Poorest Kenyans devastated by floods, brutalised by government response

Winnie Makinda wails as she tells how a bulldozer killed her son, Ian Otieno, in Nairobi, on May 8, 2024. [AP Photo]

Winnie Makinda, 35, says she is facing the worst crisis and lowest moment of her life because of the Kenyan government's response to floods that devastated her poor community in the capital, Nairobi.

The floods and mudslides swept away people and inundated homes, killing at least 267 people and affecting more than 380,000, according to government statistics. The floods are fueled by unusually heavy rainfall during Kenya's rainy season, which starts in March and sometimes extends to June.

The hardest hit are people living close to rivers, including the Mathare River running through Nairobi.

To save lives in the future, the government last week ordered evacuations and the demolition of structures and buildings that had been built illegally within 30 meters (98 feet) of riverbanks. Officials say that at least 181,000 people have been moved since last week and that measures have been taken to provide temporary shelter, food and other essentials.

But the demolitions have led to more suffering as those affected say they are being carried out in a chaotic and inhumane way. At least three people have died in the past week when bulldozers brought down structures on top of them, according to rights groups, family members of the deceased and residents who spoke to The Associated Press.

Among those killed was Makinda's 17-year-old son, Ian Otieno, who was crushed to death when an excavator brought down a wall of the Pentecostal Evangelistic Fellowship of Africa church while he was inside helping save property.

“The driver of the excavator refused to listen to the pleas by the women that there were children inside the church,” Makinda said amid sobs.

Residents of Mathare trying to salvage their belongings after a night of flooding on April 24, 2024. [Robert Tomno, Standard]

Otieno was the only one of her eight children attending school, and he carried the family’s hopes for a better future. A single parent of four sons and four daughters, Makinda faces forceful eviction this week from the $15-a-month tin shack she calls home in Kenya’s populous Mathere slums.

One of her children is suffering from sickle cell anemia, which often leaves her bed-ridden and in need of costly treatment, and her youngest needs frequent medical attention after being scalded by boiling water around the torso.

Overwhelmed by her situation, Makinda tried to jump into the raging waters of the Mathare River to “end the stress." Her neighbors stopped her Wednesday and calmed her by giving her a local moonshine called Changaa, which is popular in rural and low-income areas of the capital.

Makinda makes $2 a day washing other people's clothes and says she can barely afford one proper meal a day for her children let alone pay hospital bills. And now she must raise money for her son's burial, a costly exercise for most people in western Kenya, and move to a new house.

“My son's body is lying in the mortuary without preservation because I have not paid. I cannot even afford transportation to the morgue,” she said.

Like hundreds of poor Kenyans whose houses are being demolished, Makinda feels betrayed and abandoned by the government. Some say they were evicted without the legally recommended three-month notice period that should be given before action is taken.

They also say they have not received the $75 in aid to look for alternative accommodation that President William Ruto has pledged.

Millicent Otondo, 48, a mother of three, lost both her home and her 20-year-old business during this week's demolition.

The caretaker of a five-story building that was brought down, Otondo recounted how engineers marked the building housing her shop and home for demolition, which prompted people to break into it and steal her entire stock.

Millicent Otondo stands in front of her demolished shop in Mathare in Nairobi, on May 8, 2024. [AP Photo]

“I am really bitter because police stood by as people looted my belongings,” Otondo said from a local primary school where she has received temporary shelter.

Otondo says she has not received the $75, and even if she did, it wouldn't cover her rent and is a drop in a bucket compared with the $6,000 in losses from her property that was looted. She also wondered why the building was demolished despite it not being within 30 meters of the riverbank.

The government has defended itself against opposition accusations it was ill-prepared for the impact of the floods despite early warnings.

“I don't think anyone would be prepared for the weather extremes we are seeing,” Environment Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya said in an interview with local broadcaster Citizen TV. “Some parts of this country have never seen floods before.”

Experts say the devastating rains are a result of a mix of factors, including the country’s seasonal weather patterns and human-caused climate change, as well as natural weather phenomena.

However, observers point out that the government received early warnings of the floods from the metrological department in October.

“This is hypocrisy and insensitivity of the highest order,” said rights activist Boniface Mwangi. “The government knew the floods were coming, and even set aside 10 billion [$76 million] to prepare a nationwide response. What happened to those funds?”

He said the government also abdicated its responsibility by allowing the building of houses on land near rivers and swamps.

“Greed is the reason people are dying. Corrupt civil servants approved and issued title deeds for riparian lands,” he said.

And amid the death and destruction caused by floods, the government is demolishing houses in the name of bringing development through a government affordable housing program, he said.

“Demolishing people’s homes in the name of affordable housing is a sign that we have a tone-deaf government. People living in shanties can’t afford to pay for houses costing millions. Their entire life's wages can’t buy any of the houses the government is building,” Mwangi said.