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Official launch of ‘Megaslumming’ in Nairobi

01 February 2010

The official launch of the STWR publication ‘Megaslumming’ took place in Nairobi on 20th January 2010 with around 200 people attending a panel discussion and public debate at the National Museum of Kenya. 

The free public event commenced with a presentation by the author of the book, Adam Parsons, on his experience and analysis of sub-Saharan Africa's most notorious shantytown - Kibera. Rasna Warah, a popular columnist at the Daily Nation newspaper in Kenya and a former editor for the UN's State of the World's Cities report, also shared her perspective on the growth of slums and urban poverty in Africa.

In anunusual showing for such an event in Nairobi, two residents from the Kibera settlement represented themselves on the panel to speak about the reality ofpoverty for those living in ‘megaslums'. Arthur Waweru, a 31-year-old artistwith a wife and small child in Kibera, first responded to questions asked bythe chair of the panel about his views on the causes of and solutions to slumgrowth.

Joseph Djemba, an unemployed 19-year-old and the main subject of the book Megaslumming, then answered a series of personal questions about his life growing up as an abandoned ‘street boy' in Nairobi's largest informal settlement. A fourth panelist, the prominent Kenyan human rights lawyer Haron Ndubi, was regrettably unable to attend the event owing to a high-profile court case in Nairobi.

The discussion covered a broad range of issues raised in the book, including the role of governments and international agencies in exacerbating urban poverty; the neglect and discrimination suffered by slum-dwellers in Kenya; and the future of Africa's shantytowns. 

STWR's Adam Parsons began the discussion by explaining why he focused on Kibera "as a microcosmic example of so much that is wrong with the current model of worlddevelopment." He said: "Whilst I fully acknowledge that in visiting such a slum as Kibera I was in danger of writing a sensationalist and lurid account of urban poverty before flying back home to a comparatively privileged existence in the West, it was my contention that affluent society still has very little knowledge about the lives of the poorest people."

Following his time spent in Kibera and subsequent research on the causes of slum growth, Parsons explained "it seemed impossible not to point a finger at the economic policies enforced across the continent since the 1970s by the richest countries and international financial institutions." He argued that it was not possible to picture a world without slums "without imagining a new global politics and an entirely transformed economic model based upon the principle of sharing."

He added:"To understand the potential for a more humane form of economic development, one which guarantees the provision of secure sufficiency for all people on earth, we need only look towards the triumph of the human spirit inplaces like Kibera - places that have been forsaken of almost all protectionfor the poor, but yet still manage to defy our existing definitions of poverty andour present conceptions of wealth."

Rasna Warah went on to explain the connection between slums like Kibera and the political violence that rocked Kenya in early 2008. What the political classes, rich elite and mainstream media did not understand about the riots that displaced more than 200,000 people across the country, said Warah, is "that poverty itself is a form of violence. What we had seen during the post-election violence was its physical expression."

She said:"Who can we blame? Governments that squander money in corruption and misappropriation of public funds? Certainly. Donors such as the World Bank andthe IMF that imposed stringent conditionalities that forced governments to spend less on health and education? Most definitely. An insensitive elite andthe middle classes that are only interested in their own survival? Of course.

"Ultimately,however, slums epitomise the failure of governance institutions and the lack ofeffective unions and other forms of organisation that ensure that the poor areless vulnerable. They will only stop growing when there is sustained politicalwill to adopt an integrated, multi-sectoral approach using government resourcesto upgrade them and provide them with basic services and infrastructure."

She added:"What governments need to know is that the only way to end the violence on our streets is to end the violence of poverty and inequality in our slums."

Following the introductory presentations, Kibera resident Arthur Waweru answered questions about his views about the reality of living in Nairobi's slums. In a lively discussion that roused strong responses from the audience, Arthur explained how life has become more difficult for the majority of Kibera residents following the political violence of 2008, the international economic downturn, as well as sharp rises in the price of basic commodities following the global food crisis.

Asked why he thought life was getting harder for slum dwellers, he said: "Because the government itself is not helping the people, the government is doing nothing.You find out that the youths are jobless there. A lot of people are doing nothing. Poverty is high in Kibera. HIV is taking control of people's lives...You find that in a house there are some people who are staying seven in one family, and there is no food. So [some] young girls go outside to get food for themselves [through] prostitution, and they end up getting AIDS. Robbery ishigh because the youths now are idle, and they need to eat, they need to work.So you see, a lot of youths in Kibera they end up dying [through] mob justice, theyend up killed. Police are killing them daily."

In response to the question ‘should the poor in Kibera pick themselves up by theirbootstraps and look after themselves', Arthur said: "No. And that is why we have people to elect. So that we can take them to parliament. When they goto the parliament it is their job to fight for us."

He added:"For us in Kibera, poverty is killing people there. If the government could create jobs, build hospitals, build schools, change the life standards ofthe people who are staying there, it could help a lot. They say there is free primary education, there is nothing like that. You have to get books, you have to buy uniform. And if you want to give somebody something from free, just give them. I can't say to you I give you this cup but you have to pay for this water that's inside, I have to give you that cup."

Joseph Djemba, the main subject of the book Megaslumming, also responded to questions about his life in Kibera as a young street boy. Djemba explained how he grew up in a family of nine children until "things started becoming difficult, and then no food, no clothes, and parents is veryharsh on you... So I just had to one day walk [alone into the city], that's how I met myself in Kibera."

Djemba conjured a vivid image of his early life in Kibera, explaining how he met other street children from the age of seven and spent his early life looking for scrap metal to sell for money, taking drugs and stealing for survival, and sleeping outside next to the railway lines. He said: "My friends became like a family to me, like my brothers and sisters, the people around Kibera were also like my friends, teaching me things, and even my friends were teaching me how life is in Kibera, and I realized my problem was smaller than theirs. So I just had to understand and go on with life."

Contradicting the popular image of Kibera as a crime-ridden and treacherous slum, Djemba said: "Me I'm very happy living in Kibera because now Kibera has become my home, and everyone who is living around me [have become] like my brothers to me. The community also [has become] like my family, and I don't have anybody else. So I really love that place, because it's a very very good place. You cannot say something is bad and yet you have never done something [to help]."

He added:"Many people in the world say Kibera is a very very bad place; Kibera is not a very bad place, but what people do is try to survive. If stealing can make you survive, then [you] do it, because you don't care, and you've never even had a job, and the government is not getting job opportunities for the youths... Kibera's problems will never finish until the government intervene."

Following the presentations, the audience engaged in a heated discussion and Q&A session with the panel members.

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