Kisumu city’s landscape, like the bodies of some of its residents, bears the scars of recent political protests and state repression in the aftermath of the August 8 election that was annulled by the Supreme Court and the 26 October “Jubilee election” that was completely ignored by four counties in Kenya’s western region (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya).
The visceral scars are a testimony to a cityscape whose residents are yearning for a total break from the politics of despondency and for a muting or re-writing of its political history, a history that will not be absolved or corrected by the Uhuru Kenyatta–Raila Odinga handshake that took place on March 9, 2018, its bewildering symbolism notwithstanding.
The fact that the city yearns for a fresh start is apparent to David Ndii, the National Super Alliance (NASA)’s economic advisor and strategist, but not to the Raila-led Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) MPs, whose narrow articulation of the Uhuru-Raila rapprochement simply calls for the compensation of life or limb lost during the protests.
Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape
Kisumu yearns for what Ndii refers to as Kenya’s kairos, but whether or not there is a consensus that this is the moment, and whether Kisumu’s scars equally constitute this moment, is debatable.
Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape, especially along the highway road signage. Charcoal black powder from burnt car tyres pepper many intersections on Kisumu’s roads, despite the recent heavy rains. At the Kenya Commercial Bank’s T-junction, where the Jomo Kenyatta Highway and the Oginga Odinga Street meet, angry protestors scratched off Jomo Kenyatta’s name from the road sign. Like the silver surface of an airtime scratch card, this left a dull metallic gray centre on the white metallic arrows where the words Jomo Kenyatta had been.
Across the road, on the walls of the city park’s main building, also known as Od Mikai, the name JARAMOGI, Palimpsest-like, has been superimposed on KENYATTA’s name. Never in Kisumu city’s history have the residents expressed such a strong desire to re-write, mute or erase the Kenyattas from the city’s political history and to obliterate memories of the traumas inflicted by the city’s bloody encounters with state brutality.
Despite the 1969 political tragedies – the annus horribilis in Kisumu’s post- independence history when Argwings Kodhek, the Mau Mau lawyer, died mysteriously in a road accident, when Tom Mboya was shot dead in broad daylight in in Nairobi and when Jomo Kenyatta’s security forces massacred at least 100 unarmed citizens, including children, during the official launch of the Kisumu Hospital (Russia Hospital) – Jomo Kenyatta’s name has always held pride of place in Kisumu’s central business district. The biggest public park and the longest road in Kisumu are named after Kenya’s first president.
Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire.
Further afield, Kisumu city’s market, officially named Jubilee Market, was popularly and hurriedly re-named Orengo Market by protestors in honour of the Luo lawyer and opposition leader James Orengo. Locally known as Chiro Mbero, it’s the market where the Kenyan historian, the late E.S Atieno Odhiambo, tells us the independence-era women traders sang “dine onge Odinga, nyithiwa dine Jomo otho e jela” (without Odinga, Jomo would have died in prison). Protestors scratched the name JUBILEE off the market’s signpost, and in uneven uppercase letters, scribbled the name ORENGO on the signpost’s half-scratched surface.
It seems Kisumu residents want nothing do with the Kenyattas or the type of government they represent. A few months ago, they swore to fight to the last man and woman standing for electoral justice. Angered by the conduct of the August 8 general election, the repeat presidential poll on October 26 and the state-orchestrated violence against civilians, many turned up for successive street protests, shouting in Kiswahili “ua ua…kill…kill” as volleys of teargas canisters were thrown at them by paramilitary or regular police and in defiance of the blood-curdling sounds of bullets that pierced through clouds of teargas.
Undeterred, certainly not by the rising death toll, these unarmed protestors were unflinching, angry, and contemptuous of the Jubilee government’s deadly use of force, shouting “ong’e ringo,” (no relenting) as they courted martyrdom, drawing cold comfort in the fact that their resolve to press for electoral justice was stronger than the government’s resolve to violently quell the unceasing protests. “Ok gi bi nego wa te,” (Kill they will, but they will not kill all of us.) Some of us will live to tell the tales of this war, others will be killed, but all will bequeath the next the generation with a different political world, they shouted.
Then, just when Kisumu residents thought they were done and dusted with the Kenyattas, Raila sued for peace in the name of “national reconciliation and unity”, pulling them out of their absolute resolve to detach themselves from their debilitating history and pushing them right back to the doorsteps of Harambee House, the seat of Kenya’s oppressive state power.
Raila’s handshake with Uhuru has effectively revived Kisumu residents’ cruel memories (memories they had hoped they could erase) of Kenya’s contested and chequered political history, a history that can neither be re-written from below, ORENGO Market style, nor from above, in the style of the famous handshake between the two leaders.
In the street corners of Kisumu, sounds of grand betrayal reverberate. The reverberations feel more like a spirited protest movement rather than the promising beginning of a national dialogue. At Kisumu’s K-city market, a scowl-faced middle-aged woman rhetorically asks, “Kalonzo, Wakamba osetho kodwa didi? Waluhya to….Nyithindo mane otho ne?” (How many time has Kalonzo, Wakamba died with us in this cause? And how about the Luhya…the children or the youth who died for him [Raila]?)
It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.
There is a feeling among Raila’s core constituency that he has betrayed his comrades and their support base for a brotherhood fellowship that is as confounding as it difficult to swallow. The net result has been the gradual disintegration of NASA, the once formidable opposition coalition.
“Wa chung Kanye?” (Where do we stand?), asks the woman at K-City market, as the news of the opposition NASA senator Moses Wetangula’s ouster and his replacement with James Orengo as the minority leader is broadcast in the car stereo next to the washing bay. It is now truly mindboggling to tell what either Raila Odinga or James Orengo now stand for after the handshake. Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire. The handshake has left Raila’s political base utterly confused. It’s a covenant that recalls Thomas Hobbes’ pithy quip: “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
Currently, only David Ndii’s take resonates with the protest scars on Kisumu’s cityscape. The protest crowds want to rake up the past. The ODM MPs’ talk of compensation as opposed to the 12-point gamut of the Uhuru-Raila handshake agreement certainly misses the significance of the marks on Kisumu’s roads signs.
In an interview with Citizen TV, Ndii strenuously and variously suggested that the handshake signaled Kenya’s Kairos – that opportune moment when the tensions and contradictions of Kenya’s neocolonial state, laid bare by the bloody 2007 presidential election, must be resolved. It is an opportunity for Kenyans, on their own or led by Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, to reconstitute the Kenyan nation and its moral underpinnings and to resolve its contradictions: It should be a moment when Kenyans decide whether we want to continue with dictatorship or want to embrace democracy. It should be a moment where we decide to do away with ethnic domination and consider ethnic inclusivity, through cross-party and cross-ethnic dialogues.
Ndii seems to suggests that the handshake signaled the end of ordinary times, times for everyday Kenyan political talk of “development,” “peace,” “unity,” “power-sharing or nusu-mkate”, the stock-in-trade phrases that the state and many reactionary Kenyans bandy around to silence dissent and to dismiss critics as unconstructive and unworthy interlocutors. For Ndii, Kairos is the moment for a markedly different kind of political conversation and action, which could rescue Kenya from its existential threat and ethnic implosion.
This moment underpins the desires of the Kisumu protest crowds, who have become cynical about both ODM and the Jubilee party.
Both the ODM and Jubilee’s disparate talks seem to be rewinding the historical clock, away from Ndii’s kairos, a historical watershed, and back to the Aden Duale–Fred Matiangi’s chronos, ordinary times, when and where evils still pays, and the soul of the men in charge of the government’s coercive powers is unrepentant. It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.
ODM MPs, having smelt state power, now have a spring in their steps as they arrogantly exert their powers within the now wobbly NASA coalition. Orengo, ensconced in his new position as the Senate’s minority chief whip, has now also come to symbolise betrayal. Increasingly, these MPs’ talk seems to be narrowing down people grievances to mostly to one type of injury: physical injury. They are also shifting towards the development/peace talk within the party’s core support base.
Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal.
At a newsstand in Nyalenda, one of Kisumu’s bustling ghettos, a young man quips, “Kalonzo odhi omos Ruto…wan waduaro kwe…wanwiwa ruko…mono jopinje moko keto mwandu gi Kisumu,” (Kalonzo should go and shake Ruto’s hands…we want peace…our penchant for protest discourages others from investing in Kisumu.) It a remarkable shift, a shift that echoes mostly ODM party officials’ and MPs’ views regarding the handshake and which also elevates Raila above his comrades-in-arm, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula and Musalia Mudavadi.
It is a disappointing end to a protracted struggle driven from below by fearless foot soldiers who had put their lives on the line for electoral justice and a Raila presidency. Kenya’s nascent broad-based opposition coalition has suffered a major setback. And the Jubilee Party has scored a major victory, albeit a momentary one.
The Jubilee securocrats believe that the opposition comprises dispensable actors in a liberal democracy, not insurgents who can defeat them through extralegal warfare. Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal. “Baba is always right,” say many, either as a way of expressing unquestioning loyalty to Raila Odinga or granting him the benefit of the doubt that he did not throw the opposition under the bus.
What will the two midwives of the Harambee House deal, Martin Kimani and Paul Mwangi, a counter-insurgent securocat and Raila’s everyday lawyer, respectively, deliver? Will they initiate a process to re-write the tragic history of the neocolonial Kenyan state? Or will they recast recent events as merely a glitch that temporarily halted the country’s relentless pursuit of “development”?
JOBS, SKILLS AND INDUSTRY 4.0: Rethinking the Value Proposition of University Education
In my last feature, I wrote on the six capacity challenges facing African universities: institutional supply, resources, faculty, research, outputs, and leadership. In this essay, I focus on one critical aspect of the outputs of our universities, namely, the employability of our graduates. To be sure, universities do not exist simply for economic reasons, for return on investment, or as vocational enterprises. They also serve as powerful centers for contemplation and the generation of new knowledges, for the cultivation of enlightened citizenship, as crucibles for forging inclusive, integrated, and innovative societies, and as purveyors, at their best, of cultures of civility, ethical values, and shared well-being.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that higher education is prized for its capacity to provide its beneficiaries jobs and professional careers. Thus, employability is at the heart of the value proposition of university education; it is its most compelling promise and unforgiving performance indicator. The evidence across Africa, indeed in many parts of the world, is quite troubling as mismatches persist, and in some cases appear to be growing, between the quality of graduates and the needs of the economy. This often results in graduate underemployment and unemployment.
The Employability Challenge
There are two powerful mega trends that will determine Africa’s development trajectory in the 21st century. The first is the continent’s youth bulge, and the second the changing nature of work. Employability is the nexus between the two, the thread that will weave or unravel the fabric of the continent’s future, enabling it to achieve or abort the enduring historic and humanistic project for development, democracy, and self-determination.
As we all know, Africa’s youth population is exploding. This promises to propel the continent either towards a demographic dividend of hosting the world’s largest and most dynamic labor force or the demographic disaster of rampant insecurity and instability fueled by hordes of ill-educated and unemployable youths. According to United Nations data, in 2017 the continent had 16.64% (1.26 billion) of the world’s population, which is slated to rise, on current trends, to 19.93% (1.70 billion) in 2030, and 25.87% (2.53 billion) in 2050, and 39.95% (4.47 billion) in 2100.
The African Development Bank succinctly captures the challenge and opportunity facing the continent: “Youth are Africa’s greatest asset, but this asset remains untapped due to high unemployment. Africa’s youth population is rapidly growing and expected to double to over 850 million by 2050. The potential benefits of Africa’s youth population are unrealized as two-thirds of non-student youth are unemployed, discouraged, or only vulnerably employed despite gains in education access over the past several decades.”
Thus, the youth bulge will turn out to be a blessing or curse depending on the employability skills imparted to them by our educational institutions including universities. Across Africa in 2017 children under the age of 15 accounted for 41% of the population and those 15 to 24 for another 19%. While African economies have been growing, the rate of growth is not fast enough to absorb the masses of young people seeking gainful employment. Since 2000 the rate of employment has been growing at an average rate of 3%. Africa needs to double this rate or more to significantly reduce poverty and raise general standards of living for its working people.
Not surprisingly, despite some improvements over the past two decades, the employment indicators for Africa continue to be comparatively unsatisfactory. For example, International Labor Organization data shows that in 2017 the unemployment rate in Africa was 7.9% compared to a world average of 5.6%; the vulnerable employment rate was 66.0% to 42.5%; the extreme working poverty rate was 31.9% to 11.2%; and the moderate working poverty rate was 23.6% to 16.0%, respectively.
This data underscores the fact that much of the growth in employment in many African countries is in the informal sector where incomes tend to be low and working conditions poor. In sectoral terms, there appears to be a structural decline in agricultural and manufacturing employment, and rise in service sector jobs. Yet, in many African countries both the declining and rising sectors are characterised by high incidence of vulnerable, informal, and part-time jobs.
The structural shifts in employment dynamics across much of Africa differ considerably from the historical path traversed by the developed countries. But the latter, too, are experiencing challenges of their own as the so-called fourth industrial revolution unleashes its massive and unpredictable transformations. In fact, the issue of graduate employability, as discussed in the next section is not a monopoly of universities in Africa and other parts of the Global South. It is also exercising the minds of educators, governments, and employers in the Global North.
The reason is simple: the world economy is undergoing major structural changes, which are evident everywhere even if their manifestations and intensity vary across regions and countries. As deeply integrated as Africa is in the globalized world economy, it means the continent’s economies are facing double jeopardy. They are simultaneously confronting and navigating both the asymmetrical legacies of the previous revolutions and the unfolding revolution of digital automation, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and so on in which the old boundaries of work, production, social life, and even the meaning of being human are rapidly eroding.
The analysis above should make it clear that employability cannot be reduced to employment. Employability entails the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attributes, in short, capabilities to pursue a productive and meaningful life. To quote an influential report by the British Council, “Employability requires technical skills, job-specific and generic cognitive attributes, but also a range of other qualities including communication, empathy, intercultural awareness and so forth…. Such a perspective guards against a reductive ‘skills gap’ diagnosis of the problems of graduate unemployment.” The challenge for universities, then, is the extent to which they are providing an education that is holistic, one that provides subject and technical knowledges, experiential learning opportunities, liberal arts competencies, and soft and lifelong learning skills.
As deeply integrated as Africa is in the globalized world economy, it means the continent’s economies are facing double jeopardy. They are simultaneously confronting and navigating both the asymmetrical legacies of the previous revolutions and the unfolding revolution of digital automation, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, and so on in which the old boundaries of work, production, social life, and even the meaning of being human are rapidly eroding.
But in addition to the attributes, values, and social networks acquired and developed by an individual in a university, employability depends on the wider socio-economic and political context. Employability thrives in societies committed to the pursuit of inclusive development. This entails, to quote the report again, “a fair distribution of the benefits of development (economic and otherwise) across the population, and allows equitable access to valued opportunities. Second, while upholding equality of all before the law and in terms of social welfare, it also recognizes and values social diversity. Third, it engages individuals and communities in the task of deciding the shape that society will take, through the democratic participation of all segments of society.”
In short, employability refers to the provision and acquisition, in the words of an employability study undertaken at my university, USIU-Africa in 2017, “of skills necessary to undertake self-employment opportunities, creation of innovative opportunities as well as acquiring and maintaining salaried employment. It is the capacity to function successfully in a role and be able to move between occupations…. employability skills can be gained in and out of the classroom and depend also on the quality of education gained by the individuals before entry into the university. As such the role of the university is to provide a conducive environment and undertake deliberate measures to ensure that students acquire these skills within their period of study.”
Universities and Employability
The African media is full of stories about the skills mismatch between the quality of graduates and the needs of employers and the economy. Many graduates end up “tarmacking” for years unemployed or underemployed. In the meantime, employers complain bitterly, to quote a story in University World News “unprepared graduates are raising our costs.” The story paints a gloomy picture: “The Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) – a lobby group for all major corporate organizations – says in its latest survey that at least 70% of entry-level recruits require a refresher course in order to start to deliver in their new jobs. As a result, they take longer than expected to become productive, nearly doubling staff costs in a majority of organizations.”
[E]mployability cannot be reduced to employment. Employability entails the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and attributes, in short, capabilities to pursue a productive and meaningful life
The situation is no better in the rest of the region. The story continues, noting that a study of the Inter-University Council for East Africa, “shows that Uganda has the worst record, with at least 63% of graduates found to lack job market skills. It is followed closely by Tanzania, where 61% of graduates were ill prepared. In Burundi and Rwanda, 55% and 52% of graduates respectively were perceived to not be competent. In Kenya, 51% of graduates were believed to be unfit for jobs.” The situation in Kenya and East Africa clearly applies elsewhere across Africa.
But the problem of employability afflicts universities and economies in the developed countries as well. Studies from the USA and UK are quite instructive. One is a 2014 Gallup survey of business leaders in the United States. To the statement “higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that my business needs,” only 11% strongly agreed and another 22% agreed, while 17% strongly disagreed and another 17% disagreed, and the rest were in the middle. In contrast, in another Gallup survey, also conducted in 2014, 96% of the provosts interviewed believed they were preparing their students for success in the workforce. Another survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities highlighted the discrepancy between students’ and employers’ views on graduates preparedness. “For example, while 59 percent of students said they were well prepared to analyze and solve complex problems, just 24 percent of employers said they had found that to be true of recent college graduates.”
In Britain, research commissioned by the Edge Foundation in 2011 underscored the same discrepancies. The project encompassed 26 higher education institutions and 9 employers. The report concluded, “While there are numerous examples of employers and HEIs working to promote graduate employability in the literature and in our research, there are still issues and barriers between employers and many of those responsible for HEI policy, particularly in terms of differences in mindset, expectations and priorities. There are concerns from some academics about employability measures in their universities diminishing the academic integrity of higher education provision. There is also frustration from employers about courses not meeting their needs.”
Specifically, the reported noted, “Employers expect graduates to have the technical and discipline competences from their degrees but require graduates to demonstrate a range of broader skills and attributes that include team-working, communication, leadership, critical thinking, problem solving and often managerial abilities or potential.” One could argue, this is indeed a widespread expectation among employers whether in the developed or developing countries.
Predictably, in a world that is increasingly addicted to rankings as a tool of market differentiation and competition, national and international employability rankings have emerged. One of the best known is the one by Times Higher Education, whose 2017 edition lists 150 universities from 33 countries. As with the general global rankings of universities, the rankings are dominated by American institutions, with 7 in the top 10 and 35 overall, followed by British universities with 3 in the top 20 and 9 overall. Africa has only one university in the league, the University of the Witwatersrand listed in last place at 150.
What, then, are some of the most effective interventions to enhance the employability of university graduates? There is no shortage of studies and suggestions. Clearly, it is critical to embed employability across the institution from the strategic plan, to curriculum design, to the provision of support services such as internships and career counseling. The importance of carefully crafted student placements and experiential and work-related learning cannot be overemphasized. We can all borrow from each other’s best practices duly adapted to fit our specific institutional and local contexts.
Cooperative education that combines classroom study and practical work has long been touted for its capacity to impart employability skills and prepare young people transition from higher education to employment. Work-integrated learning and experiential learning encompass various features and practices including internships, placements, and service learning. In the United States and Canada several universities adopted cooperative education and work-integrated learning in the first decades of the 20th century. The movement has since spread to many parts of the world. The World Council of Cooperative Education, which was founded in 1983, currently has 913 institutions in 52 countries.
What, then, are some of the most effective interventions to enhance the employability of university graduates?… Clearly, it is critical to embed employability across the institution from the strategic plan, to curriculum design, to the provision of support services such as internships and career counseling. The importance of carefully crafted student placements and experiential and work-related learning cannot be overemphasized. We can all borrow from each other’s best practices duly adapted to fit our specific institutional and local contexts.
The Developing Employability Initiative (DEI), a collaboration comprising 30 higher education institutions and over 700 scholars internationally, defines employability as “the ability to create and sustain meaningful work across the career lifespan. This is a developmental process which students need to learn before they graduate.” It urges higher education institutions to embed employability thinking in their teaching and learning by incorporating what is termed basic literacy, rhetorical literacy, personal and critical literacy, emotional literacy, occupational literacy, and ethical, social and cultural literacy.
The DEI has developed a suggestive framework of what it calls essential employability qualities (EEQ). These qualities, “are not specific to any discipline, field, or industry, but are applicable to most work-based, professional environments; they represent the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences that help ensure that graduates are not only ready for their first or next job, but also support learners’ foundation for a lifetime of engaged employment and participation in the rapidly changing workplace of the 21st century.” Graduates with EEQ profile are expected to be communicators, thinkers and problem solvers, inquirers and researchers, collaborators, adaptable, principled and ethical, responsible and professional, and continuous learners.
Equipping students with employability skills and capacities is a continuous process in the context of rapidly changing occupational landscapes. I referred earlier to the disruptions caused by the fourth industrial revolution which will only accelerate as the 21st century unfolds. Automation will lead to the disappearance of many occupations—think of the transport industry with the spread of driverless cars, sales jobs with cashless shops, or medical careers with the spread of machine and digital diagnoses. But new occupations will also emerge, many of which we can’t even predict, a prospect that makes the skills of liberal arts education and lifelong learning even more crucial.
We should not be preparing students for this brave new world in the same manner as many of us were educated for the world of the late 20th century. To quote Robert Aoun, President of Northeastern University in the USA that is renowned for its cooperative education, let us provide robot-proof higher education, one that “is not concerned solely with topping up students’ minds with high-octane facts. Rather, it calibrates them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or create something valuable to society.” The new literacies of the new education include data literacy, technological literacy, and human literacy encompassing the humanities, communication and design.
Achieving the ambitious agenda of equipping university students with employability skills, attributes, experiences, and mindsets for the present and future requires the development of effective and mutually beneficial, multifaceted and sustained engagements and partnerships between universities, employers, governments and civil society. Within the universities themselves there is need for institutional commitment at all levels and a compact of accountability between administrators, faculty, and students.
This entails developing robust systems of learning assessment including verification of employability skills, utilization of external information and reviews, integration of career services, and cultivating strong cultures of student, alumni and employer engagement, representation and partnerships in assuring program relevance and quality. Pursuing these goals is fraught with challenges, in terms of striking a balance between the cherished traditions of institutional autonomy and academy freedom, in engaging employers without importing the insidious cultures of what I call the 5Cs of the neo-liberal academy: corporatization of management, consumerization of students, casualization of faculty, commercialization of learning, and commodification of knowledge.
The challenges of developing and fostering employability skills among students in our universities are real and daunting. But as educators we have no choice but to continue striving, with the full support and engagement of governments, intergovernmental agencies, the private sector, non-governmental organisations, and civil society organisations, to provide the best experiential and work integrated learning we can without compromising the enduring and cherished traditions and values of higher education. The consequences of inaction or complacency, of conducting business as usual are too ghastly to contemplate: it is to condemn the hundreds of millions of contemporary African youth and the youths yet to be born to unemployable and unlivable lives. That would be an economic, ethical, and existential tragedy of monumental proportions for which history would never forgive us.
This is an abridged version of a keynote address delivered at Malawi’s First International Conference on Higher Education, June 27, 2018.
MISSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: Mathare’s environmental apartheid
On 12th May 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the National Tree Planting Day under the slogan “Panda Miti, Penda Kenya”. It was another of those Jubilee-ese slogans that ring hollow. The event took place in Kamkunji sub-county at the Moi Forces Academy in the Eastlands part of Nairobi. This was the government’s knee-jerk response to the heavy long rains season that sparked an environmental crisis around the country. There were 32 counties affected and over 300,000 Kenyans were displaced. In his official speech, the President repeated the familiar pledge to achieve at least ten per cent forest cover, as required by the constitution, and to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The news reporting of the event focused on the power politics between Nairobi governor Mike Sonko Mbuvi and Environmental Cabinet Secretary Keriako Tobiko. Two weeks after the launch, news reports were awash with the latest financial scandal. Sh2 billion allocated to establish the green school project in all 47 counties under the auspices of the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) had been embezzled. A task force chaired by Marion Wakanyi Kamau of the Green Belt Movement released a report that revealed that Kenya’s forest depletion occurred at an alarming rate of about 5,000 hectares annually and which implicated KFS personnel. Kenyans, numbed by the numerous other cases of grand theft in the Jubilee government, hardly reacted.
Kenya, the birthplace of the Green Belt Movement and its illustrious founder, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, remains stuck in the optics of environmental activism. Reforestation is an activity that the media reduces to a “tree planting exercise” and has evolved into an elite pastime where prominent personalities pose for photo opportunities in formal dress next to freshly planted trees. Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising. Of the several Wangari Maathai quotes I regurgitate, this particular one sticks:
“Anyone can dig a hole and plant a tree. But make sure it survives. You have to nurture it, you have to water it, you have to keep at it until it becomes rooted so that it can take of itself. There are so many enemies of trees.”
Planting trees is easy. Taking care of them requires a different level of commitment. This was Wangari’s enduring message and the one lesson my country fails to learn. This much I know because I have been involved in an urban afforestation project with Mathare Green Movement (MGM), a campaign of the Mathare Social Justice Centre ( MSJC).
Public forests have been privatised and primed for plunder by those tasked to protect them while corporates, NGOs and politicians plant thousands of trees in cosmetic public relations and corporate social responsibility activities without evoking any of the ecological consciousness that Wangari Maathai dedicated her life to raising.
The two Nairobis
In August 2017, a group of concerned Kenyans from Mathare got together and decided that they were going to plant trees in memory of all their colleagues who fell to police bullets. Over months, the activity evolved into a concerted effort at ecological and social justice using the tree as a symbol of regeneration and resistance to structural oppression.
Planting trees in Mathare is a process and not an event because the soils of this informal settlement have lost their capacity to sustain trees. Mathare Valley is an infamous slum, a crucible of suffering where white tourists arrive in droves to marvel at the resilience of its residents and to photograph the miracle of optimism. The shanty structures, a canopy of rusty brown mabati roofs separated by narrow alleys dropping down precarious rocky slopes, is home to multitudes. Broken souls exist alongside delightful children. Complete despondence rides alongside cheerfulness and the kaleidoscope of intense human interaction has made Mathare a location of extremes with no middle ground to stand on.
The physical environment is devoid of life-sustaining features. The further east you go in Nairobi, the poorer the neighbourhoods become. The absence of basic amenities and greenery and the human congestion and neglect evoke caricatures of a dystopian city. Martin Oduor, a member of MGM, tried to conduct a tree census and came to the disturbing estimate of about one tree for every 1,200 residents.
The Mathare river is turbid, dark grey and sickly – an open sewer that occasionally turns rogue on its residents, sweeping all in its path. The extent of the long-term socio-environmental damage has created the existing spectacle of human suffering that draws in “saviours and observers” from around the world fascinated by the resilience of the residents. Children, accustomed to the white benevolent visitor on a poverty safari, switch character to become entitled beggars peddling the currency of hopelessness.
Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt. To get a sense of what I prefer to call environmental apartheid, one only has to shift one’s gaze to the thick wall of green that is the Muthaiga suburb to the west of Mathare.
The wealthy districts of Nairobi abut its poorer districts from where they draw much of their domestic labour: Muthaiga has Mathare, Karen has Kibera, Loresho has Kangemi, Lavington has Kawangware. A similar pattern is observed in the city’s greenery. From an aerial point of view, the classes are separated by a green belt. All of Nairobi’s best-kept public green spaces – Karura Forest, Nairobi Arboretum, City Park – are in the affluent parts of the city and maintain restricted access. The neighbourhoods to the east of the city centre have minimal public spaces and, where available, we find dusty fields with no green cover.
Mathare is a perfect illustration of Nairobi’s environmental segregation. The informal settlement is surrounded on both sides by a leafy green belt.
The reality of trees as the markers of aristocratic privilege in Nairobi’s urban spaces is rooted in the colonial state. Between 1906 and 1926, Nairobi was colonised to serve the interests of the white settler population. Eighty per cent of the city’s residential land was reserved for its white elite. The two Nairobi’s were divided into residential areas for Europeans and Asians, and peripheral housing for African labour as an afterthought. One white half of Nairobi was serviced and the other black half was neglected. The colonial zoning policy created a pattern of racial and class segregation and social stratification that persist to this day.
The 1948 Master Plan for a Colonial Capital and the 1973 Metropolitan Growth Strategy employed segregation principles to maintain racial and class divisions. After independence in 1963, the white neighbourhoods of Karen, Lavington and Muthaiga became accessible to the emerging moneyed African and Asian upper classes who, rather than reverse the social apartheid, opted for the retention of colonial governance structures.
To cater for the unserviced poor masses, an informal modernism emerged in Nairobi, created with the sole intent of exploiting vulnerable city residents. Rural-to-urban migration brought a large influx of people to the city in search of a better life who found themselves trapped in “slums” and denied social mobility by the rigid class structures. The lack of formal housing gave rise to informal settlements operating outside the legal framework and, therefore, subjected to gross violations of rights and a culture of exploitation.
Kenyan filmmaker Tosh Gitonga illustrates the desperation of rural-to-urban migrants and the plight that awaits “shags-modos” in the brutal class-restricted spaces of Nairobi in the captivating film, Nairobi Half Life. Today the primitive accumulation and land expropriation of the post-colonial state has led to 70 per cent of Nairobi’s population of 4 million living on 5 per cent of the city’s land area. Mathare’s 500,000 residents fight for dignity in an area that is barely 3 square kilometres.
In his forthcoming book, Paracitations: Genre, Foreign Bodies, and the Ethics of Co-habitatation, Kenyan scholar Samson Opondo describes the economic security and greenness (which had previously been a manifestation of whiteness) becoming inscribed on a class-based identity complete with a rhetoric of “threat”. When we see trees from the purely conservation ideology of the state, we fail to problematise the socio-economic and historical contexts within which possession and disposssesion and threats emerge.
The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored. Public forests are protected by armies with guns and access is restricted by high fees. Opondo futher notes in his 2008 paper, “Genre and the African City: The Politics and Poetics of Urban Rhythms”, that Nairobi’s hides (in the open) an ugly history of racial segregation based on the South African model of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept where greening of the city corresponded with creation of structures of racial exclusion.
The environmental culture in Kenya is essentially anti-human. The native continues to be a threat to green spaces and must be forcibly relocated to the reserves and this access to greenery must be monitored.
In both South Africa and Kenya, the impoverished masses cluster in shanty towns where environmental rights only come to bear during hostile weather crisis management. Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre says, “ Our suffering is invisible.” In Kenya’s election cycle, the slum areas are hotspots that are heavily policed and a ready tinder box of ethnic rivalry, police brutality and gang violence. After every election cycle, we witness the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of corporate media from the spectacle of mass violence of poor against poor, state crackdown on protesting poor masses, and lockdowns.
Elections spell death, destruction and despair for the residents of Mathare. In the lead-up to August 2017 bungled elections, Mathare was marked as a “hotspot” that was heavily policed by rogue units who relish brutalising residents under siege. When it all simmers down, the politicians invariably end up negotiating new pacts, leaving residents to fall back on resilence. As soon as they turn their backs, the slow violence resumes, felt only by those within who are invisible to those on the outside – a violence that is exaceberated by an environment that is metaphorically lined with unexploded landmines. The environmentally dispossessed only make the news in the midst of great tragedy and calamities.
In the book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, author Rob Nixon shed lights on the inattention to calamities “that are slow and long lasting, continuously dispensing devastation but without the necessary spectacle required to raise public outrage or sustain the fleeting attention (that) spans breaking news corporate media spectacles.”
Therefore, it is no surprise that the Kenyan public remains unaware of the humanitarian crisis in the form of extrajudicial killings in Nairobi’s slums. The MSJC brought this to light in 2017 after the launch of “Who is Next: A Participatory Action Report Against the Normalisation of Extrajudicial Executions in Mathare”. Between 2013 and 2015, over 803 cases were documented.
The report was the first major concerted effort by a grassroots movement to raise awareness about the reality of extrajudicial executions. Despite the moderate buzz created in human rights spaces, the killings have not stopped. The policing culture persists. In the month of May 2018, for instance, Wilfred Olal of the Dandora Justice Center reported that 15 young men had been gunned down. Justice for the victims is a long shot. Wangui Kimaru, a researcher at MSJC, told me that there have been only 4 convictions despite 9,000 cases being forwarded to the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA).
Human rights defender Kennedy Chindi says that there are between 10 to 15 cases of young men reported missing or killed by police every month in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Cases of police threats and intimidation deter the aggrieved from coming forward with information. “Everyone knows the killers but no one even dares call them by their names,” says Wyban Mwangi, a young musician. Instead, they use a codename, “Mjamaa”, for even in a valley of hundreds of thousands, the walls have ears. The names Hessy of Kayole and Rashid are whispered and the youth live in dread of who is next?
The Bill of Rights in the Kenyan constitution guarantees every person the right to life. Howeve,r in an unequal society, the rights of the poor come with no guarantees. The normalisation of the extrajudicial killings is an existential generational crisis. Amnesty International, Haki Africa and emerging grassroots organisations in Mathare, Dandora and Kayole have harrowing documentation of enforced dissapearances and deaths that are often atrributed to the police.
Encounter killings have turned urban ghettos into legalised hunting grounds, no different from the death match in the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy by American novelist Suzanne Collins. Or perhaps District 9, a South African sci-fi feature by Neill Blomkamp that astutely explores social segregation in a scathing satirical analysis of urban populations treated with the level of vile contempt reserved for pests. In Kenya, Tosh Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life dramatises this unofficial routine killing of young males in a complex narrative of the cyclical violence of toxic masculinity where the line between the criminal and the police is blurrry.
Researcher Naomi Van Stapele, in her book Respectable “Illegality”: Gangs, Masculinities and Belonging in a Nairobi Ghetto, explained that the killings in Mathare continue without raising any public outrage because the dead are labelled as criminals or thugs, which justifies the executions. “Let the police do their work”, is the divorced public response. No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”. In middle class circles, a conversation with a journalist friend turned into a sermon heavy on class snobbery. “Kenya’s ghetto mentality is what is holding those people in slums back.” Then he cherry-picked the example of musician Juliani as the mascot of possibility.
No one advocates for the killing of perpetrators of grand theft, but the children of the poor, the petty criminals (vermin) must be eliminated on the strength of suspicion. In the words of Trevor Noah, they are “born a crime”.
Local media has made a profession of reporting poverty through derogatory frames. Therefore, the numerous reports, occasional protests against police harassment and demonstrations do not draw media attention or public solidarity beyond the spectacle of tragedy.
These examples show that the slum ecology harbours systemic and structural violence that is silent. Johan Galtung, the celebrated Norwegian mathematician and sociologist, coined the term “structural violence”, which may be described as a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
Like soil erosion, the effects of structural violence are not immediately obvious. Because its consequences only become evident in the distant future, there is little incentive for long-term solutions. Zangi, a resident of Mathare notes that it does not matter who comes to power; the problem is the system and the police culture. The problem is also the enabling physical environment that legitimises extrajudicial killings.
The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies. The problems of social justice are too many, too complex and not sexy enough for short-term political strategists who live for the optics in between elections to sustain popularity. Remedial environmental policy takes years. The benefits cannot be accrued in one political cycle and are certainly not bankable in the transactional nature of Kenyan politics. Article 42 of the constitution confers the right to a clean and healthy environment but is yet to interrogate systemic issues. The issues of the environment may be important but they not urgent.
The Kenyan version of “electoral democracy” thrives in violent geographies.
Therefore, to muster the political will needed to implement real change is difficult in a country where leaders cannot think beyond the next election. There are no immediate political rewards for planning to avert a human catastrophe. In nature terms, no one wants to plant a tree under whose shade they won’t sit or whose fruit they won’t eat. Long-term benefits may accrue for others and that is just not smart business in this instant gratification culture where exploitation and extractation is a privatised enterprise.
It is this context that we have to broaden the idea of what violence is. Personal violence is a consequence of structural violence. Lack of basic resources leads to competition that degenerates into violence in the quest for dominance. Gangs in urban ghettos organise around resources that leverage power and influence. Public toilets, garbage collection, water points, electricity connection and security are centres of frequent conflict. Kenyans awake to the economic and political realities of the 80s and 90s can track back how the slow violence of neoliberal policies began as a benign condition known as Structural Adjustment Program.
Beyond counting and documenting the victims of slow daily violence, the Mathare Green Movement is conscripting nature’s healing powers to challenge and alleviate the long-term effects of and sustain attention towards social injustice causes. Those grassroots environmental activists that Wangari Maathai called “foresters without degrees” are at the forefront of plotting new futures, imagining new worlds and planting ideas of hope. Wangari Maathai underscored the need to keep environmentalism connected to global questions of human rights and social justice.
In a letter smuggled from a Nigerian jail, the writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote: “The environment is man’s first right.” That notion seems to have been forgotten in urban ecologies and serves as a focal point in articulating the experiences of oppressed people who are rendered invisible in the national economy and silenced when they demand to be heard.
Seeds of peace
Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement brought a new discourse to the public consciousness, linking the slow violence of environmental degradation to its consequences, while at the same time proposing a public participatory methodology to advance environmental recovery. The Mathare Green Movement’s focus is young men facing the threat of extrajudicial executions who plant trees to reclaim lost life and dignify in the memory of peers labeled as criminal and forgotten after death.
The lesson of the Green Belt Movement is that poverty does not operate in a vacuum. Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other. She correctly diagnosed that corrupt exploitation of resources impacted vulnerable masses directly and insisted that environmentalism of the poor is inseprable from redistributive justice
Like the Green Belt Movement, the theatre of the tree gives the Mathare Green Movement a new vocabulary that is loaded with civic duty. Prof. Maathai called it “doing my little thing”. It is fitting that the new millennial generation of her disciples would emerge from Kenya’s marginalised urban spaces. Planting, not merely trees, but the seeds of life, healing, ideas, courage, hope and solidarity.
Prof. Maathai’s brilliance was making clear the link between the collapse of the environmental economy and its support systems, on the one hand, and its revival as a strategy for eradicating poverty, on the other.
The greening campaigns create the connection between environmental injustice and the erosion of social justice; the link between a healthy environment and quality of life. A tree has a right to grow to maturity, to fruit and bloom as every young life does in Mathare.
Planting trees in this spirit is more than a public relations exercise; it is work towards changing spaces so that they are less vulnerable to the elements and the forces that exploit the sense of deprivation. Importantly, it is the deliberate and conscious action of engaging in intergenerational optimism and responsibility, and accepting that we may never sit under the shade of the trees we plant.
Just as violence in Nairobi’s urban ghettos is continous and slow, so does healing through tree planting have to be a continous process. Urban reforestation that is people-centred is the primary symbolic vehicle for demanding ecological and social justice. The slow and deliberate effort of rehabilitating green spaces forces one to examine the systemic challenges that sustain these conditions. These young men choose to be eco-warriors, creating an enabling environment, restoring dignity and demanding the right to life from a state that minimises their existence. Wangari Maathai called it planting “seeds of peace” to stop the poverty profiling that disproportionately targets the poor. The existing structures of slow violence is why politicians consistently exploit the tensions in Nairobi’s slums during election cycles, easily igniting violence because below the surface, old antagonisms linger unresolved.
The Chipko movement, which originated in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh in India in the 1970s, gained notoreity as a non-violent social and ecological movement whose members protected trees by hugging them to discourage loggers.
They are no trees to hug in Mathare. However, following in the footsteps of Wangari Maathai, the young people of Mathare will one day pass down trees of peace that stand for their right to security and protection from a state that terrorises its own citizens.
The lasting solution to ending direct and indirect violence against young lives is by adddressing the conditions that perpetuate the cycle of violence. Planting trees we must, but we can no longer fail to see the forest.
NAIROBI: A city in which ‘contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent’
“The people are the city.” – Citizens in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus
At the crack of dawn, roughly between 5a.m and 7a.m, the “Great Trek” in Nairobi begins. Hordes of security guards, domestic workers, office cleaners, factory workers, vegetable hawkers, office messengers and jua kali artisans, among others, start their journey to work – on foot. It is a scene to behold. Thousands of people purposefully walking on roads meant for cars – sometimes for as long as three hours – to report to work by 8a.m., if not earlier.
These are the forgotten people, the ones the city’s urban planners have not catered for since Nairobi came into existence more than a century ago – when the city was planned as an apartheid city, built for a minority white elite that owned cars. Since then Nairobi has been characterised as a city that lacks pavements. Road builders either fail to build pavements during construction or pavements are so small or dilapidated that people have to use the road when walking.
However, even the roads meant for cars are failing the city’s residents. Traffic jams have become so normal in Nairobi that people plan their days around them. Moreover, recent proposals to have “car-free” days will not have the desired impact because those who use private cars are unlikely to walk to work or use public transport. To make matters worse, the frenzied construction of apartment blocks in residential areas has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in the number of roads and pavements. On the contrary, the construction of office blocks and apartment buildings in many neighbourhoods has led to the uprooting of precious green spaces.
A World Bank study estimates that around 40 per cent of trips in Nairobi are made on foot. Matatus and minibuses account for 30 per cent of these trips while buses account for 10 per cent. Only slightly more than 10 per cent of the city’s population uses private cars. Unlike in many European cities, where walking is considered a lifestyle choice, and where pedestrian pathways and public transport is part of the transport infrastructure, in Kenya a large number of people walk because they can’t afford any other means of transport. Urban transport here is, therefore, not only deeply related to poverty and inequality but also to poor or non-existent transport infrastructure, including sufficient roads and pavements.
A World Bank study estimates that around 40 per cent of trips in Nairobi are made on foot. Matatus and minibuses account for 30 per cent of these trips while buses account for 10 per cent. Only slightly more than 10 per cent of the city’s population uses private cars.
According to Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity, a UN-Habitat report published in 2013, Nairobi has allocated just 11 per of land to roads, which is way below the optimum level of around 30 per cent. (About a third of the land in Manhattan, for instance, is allocated to roads and pavements.) Moreover, the scarcity of roads is evident in both rich and poor neighbourhoods. For example, only 3 per cent of the land in both the up-market Muthaiga and the low-income Kibera is made up of streets. This is worrying because roads and pavements are not just important for mobility, they are also important for the development of related infrastructure, such as water and sewerage systems, which are usually laid down along existing road networks. According to the report, fewer roads and poor road connectivity make cities less prosperous.
Build it and they will come?
But will the construction of more roads improve mobility in the city? Not necessarily. Evidence suggests that more roads in urban areas can actually make mobility more difficult. During the Mwai Kibaki administration, for example, there was a concerted effort to build more roads and highways in Nairobi, ostensibly to ease congestion and improve transport infrastructure. The irony is that despite having more roads in the city, traffic in Nairobi has reached nightmare proportions
This contradiction was predicted some years ago by Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota, when he gave a public lecture at Nairobi University a few months before the construction began. Penalosa said that expansion of the road network in many cities had shown that instead of reducing vehicular traffic, the traffic actually increased. This could be attributed partly to the “build it and they will come” logic that is based on the idea that the building of infrastructure is itself an incentive for more people to use it.
In Nairobi, there has also been a marked increase in the number of private vehicles and matatus on the roads. The construction of highways has also improved connectivity with satellite towns, which has increased traffic flow into the city. These are probably some of the reasons why, despite the construction of several bypasses on Mombasa Road, Uhuru Highway remains the most congested main artery in the city at all hours of the day. The construction of the Thika Superhighway has had a similar effect: the highway has led to urban sprawl as satellite towns have emerged along it, with the result that more commuters from peri-urban areas are now using the highway.
The former mayor of Bogota said that instead of making more room for cars, cities should make more room for pedestrians, cyclists and mass rapid transit systems. This would encourage residents to use alternative forms of transport, which would lessen traffic on the roads.
When he was mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota between 1998 and 2001, Penalosa created a bus rapid transit system featuring bus-only lanes. Penalosa will also be remembered for building an extensive network of bicycle paths and pedestrian-only streets at a time when cities such as London and Paris had not even thought of them. (Now both London and Paris are emulating the Bogota example.)
Penalosa believes that today’s cities need to be totally re-designed to cater for pedestrians and cyclists. In an interview with the online Citiscope magazine, he stated: “For 5000 years we designed cities for people without cars. When cars appeared, we should have begun designing totally different cities. We did not. We just made bigger roads.”
When he was mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota between 1998 and 2001, Penalosa created a bus rapid transit system featuring bus-only lanes. Penalosa will also be remembered for building an extensive network of bicycle paths and pedestrian-only streets at a time when cities such as London and Paris had not even thought of them.
Streets as public spaces
In Nairobi, planners and policy makers are planning for vehicles, not pedestrians. This is in sharp contrast to trends in Europe where citizens are reclaiming their streets as “public spaces” by re-designing streets so that they are accessible only to pedestrians and cyclists. For instance, London has made parts of the famous Trafalgar Square inaccessible to cars and many European cities, including Copenhagen and Amsterdam, encourage the use of bicycles. Apart from the health and environmental benefits, the reclamation of streets as public spaces has immense social benefits. Streets become the great levellers where people from all walks of life meet and interact. This promotes social inclusion.
The idea that streets should be public spaces gained momentum in the mid to late 20th century when American urbanists, such as Jane Jacobs, suggested that “you need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul”. More recently, the American economist Edward Glaeser suggested that the most successful cities in the world are those that “enable us to work and play together” in close proximity and through physical interaction. These interactions are only possible when people mingle on streets and public spaces.
Penalosa is also a great advocate of public spaces, such as parks and playing fields. He notes that New York City created Central Park in 1860 when the city was much poorer than it is today, and that London, a heavily built-up city, has 1,500 public football fields that are open and free to all residents. (In contrast, Nairobi County Governor Mike Sonko had at one time suggested that Uhuru Park – Nairobi’s largest public park – be turned into a matatu stage. Neither under Sonko nor under any of the city’s former leaders have there been plans to build more public parks in the city. What’s worse, in recent years land grabbers have even attempted to steal playgrounds in Nairobi’s public schools.)
The idea that streets should be public spaces gained momentum in the mid to late 20th century when American urbanists, such as Jane Jacobs, suggested that “you need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul”.
Nairobi, like many African and Asian cities, seems not to have learnt lessons from European and other cities where there is a growing “liveable cities” movement that emphasises reduced dependence on motorised transport by making streets more accessible to cyclists and pedestrians. Nairobi’s streets are clogged with cars, matatus and private vehicles, and pavements are fast disappearing or are in a dilapidated state. Many streets do not even have pavements, and those that do are often encroached upon by hawkers and even by motorists. As one Kenyan commented on Twitter, “If there were pavements in Nairobi, motorists would drive on them.” The lack of adequate pavements and bicycle paths has also resulted in unnecessary deaths of pedestrians and cyclists; in fact, cycling and walking are considered among the most dangerous forms of transport in Kenya.
Penalosa is also against the new trend of shopping malls (which has become a rage in Nairobi), which he says deprives city dwellers of walking in and enjoying their city. Local corner shops disappear as the rich flock to enclosed malls. In Nairobi social apartheid that separates the urban rich from the urban poor is now becoming increasingly apparent in these up-market malls and gated communities.
Kenya Urbanization Review, a World Bank report published in February 2016, says that Nairobi is at a particular crossroad and can go down one of two main routes: It can either build its way out of congestion by building more roads to serve the increasing motorisation rate, or it can invest in public transport networks to promote a more compact and environmentally friendly city. “Either way,” says the report, “the fundamental priority is to avoid a trade-off between access and sustainability” that will lock Nairobi into highly land-consuming and car-dependant development patterns.
Devolution: Challenges and opportunities
Like most African cities, Nairobi did not grow as a result of a grand master plan – much of the city has grown spontaneously and haphazardly. Even when there were plans, they were largely ineffective because they did not reflect the reality on the ground and did not anticipate the rapid urban growth rate (driven largely by rural-to-urban migration) after independence in 1963.
For instance, if urban planners and policy makers understood that a large proportion of the city’s 4 million or so residents walk to work (because they cannot afford public transport), they would be ensuring that there would be more and wider pavements in the city and more affordable mass public transport. Urban planners are also in short supply. According to the World Bank report, in 2011 there were only 194 accredited urban planners in the whole of Kenya, compared to 1,690 in South Africa.
Nairobi has ambitions to become a “world class city”, but these ambitions are being hampered by the city’s delusional sense of its own importance that fails to recognise that more than half of the city’s population lives in overcrowded slums with few amenities, such as piped water or electricity. It is estimated that only 36 per cent of households in the city’s informal settlements have direct access to piped water. The urban poor in the city also pay more for water than rich households, as water has to be purchased from water vendors who sell them by the litre. Slum dwellers in Nairobi do not even have access to sanitation and are forced to use makeshift pit latrines. It is estimated that only 18 per cent of Kenya’s total urban population has access to a sewer system; 70 per cent of urban dwellers rely on septic tanks or pit latrines.
Tunku Varadarajan, writing in Forbes in September 2009, described Nairobi (along with Lagos, Karachi, Lima, Cairo, Jakarta, Dhaka, Caracas and Manila) as “an utterly charmless city” – “edgy, aggressive and inhospitable”, a city in which “contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent” and where there are “few parks and sidewalks, and scarcely any of the amenities that comprise the core of urban civilization”. Varadarajan’s assessment of the city may appear harsh, as other observers have commended the city for its vibrant culture and cosmopolitan nature. (Lonely Planet, for example, has described Nairobi as one of the best cities in the world, and has praised it for its “excellent nightspots and good music scene”). However, it is clear that Nairobi lacks the one thing world class cities have – a safe, affordable, reliable and well-regulated public transport system.
Tunku Varadarajan, writing in Forbes in September 2009, described Nairobi (along with Lagos, Karachi, Lima, Cairo, Jakarta, Dhaka, Caracas and Manila) as “an utterly charmless city” – “edgy, aggressive and inhospitable”, a city in which “contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent”
Poor leadership and corruption have further contributed to creating an urban culture that lacks vision. If Nairobi was a place that catered for the majority of its residents’ needs, there would be more pavements, bicycle paths, public parks, public toilets and playing fields in the city. But a land grabbing frenzy has ensured that even the few green spaces (and even public toilets) in the city have now become concrete blocks.
The fundamental reason why Nairobi is so dysfunctional is because its dysfunction is self-perpetuating. Urban dwellers do not demand better infrastructure and services and expect little from the authorities, which leads of a vicious cycle of low expectations, little infrastructure investment and low productivity. When the city fails to provide services, such as garbage collection, those residents who can afford it hire private garbage collectors. The same applies to security, water provision and other essential services. This has resulted in widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Devolution may have actually contributed to the city’s woes as there is no longer a City Council or Ministry of Local Government to blame. The 1963 Local Government Act created 175 local authorities in Kenya, which were abolished under the new constitution that was promulgated in 2010. As required by Article 184 of the constitution, national legislation should provide for the governance and management of urban areas.
The Urban Areas and Cities Act (Revised 2015 edition) does provide for a system of city and municipal boards and town committees that are tasked with adopting urban policies and strategies, including on service delivery and land use. However, the criteria for the creation of these boards are rather restrictive, and could serve as a deterrent to the formation of such boards, especially in poor and largely rural counties.
One of the conditions for the creation of a city or municipal board is that the city or town should have the capacity to generate sufficient revenue to sustain its operations, which is difficult for many of the poorer counties that rely on the national government to carry out operations, including the building of roads that are not part of the national highway network. Nairobi, Kenya’s largest and wealthiest city, collected Sh11.7 billion in revenue in 2015/16, but it is the exception in a country where the majority of towns have populations of less than 250,000 and where urban-based activities are not the mainstay of largely rural economies. Another condition is to have the capacity to effectively and efficiently deliver services, which is a tall order for most smaller towns in Kenya.
One of the pitfalls of devolution is that urban areas may suffer under a system where devolved funds are being used to cater mostly for rural populations in the counties, rather than to the needs of urban dwellers. While this is understandable, given that the majority of counties are predominantly rural and considering the marginalisation of several regions under the previous centralised system, neglecting urban areas may come to haunt counties in the future.
As the World Bank’s Kenya Urbanization Review report concluded, Kenya’s ambitious experiment in devolution holds great promise and comes at an important period but aspects of the process may weaken urban centres at a time when they need to be strengthened. “On balance,” says the report, “Kenya still has an opportunity to leverage urbanization to drive economic growth. It is in the early stages of urbanization, and evidence suggests that cities can drive economic development – especially when they are developed through a ‘system-of-cities’ approach and where devolution empowers counties…to develop strong urban centers.”
One of the pitfalls of devolution is that urban areas may suffer under a system where devolved funds are being used to cater mostly for rural populations in the counties, rather than to the needs of urban dwellers. While this is understandable, given that the majority of counties are predominantly rural and considering the marginalisation of several regions under the previous centralised system, neglecting urban areas may come to haunt counties in the future.
Urbanisation and economic growth
The 2009 Kenya census shows that nearly one-third of the country’s population is now urban, but urbanisation levels are still way below those of other African countries. In fact, along with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, Kenya has among the lowest urbanisation levels in the world. This has implications for the country’s economic prospects.
Nairobi, and Kenya as a whole, need an urban strategy that increases productivity and promotes inclusion. Studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between levels of urbanisation and economic growth – in general, most countries do not attain middle income status until they are at least 50 per cent urban. In 2009, the World Bank published a report by the Commission on Growth and Development that showed that there is a clear and robust relationship between urbanisation and per capita income in nearly all countries. The report stated that to achieve middle-income status, countries need to have at least half their populations living in urban areas and that “in all known cases of high and sustained growth, urban manufacturing and services led the process”.
The first challenge, of course, is to make cities and towns sites of high-productivity industries. The second challenge is managing the negative consequences of growth on urban areas, including congestion, pollution, inequality and slum formation. Both challenges require investments in infrastructure – but only if that infrastructure does not contribute to other problems (like pollution and congestion) and if it contributes to making productivity more efficient.
In its current state, the transport infrastructure in cities like Nairobi has proved to be an impediment to productivity as most workers spend more time commuting than engaging in productive activities. Over-dependence of private mini-buses (matatus) has also led to a situation where other forms of public transport have been crowded out, leading to increasing congestion and air pollution.
Building more roads has not helped either because the roads fail to cater for the majority of residents who walk, cycle or use public transport. As Edward Glaeser reminds us in his book, Triumph of the City: How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier, “The folly of building-centric urban renewal reminds us that cities aren’t structures; cities are people.”
Features2 weeks ago
HUNGER GAMES: Hard Times and Kenya’s Looming Economic Crisis
Features1 week ago
NAIROBI: A city in which ‘contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent’
Features7 days ago
MISSING THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: Mathare’s environmental apartheid
Features1 week ago
AN ODE TO SILENCE: The Church’s abdication of its role in society
Data Stories2 weeks ago
Kenya Budget 2018/19
Cartoons7 days ago
Catching the big Fish!
Cartoons2 weeks ago
Three Wise Men
Videos2 days ago
Nelson Mandela’s Life Story