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How poverty fuels fires in Elburgon’s Kasarani slum

By Kennedy Gachuhi | Published Tue, February 13th 2018 at 10:46, Updated February 13th 2018 at 10:51 GMT +3
A section of the Kasarani slum in Elburgon, Nakuru County. It has a population of more than 10,000 people. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

The mention of Kasarani slums in Elburgon triggers memories of horrendous house fires that occur there almost every month.

The informal settlement, which is home to more than 10,000 residents, was established in 1992, when the national government drove people out of various blocks of Mau Forest in a bid to conserve it.

Esther Nyokabi, 82, was among the first people to come to Kasarani.

“When we came here, there were no houses around. We lived in makeshift tents for years as people from different forests kept coming,” recalled Ms Nyokabi.

She was among thousands displaced from Ndosua Forest, which is part of the larger Mau Forest. Others came from Bararget, Marioshoni, Kiptunga, Ling’ondo and Olenguruone forests.

With time, Kasarani became the IDPs’ new home and they joined hands to buy the land.

Tiny plots

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Due to the high demand, the land was subdivided into tiny plots measuring 20 feet by 80 feet. They were meant for the construction of single houses as the squatters sought to move out of the tents.

“All we wanted was a place to call home that would allow us to move on with life. We had to accommodate everyone on the land because we could not afford to buy independently elsewhere. The plots were small but we needed to own them so we could build decent houses,” said Nyokabi.

The growing population and poverty levels eventually made the residents build houses “wall-to-wall” to maximise the use of available space.

Timber is the most readily available construction material owing to the high number of sawmills in Elburgon.

The wooden houses are connected to wooden fences, made from the highly flammable pine trees. This has been a major contributor to the numerous house fires in the area.

“Most of the houses are more than 20 years old. The timber has dried up, making it hard to put out fires when they start. Before help arrives, we usually have more than 30 houses destroyed,” Nyokabi said.

Some of the plots have been developed into tiny rental houses, congesting the area further.

“Due to the high demand for housing, those who have the financial muscle have built rental houses. When a fire starts in one plot and spreads to three others, at least 50 families are affected,” said David Irungu, another resident.

The limited space has also hindered the drilling of boreholes, leaving the residents to rely on distant sources. As a result, there is not enough water for consumption or to to battle fires.

Congestion also makes it hard for fire engines to manoeuvre their way easily to burning houses.

“Once a fire starts, our available option is to demolish some of the houses a distance from the burning ones. In some cases we give up due to the heat and the bright light from the fierce flames,” said Mr Irungu.

Casual labourers

The majority of Kasarani residents work as casual labourers on the farms of native Elburgon and Molo residents to make ends meet, hence the high poverty levels in the slums.

Most residents share toilets and hygiene levels are low. Food is also in short supply as the slum dwellers do not have any land to till.

But things should have been different. In 2006, the national government bought the expansive Njenga Karume Farm in Molo for their resettlement. The resettlement process, however, dragged on until four years ago, when the land was sub-divided.

But only a few people got a share of the land due to corruption, according Molo MP Kimani Kuria.

“Many people have remained in the slums despite the Government procuring land, which was allocated in an unclear manner. It is a matter we need to revisit,” said Mr Kimani.

He also said there was need for the county government to invest in fire engines to respond faster to fires.

“I appeal to the county government to station a fire engine in the sub-counties, especially Molo, where these fires are rampant,” he said.

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