that made it through the roofs. The bulldozers, when they came, didn’t care about these living arrangements.

Clad in metallic caps and stony faces, the drivers of these bulldozers, are just doing their jobs. They are paid to drive these bulldozers. But what drives those who sent them? Are they familiar with Article 43 (1b) of Kenya’s constitution, which states that every person has the right ‘to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation.’

These words are as clear as daylight. What isn’t clear is the motivation of those who give the orders for the bulldozers to raze down shelters of people whose leaking roofs are the only roofs they can afford.

Naomi Wangari Kamau and the more than two million Nairobi residents who live in informal settlements are either unemployed or working in the informal sector, which accounts for 70% of employment in the country. Covid-19 has battered this sector so much that it has bled hundreds of thousands of jobs.

What Naomi needs even more urgently than a job is a roof over her head. Unfortunately for her, the 500,000 housing units for low-income households like hers are yet to materialize even though the Government already allocated Sh.6.5 billion for that particular project.

This project is extremely urgent not just because of a growing population but also due to rapid urbanization. In 2005, only 1 out of 5 Kenyans lived in urban areas. By 2030, 6 out of 10 Kenyans will be leaving in urban areas, which will further strain urban housing.

KibraAs was clearly articulated in Vision 2030, Kenya’s national development strategy, although a total 150,000 housing units are required annually in urban areas, only an estimated 35,000 are produced. Out of this, only 6,000 units cater for low-income households, far below the number of housing units that they need. That is why thirty-year old Moses Ojwang has lived in Kibra for fourteen years. In 2006, he migrated from his rural home in Kisumu to Kibra and has lived there ever since then.

“The living conditions are not easy,” he says, “firstly, it is a hotspot of violence during conflict. Then there are the living conditions. They are not easy at all.”

Moses lives in a one-room temporary structure with his wife Hellen and one-year old son Ari. He has the unfortunate distinction of being a trained entrepreneurship coach who can’t afford to be an entrepreneur himself. For almost two years, he was an entrepreneurship trainer in the World Bank-funded Kenya Youth Employment Opportunities Project.

He has a business management diploma from the Kenya Institute of Management. These days to make ends meet, he works as a loans salesman for a Firm that provides loans. He is only paid on commission. This job doesn’t make much use of his leadership and entrepreneurship coaching skills. But it provides him with some revenue of about Ksh10,000 ($100) to keep him going. Although his wife is a trained primary school teacher, the Covid-19 pandemic has stripped away her previous monthly salary.  

One night in April, those raindrops that had visited Naomi knocked on Moses’s roof. They didn’t wait to be ushered into the house but instead squeezed through numerous gaps on the roof. They kept coming until they became not one, not two but several constant water drips. Within minutes, they formed water puddles on his low coffee table and the tiny space that it stands on. Soon, a little pond materialized in the room and flowed beneath the bed, assaulting the shoes and other paraphernalia that lived down there.

Here is the shocker – 60 percent of Nairobi residents live in such one-room dwellings. Dwellings where living rooms mesh into bedrooms and into kitchens to form singular multi-purpose rooms that they call home. Rooms that are sometimes razed down by cold-teethed bulldozers because the land in question belongs to this or that entity, often the government itself.

The country at large and the Kenya government in particular has let Moses down. Low-income households like his need half of total new houses required in Kenya, yet eighty percent of all new houses in Kenya are for the middle and upper classes. Because affordable decent houses for low-income households are simply not there, Moses continues to live in Kibra, in that one-room that is better than no room. That’s what he can afford.

There is need for urgent but systematic action. I have an idea that will place a decent one-bedroom house into the hands of Moses and at least one-hundred thousand low-income households, within six months.

There exists construction technology that can enable construction of an entire secure prefabricated two-bedroom house within two days. If the labor of the people who will occupy those houses is enlisted, 100,000 units can be completed within a maximum of three months. This has already happened in Hyderabad, India, where Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation constructed 6,240 houses over a period of a few months.

The houses will cost between Ksh 500,000 ($5,000) and 1 million ($10,000). Lets go for the halfway mark – Ksh750,000 ($7,500). Using this cost, Ksh1 billion ($10 million) will construct 1,333 houses. Ksh100 billion ($1 billion) will construct 133,300 houses. Considering that Ksh600 billion ($600 million) is lost to corruption every year, 100 billion is totally manageable.

And you know what, we don’t even have to go the prefabricated route. Millions of subsidized bricks can be sourced directly from Kenyan youth, which would lower the cost of constructing brick houses and provide livelihoods for thousands of Kenyan youth. I suspect that such brick houses can even be arguably cheaper than the prefabricated houses, as long as we construct them innovatively.

This idea can be – indeed, it should be – refined accordingly so that we can enable enterprising, hardworking Kenyans to live in an affordable house whose rent or even eventual ownership they can afford. We owe it to Naomi Wangari Kamau. We owe it to Moses. We owe it to his precious wife Hellen. We owe it to baby Ari. Over to you now Mr. President. And fellow Kenyans.

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