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When the Promised land isn’t all promising

By | Updated Sun, May 30th 2010 at 00:00 GMT +3

By Silvano Ateka

It was a journey reminiscent of the Israelites leaving Egypt for the Promised Land.

On that dusty September afternoon, last year, residents like Ruth Njeri left their mud hovels in the sprawling Kibera slum, and took a 20-minute ride to their ‘paradise’, where more than 300 little palaces awaited them.

The relocation was the first in the slum, and part of a series of slum upgrading projects in the country that are hoped to phase out informal settlements.

The Kibera high-rise flats dwarf some of the shacks residents moved from. Photo: Evans Habil/Standard

Although months have passed since that exciting afternoon for Njeri and dozens others who left their shacks for high-rise flats, an aura of nostalgia still hangs thickly over the new estate.

Njeri’s nostalgia has nothing to do with the surroundings of her former home, which was often awash with rivulets of sewage, rubbish heaps and muddy alleys. It is the camaraderie she once shared with her neighbours in the slum, that she misses most.

"I miss my old friends," she says.

Sharing house

For Njeri, life in the new flats has been smooth but coupled with the challenges of adjusting to an ‘unfriendly’ environment.

The married woman, in her mid 30s, says she is yet to get used to sharing a house with people she can hardly get along with.

Njeri isn’t alone in the predicament. Other residents also find it hard to live with what they describe as ‘unfriendly housemates’, with whom they have to share facilities like kitchen and bathrooms.

Besides unfriendly housemates, a closer look at the flats reveal a life that is different from the once rosy picture etched onto the minds of the occupants earlier on. More than six months down the line, some flats are yet to be supplied with electricity.

But for residents like Ben Nyongesa, electricity supply forms least of his worries. He admits to finding life in the new estate ‘a bit harder’ compared to that of the slums, where his small business thrived, thanks to the droves of people trekking in and out of the vast slum.

Here the population is relatively smaller.

"I now rely on luck to put food on the table. But it is a better home, nonetheless. More secure and comfortable," he says.

His friend Robert Wanjala, a father of two, is equally happy. He pays a monthly rent of Sh1,000 for a nine by 10 cubicle, which is cheaper compared to the Sh1,300 he used to pay.

Non-slum dwellers

Although glad to have benefited from the programme, Wanjala is disturbed by what he sees as ‘outsiders’ bribing their way into the new houses.

"There are some people who do not deserve to be here," he says.

A quick look around the houses lends some credence to his claims. An array of expensive vehicles line the parking lot, a sign there may be more than just former slum dwellers who now occupy the flats.

Lydia, a vegetable vendor near Block C, says, "I had to struggle with the authorities to get here."

She is also unhappy in her new home. Her house has no electricity and her business isn’t doing well here.

"I had my own shop in the slum but now I have to sell my goods in the open," she adds.

Josephine Nduku, a vegetable vendor outside Block ‘T’ and a mother says she, too, misses her old friends though she appreciates the new cleaner environment.

"Living with strangers, some of whom aren’t of your social class isn’t easy," she says.


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