We Could Win In Kibera

Washington I know you are about sick of hearing about Africa, so with this we will go on about our business, but I have to share that the more I think about it, the more I feel certain that “we could win” in Kibera. By that I mean that a community organization built with a legitimate mass base and leadership of the urban poor in Kibera could win both title to the land and huge improvements to the living conditions. I know that seems presumptuous and perhaps even 1st world arrogant, but I’ll be damned if I can keep the thought to myself. Nor am I alone in being convinced that people could win here, which makes me more perplexed about why we are not getting about the job!

First, there is too much talk about Kibera being the largest slum in Africa. I have no idea if this is true, but I somewhat doubt it. My guess in looking at the acreage is that perhaps there are 300,000 people living there. Of course that is a lot of people, but it is easier to get an organization’s arms around 300,000 than it is a million, so it makes a difference. Nelson Saule, Jr. of the Polis Institute of Social Policy in Sao Paulo, Brazil, confirmed my hunch here and felt the number 300,000 was much closer when we both compared slums we had visited in Latin America.

Second, others elsewhere have won, so there is a precedent for victory here. We found in touring the earlier three settlements that it may have taken a long time, but eventually organized communities acting in concert were able to win title, and after yet more time, services. Wade’s Law of Organizing: Where anyone has won, everyone can win!

Thirdly, residents of Kibera possess a primary tactical opportunity which is invaluable: the national railroad runs through it. The fights between my first visit and this more recent trip were about the mass eviction of families who were encroaching on the tracks provoking the government to remove them. Looked at another way if there were an organization, this could be an opportunity, because frequent and unpredictable mass actions could block the tracks. The railroad is vital in Kenya. The tactic is not frivolous and involves risk, but it could also be unpredictable and provoke constant reaction from the government nationally, leveraging the Nairobi City Council around ownership. At the worst it would force constant protection of the tracks by government troops worried about track-blocking, and Kibera would be the safer place for it. I would also bet money that there would be a lot more electrical generation lighting up that part of Kibera.

Fourthly, there are encroaching private, multi-story housing developments along the borders of Kibera. Part of this is because there is land around Kibera, which is now being used for “sewage farming” as it was called. The developers have an interest in Kibera being stable and for public services in the area to increase. Furthermore there is land, which means that there is leverage to expand the boundaries of Kibera and spread out the slum offering relocation, title, and better conditions on the edges as one works into the middle. Incidentally, there are highways around the developments also providing additional tactical options. Simply put, where there is land, an organization could squat and spread Kibera. Where there are public facilities and private developments, there are interests that can be leveraged in a real campaign.

In short, real grassroots leaders, a real mass based organization, and committed and trained organizers with good advice, and Kibera could be a different place entirely. As we got back on the bus, I turned to Rabial Mallick, a veteran community organizer in India, who I have known for several years and visited with in the Philippines and Kolkata, and said, “Mallick, why are we not organizing and winning here?” He quickly said that he had been thinking exactly the same thing. Comparing Kibera to what he knew from Kolkata, he felt sure real community organizing could empower the population and change Kibera.

So, why is it not happening? Damned if I know? When I first visited Nairobi three years ago en route to the Organizers’ Forum dialogue in South Africa, I called it NGO-bi. Everywhere there was evidence of the donor community. Everywhere there were NGOs. There was an association of community organizers, but not much organizing. Everywhere people proposed “partnerships” which were a euphemism asking for contributions. I’ve become so cynical that perhaps I’m starting to believe that there might be an interest in Nairobi in not changing Kibera, but continuing to use it as an advertisement for donor dollars.

At the same time given that the donor community provides one of the major sources of income into the country, I also have to believe that there is such a blind commitment to “services rendered” and “rendering service,” that the potential of real participation and empowerment that would force change in Kibera, just does not even come to mind. How have we come to this point over the last decades where we have become so jaded and inured to the human misery and tragedy around us that we no longer see people as real people ready to be the central actors in their own drama of life, but instead as simply symbols of the statistics we have already read and posters for some large headlines, such as WORLD POVERTY, rather than folks ready — with some real help — to kick ass, take names, and make some change.

My problem, and maybe yours, is that having now come to the inescapable conclusion that, damned if I don’t believe that “we could win” in Kibera, even with the certain and secure knowledge that I am still red headed, American, and as white as the day is long, how can I not act on this knowledge? How can you not as well?

This is what kills me about seeing more of the world with eyes and ears trained by almost 40 years of organizing. Knowing in my mind — and heart — that in 3-5 years with a couple of hundred thousand in US dollars, we could totally turnaround Kibera — and a thousand places like it — even though it may be the world’s largest slum in Africa. Just seems criminal not to act in such circumstances, but the work is easier than getting the capacity to do it in the jaded, segmented, and blind global world in which we live and work.

What is to be done?

Picture from the Affordable Housing Institute
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