Horn of Africa Famine: What About Nairobi?

Kibera slum (c. Heather Spurr)


Coverage of the crippling famine in the Horn of Africa is dwindling, and much of it is centered around Dadaab Refugee Camp in North Kenya. But this crisis will have knock-on effects all over East Africa. Heather Spurr, who has volunteered in Kibera slums in Nairobi and knows its inhabitants, predicts trouble in the area. Heather is a freelance journalist studying Newspaper Journalism MA at City University.

It was on his second day of frantic searching that Steven found his brother’s body lying cold in a morgue .

Steven, a primary schoolteacher, had started to panic when Jason did not return to his home in the middle of a Nairobi slum after police were spotted patrolling the area. As the days wore on, it became clear that that Jason had bolted after being approached by a policeman. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but in Kibera, where the relationship between the people and law enforcers is fraught with acrimony on both sides, sometimes individuals will prefer to flee, rather than be arrested for a crime police want to check off their log book. As he ran, an officer shot him and he died, Steven later found out.

Wycklife, a friend and colleague of Steven’s, used to keep doves. Others laughed at him: “Who would keep doves in a place where people throw their poo on their neighbours’ rooftops? A place where children play in the same cholera-filled water as pigs?” He had to give them up in December 2007 when the alleged manipulation of the presidential election result sparked unimaginable scenes of violence in the narrow passages of the Kibera slums. It continued for two months, killing up to 1,500. The slaughter of coach loads of people trying to escape the bloodbath became routine. A church sheltering hundreds of terrified citizens was set aflame as rioters ran amok.

Wycklife’s family hid people who were under threat of death, meaning they too were in danger of violent retribution. “We all still have the mental scars from that period”, he told me two and a half years later. “Everyone is still trying to get over the terrifying violence of that time. I think it will take us a few more years.”

When I visited Africa’s second-largest slum last year, I listened many stories concerning slum-dwellers abused by the system and ill-protected by a government they had voted for. But when I was there, many people were hopeful about the future.  There were signs of change – though few, they were palpable.

A new constitution which was voted in through a referendum in August 2010 had recognised the socio-economic rights of Kenyan citizens. It was now enshrined in law that police had to tell someone what crime they were arresting them for if they brought them in for questioning – this may well have stopped Jason making that fatal flight from the law. The constitution went some way to tackle gender inequality and removed corrupt provincial governments in favour of local counties.

So when famine struck the Horn of Africa this year, it seemed to me that much crueller. A lot of media coverage has quite rightly been given to the Dadaab refugee camp in the north of the country. Home to 160,000 migrants, things are likely to worsen as NGOs flee the camp following suspected terror attacks on their workers.

But it is also important that Westerners recognise the strain that the situation is having on the rest of the nation. According to the African Medical and Research Foundation, severe food shortages are affecting close to 3.5 million people in Kenya. For an economy that was thriving up until 2010, a food crisis such as this could destabilise a country that was just getting back on its feet.

For Wycklife, things are already changing for the worse. Last month he told me that food prices are increasing more than he has ever seen and that his neighbours are resorting to crime in order to pay for dinner. Tempers are rising in the crowded slums where hungry people suspect traders are using high demand for food to exploit buyers. Many victims of the post-election violence have yet to be resettled and are still living in refugee camps designed to house those who had their houses razed three years ago. Yet migrants from Somalia are now flooding the camps, meaning resources have to be stretched even further.

And what is the Kenyan government doing? Wycklife is critical. “The Government is not acting”, he says. “Recently they claimed to add 12.5 per cent to workers’ salaries. Firstly, this is not enough to cope up with the high prices of basic needs. Secondly, the increase is only effective to workers in the public sectors. What about those in the private sectors and the casual workers?”

The important thing to remember about an urban sprawling slum such as Kibera is that it is filled with people on the edge of disaster. I remember I saw someone’s home teetering over a landslide where the mud had caved in near a river. One more heavy rainstorm and all that would be left of it would be a few pieces of wood and corrugated iron. For me, it was the perfect metaphor for an impending crisis situation. It could be anything that pushes these people over the edge into catastrophe. Lack of food seems to me as good a reason as any. And if crisis spills over into violence, it will certainly not be without precedent.

Some names in this article have been changed.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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