People-driven Covid-19 response in a Nairobi ghetto
This post by Dr Naomi van Stapele (Assistant Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies and Vital Cities and Citizens team leader, is the introduction to a series of blogs depicting a community-led Covid-19 response in a Nairobi ghetto: Mathare.
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 Covid-19 has arrived in Mathare.
Community-led Covid-19 Response
Local hygiene and safety concerns became all the more urgent when the Covid-19 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 Covid-19 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 Covid-19 Response.
One MSPARC’s organisations, Ghetto Foundation, for instance kick-started a community-led cash transfer programme, 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 organizations 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 Covid-19 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 organizations 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 Covid-19 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.