NAIROBI: Christopher Munjogu, 62, watches life in Kibera’s Soweto East pass by slowly. Outside his rickety, mud structure that seems to lean on the one next, some ducklings follow their mother, quacking as they occasionally wallow in a mucky trench. Two small boys keep stirring the murky waters, oblivious of the potential health implications of their actions.
The nearby paved road serves as the economic hub of Soweto and booms with all manner of businesses – pharmacies, cell phone stores, kerosene and charcoal dealers, hair salons and fish supplies. A boda boda rider ferries a pig from one end of the street to another while music blares from a stereo attached to his bike.
This is the pulse of Kibera, one of Africa’s largest slums that never goes to sleep. Life here has changed little since Munjogu, a father of four, came here in 1980 from his ancestral home in Kiambu. Those who view it from the outside hardly want to venture inside due to the perceived ills associated with slum life. Get in and the fast pace of life pulls you in like a magnet.
“Kibera has a life of its own. Extreme poverty has made people here adventurous. But it can be painfully slow for some of us who cannot move about with ease,” he tells me, referring to his partial paralysis due to a medical condition that affected his mobility.
But it is not all gloom for Munjogu and hundreds of other Kibera residents. Just across his small business in Soweto East are the newly-completed apartments that are part of the Kibera Slum Upgrading Project.
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The 822 units were put up on a site where mud hovels stood just a few years ago. In the informal settlement lingo, the shacks are known only as “structures”. They don’t qualify to be called houses. Munjogu was one of the residents whose original homes had to give way to the new blocks.
Last week saw 697 residents take part in a balloting exercise at Nyayo Stadium presided over by Land, Housing and Urban Development Cabinet secretary Jacob Kaimenyi. The process was overseen by the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, which was appointed by the High Court as an independent arbiter after a case instituted by some would-be beneficiaries was concluded.
The only thing that stands between them and their new homes is the official handing over of the keys set to be presided over by President Kenyatta early next month. For Munjogu, the road to home ownership in Kibera has been long and winding.
“More than ten years ago, the government came and told us of the plan to build modern houses for the residents. Many were skeptical, considering that this was not the first time such promises were being made. Things were not made any easier by the pronouncement that our homes would be demolished and the residents relocated to a new site in Langata,” he says.
But he took a leap of faith, taking the government’s word for it. For a resident to benefit from the new project, one had to pay a deposit of either Sh100,000 or Sh135,000 for a two-bedroom or a three-bedroom house, respectively.
He, together with other like-minded slum residents, received some flak from naysayers. “I was insulted by people who thought the whole deal was a pipe-dream and a government ploy to evict people from Kibera. Others said the new houses were an extension of a nearby university. I choose to ignore the rumours and now have my three-room house that also comes with a small business area,” says Munjogu.
Because he cannot move easily, Munjogu can only point out his new home in Block G1. But not all in Soweto East are in a celebratory mood over the new homes.
When the project started, the government through the Housing Ministry and UN-Habitat enumerated would-be beneficiaries and issued them with unique identity cards. These were meant to assist them the authorities in identifying bona fide beneficiaries over the life of the project.
The cards would also facilitate the payment of the ten per cent deposit for each new house. Some residents were lured by outsiders who urged them to exchange the cards for cash. They went ahead to promise the residents that they would pay the deposits as long as they (residents) turned the new houses over to them.
Some of the tycoons even showed up at Nyayo Stadium where the balloting was being done but the authorities turned them away. A conflict could be in the offing once the keys are handed over to the residents.
To Duncan Owuor, another resident of Soweto, what such residents did was like selling their birthright to the highest bidder. “Poverty moved some young people to exchange their cards for money. They have created a conflict that may take long to resolve,” he says.
To get a proper perspective of this issue, we met up with Francis Omondi, the secretary of the local settlement executive committee. Omondi has seen this project from its inception and knows too well the genesis of this problem.
He claims moneyed outsiders attempted to bribe officials and benefit from illegal allocations, something he says they resisted. When that failed, the same people thought they could use the courts to their benefit but that also came a cropper.
“No outsiders will benefit from even a single house here,” he says. “We have the master data file. Similar copies lie at the Housing Ministry, the county department of Urban Planning and UN Habitat. All these contain the names of all the beneficiaries. Not a single outsider is on the list.”
According to Omondi, a project of that magnitude in a slum area was bound to have such issues. He says the court cases that delayed the project were meant to create more confusion, adding that last year’s court decision that appointed KNHRC to oversee the balloting procedure eliminated the possibility of outsiders interfering with the process.
Omondi says there are measures put in place to ensure that the homes remain in the hands of original beneficiaries. For example, the home loans will have to be repaid in a period not exceeding 25 years. In addition, the house can only be transferred to a third party ten years after the mortgage repayment.
“This means that the house will remain in the hands of either the current owners or their descendants for the next 35 years. The most they can do is either rent out a room to assist them in repaying the loan,” says Omondi.
Despite the hiccups, Munjogu and other beneficiaries eagerly await the keys handover ceremony and cross over to the Promised Land.