In June 2015, an Afro-capitalist owner of a not-so-popular radio station grabbed one of the only playing fields in the densely populated poor urban settlement of Kosovo, Mathare. It was done, ostensibly, to build a primary school, but there was already a primary school; the community had requested a secondary school during one of the perfunctory image saving “participatory” consultations that was organized by so-called Mathare leaders and with the Nairobi governor in a cameo role.
Fast forward a few weeks later, and the community found out that not only was the school going to be a primary “academy” that few, if any, Mathare children would be able to attend, but that this illustrious institution would block one of the more popular pathways that provided entry into the settlement. And their kids would still be deprived of a playing field.
People were pissed.
Venting at a recently held political accountability and social justice forum organized by Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) residents declared:
“Ai these rich people keep coming here and they don’t even have a mother in the ghetto!”
“Next time if we are going to vote someone in they have to come and stand and show that they have a mother from the ghetto!”
“Yes” people shouted.
“They have to bring her here!”
“We need to stop voting in tourists!”
“These people cannot come and grab land here. We are going to cross the street to see all the rich people in Muthaiga, take over their gardens and grab their land and say if you ever come over to our side you will see!”
“Yes” people shouted again and again.
“We need a military wing!”
Bigger shouts of “yes”
“And an intelligence wing!”
And slight Okal from Turkana – who came to Nairobi to find work on the day the American embassy was bombed in 1998, and who, like many residents, has since slept in numerous city gutters – a little drunk but full of valour, announced: “I want to say that I volunteer for the intelligence wing”.
And everyone cheered, hard.
But this defiance and resolve to change things cannot immediately override the pervasive neglect that they live, and El-Nino will soon be here to show just how deep this structural disregard is. The last time we were privy to this weather inferno was in 1997, and in Mathare it blew the roofs off people’s houses and swept away homes. When it happens again, the muddy paths will be impassable, and the rates of cholera will go through the roof.
Unsurprisingly the extent of government preparation for the next climate change disaster is the one big drain by Juja road and the purchasing of soap bars that are rumoured to have cost 37,500 Kenya shillings each ($400).
People are long tired of living these same insults over and over again, and so at the forum they created a community-sanctioned insult of their own.
“These people need to be told that Mathare si ya mamako!” one young woman declared with fervour.
And just like that it became the slogan of one of the resulting campaigns; Mathare is not your mother’s!
As in most cases, the English language barely comes close to capturing the venality implicit in this statement; trust me it’s rude. And it also has special significance in Mathare where the current member of parliament, recognized as one of 12 MPs who did not contribute to any legislative debate in 2014, took this electoral seat one term after his mother who had reigned four years before him. As part of his campaign she gave out bribes to residents from her evangelical church, and is said to be the actual brains behind her son who is so absent, you need to buy a TV in order to see him.
And in this community close to where Gideon Njuguna was shot in the eyes, chest and jaw and was later found abandoned in the morgue,
In this area where marking the entrance to Huruma ward is a police station on one side and coffin makers on the other,
In this country where people’s children can’t afford to go to school yet the VP builds a 1.2 billion house complete with a private airstrip, and we are told not to worry because we are a “middle income country” yet we have never known anything more than a minimal income,
This forum taught some of us that we need to take up more insults for justice.
Kenya si ya mamako.
Mathare si ya mamako.
In these places that are “out of justice” it’s not just about the playground. Or about insults. It’s about working towards structural redemptions to ease the million systemic heartbreaks that happen every day (preferably while causing offense).
So if you are one of these people who grab land, kill children and hold up sinister superstructures of disadvantage, know that as we work to shake off the menacing insults of forced evictions, tenure insecurity, police violence and increasing precarity,
We see you.
And we also send an insult to your mum.
- This article is part of Africa is a Country’s Inequality Series. It is a partnership with the Norwegian NGO, Students and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).