People-driven COVID19 response in a Nairobi ghetto

Blog by dr. Naomi van Stapele | Themeleader within Vital Cities and Citizens

This blog is an introduction to a series of blogs depicting a community-led COVID19 response in a Nairobi ghetto: Mathare. The first one below will introduce the collective that is spearheading this inspiring example of urban resilience. Each following blog will highlight specific cases to provide deeper insights into the everyday work of this collective, the challenges they face and how they seek to overcome these—including by building partnerships with municipal authorities and business entities. Ultimately, these blogs are meant to offer new avenues for research and (policy) action on how top-down policies can work with such local mechanisms of resilience by strengthening these.

Focus on youth and safety

Since August 2019, several community-led organisations in an informal settlement in Nairobi, called Mathare, have joined hands with Slum Dwellers International in Kenya (SDI-K) in a collective to develop a people-driven urban planning project, following the example of a similar project in another neighbourhood in Nairobi.

The Mathare Special Planning Area Research Collective (MSPARC) chose to focus on youth and safety considering the high crime rates here that both involve and disproportionally affect youth in this neighbourhood. In its statement of intent, MSPARC argues that infrastructure and housing improvement (by, with and for Mathare) will boost local industries and (formal and informal) youth employment, which in turn will improve living conditions for all.

Current housing conditions

Still today, most houses in Mathare are built from iron-sheets and lack indoor plumbing and access to (clean) water. The small rocky alleyways in between the houses are slippery from sewage water that frequently bubbles up from the broken sewers that end up in this neighbourhood. Human waste from uptown flows downtown and into the valley of Mathare, and when it rains it enters into the tiny houses of the urban poor.

At the same time, lack of government services such as garbage collection adds to the local unhygienic and undignified living conditions, which is brutally illustrated by the three cholera outbreaks of last year —cholera is a common killer in Mathare of the very young and very old. And now COVID19 has arrived in Mathare.

Community-led COVID19 Response

Local hygiene and safety concerns became all the more urgent when the COVID19 pandemic hit Kenya. On top of a garbage problem, a sewer problem and a water problem, Mathare has one of the highest population densities in Nairobi and most 3 by 3 houses give shelter to at least 4 people.

Having experienced government neglect for decades, the 10+ community groups working together in MSPARC (including Ghetto Foundation, the Mathare Social Justice Centre and Muungnao Wanavijiji) realised it was upon them to develop solidarity, safety and care mechanisms with other local residents in the face of COVID19 and concomitant government regulations (such as a curfew, lockdown in various parts of the city and cessation of movement). Hence, they went in overdrive to work together with all kinds of community groups (women, gangs, youth groups) to develop a Community-led COVID19 Response.

One MSPARC’s organisations, Ghetto Foundation, for instance kick-started a community-led cash transfer program, with donations from friends all over the world. This provided people who lost their income following the ‘corona measures’ by the government with enough money to buy food, pay rent and get medicines. Additionally, they collaborated with many others in food donations, and all MSPARC organisations also made sure hand washing stations, water and soap were available for all 200.000 residents.

Documenting police violence

Their work did not stop there. MSJC and Ghetto Foundation are also involved in documenting police violence, which already topped the world-lists before COVID19 but has only increased in recent months. On top of that, they also intervene in growing neighbourhood tensions (for instance between gangs) that frequently lead to outbursts of violence nowadays because of mounting frustrations about lack of income and growing hunger.

MSPARC community-led organisations are unfunded

It is important to bear in mind that the MSPARC community-led organisations are unfunded community-based organisations (CBOs) while they are providing residents with ways to address and cope with the challenges presented by this pandemic. As a collective, they also work together with local government organisations (such as the Mathare COVID19 taskforce) to guide them in responding better to the needs of Mathare residents (see picture of an infographic of a recommendation letter).

Urgent recommendation to the government

MSPARC’s most important message so far, alongside the more obvious access to water and calling for a stop to police violence, is the urgent recommendation to the government to work with and through community-led structures.

Much of the government’s attempts to distribution of food, masks and hand sanitizers has ended up endangering many recipients because of the chaos that ensued. The cash transfers by the government are also plagued with corruption, (indefinite) delays and malpractice, as are the work schemes for youth. All these initiatives are also highly exclusive because they often go through influential people in the communities and not through collective and inclusive networks, such as embodied by MSPARC.

As stated by MSPARC in their letter with urgent recommendations:

“Community-led organizations know their community and are held accountable by them for an even, fair and safe distribution of donations and other items. They know best how to organize a safe and respectful manner in which items can be distributed to those most in need. We also urge that food delivery and any other type of support, like the cash donations, from the government be adequate, inclusive and on an ongoing basis.”

* Naomi van Stapele works together with MSPARC on community-led research, fund raising and strategic planning, and has been working with most of the individual organisations under MSPARC in numerous community-led research and action (CLRA) projects since 2005.

Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC) Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

  • Inclusive Cities and Diversity
  • Resilient Cities and People
  • Smart Cities and Communities
  • Sustainable and Just Cities

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

dr. Naomi van Stapele
Britt Boeddha van Dongen

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