A mural on an iron sheet wall in Nairobi’s Kibera slum screams to whoever cares to look “Tumekua majirani 8/8 isitutenganishe.” (We have been neighbours let the election not divide us).
Many may not know the painter of the unsigned mural, but messages like this were also common before the 2013 General Election. The most popular five years ago was “Peace wanted alive,” which earned its painter Solomon Munyundo (Solo 7) national recognition and corporate endorsements.
Yet again, in a few weeks, this fragile neighbourliness will be put to the test not just in Kibera but Nairobi’s entire slum ecosystem where at least 60 per cent of its population lives.
While the local leadership may want to diffuse the tension, the residents say the level of suspicion and mistrust continues to escalate as the ballot day approaches.
Last week, at an eatery in Kibera, an animated conversation as the politics of the day beamed through an old TV set ended when the news anchor started reading areas identified by the Government as violence hot spots.
EYES GORGED OUT
While this was widely expected since all slums are perennially regarded as hot spots every election season, the looks on the faces of those present and the banter that followed told it all.
“’These people are used to stealing from Baba (Raila Odinga) and they are here talking about violence,” said one man.
“I don’t think they will steal but hope they are not thinking of doing it,” responded his colleague.
It is a lull before the storm and the signs have started popping up. Last month, five bodies with eyes gorged out and private parts mutilated were found stashed in sacks on the railway line in Kibera.
Joseph Odongo, a local activist says the state of the bodies had signs of a gangland execution meant to send a message. At the height of the Mungiki menace in 2012, victims were beheaded and private parts chopped off.
“We knew only one person and it appears the rest were murdered somewhere and their bodies dumped here,” he says.
“There was tension in the whole area but things have calmed down so far. It is just a wait-and-see attitude now,” he says.
In Mathare, the police shot two people dead last week after rival gangs armed with pistols and machetes clashed over what was termed at that time as an ‘unknown matter.’ There is suspicion however, that the clashes were linked to politics since a man had been stabbed around the area during the nominations.
Fueling this tension is a unique settlement pattern found only in the informal settlements. Residents are divided along distinct ethnic lines. With each election this balkanisation entrenches itself further, increasing tension.
“Everyone is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” says Evelyn Wanjiru, a shopkeeper at Kibera’s Laini Saba.
“Most traders are not increasing their stocks because you never know what will happen. Others are taking their children upcountry,” she says.
Laini Saba, like all the 13 villages of Kibera is synonymous with a particular tribe. Kikuyus are predominant here but there are pockets of Kambas.
Nubians are predominant in Makina, Mashimoni, Kambi Muru and Kichinjio. Luos are in Gatwekera, Raila, Kisumu Ndogo and Soweto while Kisiis and occupy Kianda.
Across the city in Mathare, the Nairobi River separates two distinct ethnic groups; the Luo and the kikuyu. The Luo occupy Kosovo, 4A and 4B while the Kikuyu occupy Bondeni, 3C, Kianduru, Kwa Josphat and Mabatini.
And in Dandora, Kikuyus are predominant in Phase 1, 2 and Canaan while Kisiis, Luos and Luhyas reside in Phases 3, 4 and 5.
In Kawangware, Luhyas are the majority at Area 46 while Kikuyus are many in Satellite and Kabiria areas.
Although the Government says there is no cause for alarm, it admits the scenario could be a ticking time bomb. All the slums have been listed as hot spots and there is a plan to ring fence them with armed police officers on the voting day and after.
“This is not just happening in Kibera, it is how we have conditioned our minds,” says National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) chair Francis ole Kaparo.
“We all have that sickness of ethnic hostility. That is how bad we are as a society because we have never given any seriousness to creating a nation state,” he says.
But in public, the leaders of the informal settlements would not admit that there is a problem. A few days ago, a reporter who wrote about how youth are arming themselves was trolled online for days by Kibra residents and area MP Kenneth Okoth.
“We reject warmongering about Kibra. The Kibra story is fake news,” tweeted the legislator, fueling an already raging online fire.
A few days later, Saturday Standard learnt that, the legislator held a meeting with the District Commissioner and the security committee to discuss the simmering tensions.
Those in the know say the leadership would like to portray peace so as not to fuel tribal tension.
Behind the curtains, the civil society has been on an overdrive spending thousands of shillings to hold peace concerts with at least one every week.
But how Nairobi reached a point where all its informal settlements turned into tribal chiefdoms is a question anthropologists and sociologists don’t seem to have the same answer for.
Patrick Kamau, who teaches Peace, Conflict and Development studies at the United States International University-Africa (USIU-A) says the settlement patterns in the slums are a microcosm of the Kenyan society.
“Just watch the conversations on social media and see how people reason. People who don’t even know each other gang up and reason as a team based on their second names,” he says.
“In the information food chain, the poor are the biggest consumers of propaganda and they attach value to it. Naturally, they feel threatened and everyone would want to live near their own for safety.”
That is not how Frank Mwambua, a second generation resident of Dandora sees it. His parents, both small scale traders live a stone’s throw away from his single room.
“Very few people would live in an informal settlement by choice. To a new person in Nairobi, this is a bridge to a better life, but very few people leave when they get here,” he says.
“The education levels are low, there are no job opportunities and so the cycle of poverty continues,” he says.
According to the United Nations, urbanisation in Kenya grows at the rate of 4 per cent each year but slums grow at the rate of five percent annually, the highest in the world.
This is majorly due to the high rural-urban migration that has seen the population of Nairobi swell from 500,000 at independence to the present 5 million during the day and 3 million at night.
Prof Paul Mbatia, an anthropologist and Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic Affairs at the Multimedia University says one reason why slums are ethnically balkanised is because most newcomers to the city are likely to stay with their relatives as they look for opportunities.
“But what entrenches this behaviour is poor distribution of essential State services. The poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are because if the State cannot guarantee you security, you will start caring about who your neighbour is,” he says.
“Even in the US, blacks, Asians and whites occupy specific areas. The problem in Kenya is when the poor are ethnically mobilised by politicians like the way they are made to think they are unfortunate because other communities are taking their resources,” he says.
This unique settlement pattern would first come to a head in 2001 after the then Member of Parliament for Langata Raila Odinga asked the residents not to pay excessive rent. Some tenants declined to pay rent altogether leading to clashes between Luos and Nubians.
“The violence began when a family of Luos refused to pay rent to their Nubian landlord, and beat him up. The landlord returned with an armed gang, killing two people and badly injuring six,” reported British publication The Guardian at that time. “By mid-morning, more than 1,000 men from each tribe had gathered. Brandishing machetes, clubs and bottles of paraffin, they surged up and down the rutted alleys, looting and burning property, and looking for a way past the police separating them.”
By the time the machetes, police gun fire and stone-throwing calmed down, over 20 people had died. Six years later in 2007, at least 300 deaths were reported in Nairobi’s slums. Mathare alone had 112 deaths according to the official tally.
The violence which was the worst ever in the history of Kenya further entrenched tribal chiefdoms among the urban poor. In Huruma, a village previously known as Kijijij cha Chewa was split into Bondo and Othaya, occupied by the Luo and Kikuyu respectively.
Othaya and Bondo are homes of two protagonists in the 2007 disputed election, former President Kibaki and Nasa presidential candidate Raila Odinga respectively. But in Nairobi the two names are a constant reminder of the day slum dwellers turned on each other.