To put up a decent shelter over one’s family is the ultimate goal of majority Kenyans. It is a painstaking process that calls for huge sacrifice, saving and dedication.
While only a few privileged elite get a shot in the arm, millions of poor Kenyans have to work hard for a roof over their head. Many others take a lifetime to construct a home for their loved ones.
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I was therefore touched last week when a single mother of four tearfully narrated the ordeal they have gone through for two weeks now after an inferno rendered nearly 5,000 households homeless in Southlands, Lang’ata, in Nairobi. Her children have been allowed to go to school in home clothes after their uniforms were burnt, but they cannot wear the same clothes for so many days and that is why they skip school on some days.
She also shared how they have been robbed of dignity as they are forced to put up with some friends in a single-roomed house. Their privacy has been thrown out of the window, and the younger children exposed to a cruel world.
While the government has promised to rebuild their houses, controversy has already emerged on who will own the new structures, the tenants or the former slumlords? Their misfortunes are not unique seeing that every once in a while we get hundreds of families rudely evicted from their homes. We get reports of how cattle rustlers or bandits strike a village and burn houses, forcing hundreds of people to seek shelter in bushes or caves.
The housing challenge should now ignite a national conversation. It is not fair that the poor are left to their own devices when tragedies strike because authorities do not insist on proper housing specifications. In the Lang’ata incident, for instance, power lines were squeezed into the slums in a haphazard manner that when the fire broke out, it spread so fast, that it is a miracle that only some four lives were lost. It could have been catastrophic.
INTIMIDATION AND THREATS
In most of Kenya’s informal settlements, there are hardly any amenities and children are brought up in the most brutal and dehumanising conditions. Crime, drug abuse, prostitution and poverty are part of life from an early age. Growing up into an upright and ambitious citizen for a slum child is a rarity, a problem we should constantly be worried about, given the ballooning population and shrinking resources.
While charitable individuals, organisations and dozens of NGOs have put in millions of shillings to improve the lot of slum dwellers, the situation calls for more commitment from the government. Housing is among President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda, where the Jubilee administration has promised to construct over 500,000 housing units in the next five years. Should the President deliver on this promise alone, he will have secured his legacy and Kenyans will forever be grateful.
To achieve this, besides the huge capital outlay needed, the government must enforce all regulations and punish heavily contractors or investors seeking shortcuts. Tens of lives have been lost in collapsed buildings due to poor workmanship or putting up structures along riparian land. Corrupt but powerful individuals have also grabbed public spaces, road reserves and put up commercial ventures. Will the government be willing to break such cartels?
Still, the growing gulf between the rich and poor must be addressed while tackling the housing crisis. Just two weeks after the Lang’ata slum fire, a South African company has launched a Sh5 billion skyscraper that promises luxury living in Nairobi’s Upperhill.
The 44 storey building will comprise over 250 luxurious units, selling for millions of shillings. Already, dozens of wealthy individuals have paid upfront for their units. At the launch, the guest list read like a who-is-who as government and corporate tophonchos sipped champagne to toast to the latest exclusive living pad. There was no room for those whose life is a mere existence.
How the President dangles the housing ‘carrot’ between the rich and poor, will determine the outcome of one of his big four agenda.