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Nairobi’s Slum Dwellers Mired in Filth

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Nairobi’s growth has been exponential but poor waste management infrastructure has left the city’s slum dwellers living in a highly polluted environment without adequate supplies of clean water.

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Nairobi’s Slum Dwellers Mired in Filth
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Tucked away in Nairobi’s Dandora Phase 4 slum is a shanty that Lucy Wanjiru, 28, calls home, one of the many tiny, poorly lit structures built with scraps of corrugated iron sheets and metal.  At Lucy’s doorstep is a vegetable garden littered with dozens of mostly empty jerricans that can find no storage space in her small room. To the side is a large pumpkin plant. A pile of old croc shoes that she uses as cooking fuel sits beside the three stones on which Lucy sets her pot to cook the family meals.

Just nearby is a shared pit latrine; in place of a door is a piece of sack billowing in the wind.

“I do not have a special toilet like the rich people. I use the pipe toilet,” the mother of two who earns a living washing clothes and who moved here seven years ago after getting married tells the Elephant.

A pipe toilet is a pit latrine with a pipe attached to it. When you pour water to flush, the faecal matter passes through the pipe and drains directly into the nearby Nairobi River from which Lucy draws water to grow her vegetables, do the laundry and bathe because she cannot afford to buy enough domestic water from vendors.

This is a major health risk to Lucy and her family as the river water can transmit diseases such polio, diarrhoea, dysentery, typhoid, as well as cholera, which averages 3,500 cases annually and costs Kenya about US$2.2 million. But Lucy says she has no alternative.

“I can stay thirsty for a few days but I am a woman, I need to bathe. What other choice do I have? Now I have vegetables, and the little money I get, I buy maize flour and cooking oil. I don’t have to buy paraffin, my husband brings old shoes from the Dandora dump site where he works,” says Lucy, who caught typhoid three times in 2021.

Lucy is not the only one in this situation. Here in Dandora, home to more than 140,000 Nairobi residents, clean water, sanitation and waste disposal facilities are a luxury.

Residents are forced to buy costly water from cartels that have privatised the water supply and discharge all their waste into the river they depend on for bathing, washing clothes, cleaning, and for crop and livestock farming, endangering their lives and harming the environment in the process.

Known for its crime, poverty and as the city’s main dumpsite, the Dandora slum suffers from a severe water shortage. Yet it sits on the banks of Nairobi River, a biodiversity-rich source of clean water a century ago. But explosive population growth, industrialization and lack of waste management infrastructure in Nairobi have left the river very sick.

Billions of shillings have been spent by the government and other institutions in an effort to clean up the river, revamp the city’s sewerage system and provide clean water to the city’s residents with little success; the condition of the river continues to deteriorate.

Experts say this is because the full context of the problem is ignored; slum dwellers, one of the chief drivers of river pollution, are not involved yet their participation is critical to improving the health of the river.

Sam Dindi, an environmentalist and co-founder of Mazingara Yetu, a community-based organisation, has for years been part of the Ngong River Restoration initiative under the Nairobi City Regeneration Programme (NCRP), and the restoration of the Ondiri wetland, the source of the Nairobi River.

Speaking to the Elephant, Dindi observed that Kenya is a water-scarce country where pollution and climate change have exacerbated water scarcity. “We’re losing much needed water but you cannot clean the river without addressing the source of its pollution. Slum dwellers are a major polluter and most affected.

They have no water, toilets, sewage or solid waste disposal systems and housing conditions and planning are extremely poor and hazardous. All their waste ends up polluting the river, environment and creating water scarcity.

To rehabilitate the river, we need proper urban planning, sanitation systems and recycling facilities then we’ll know this waste is going here, and this is going there. We’ll even create jobs but putting on an overall and heading to the river to remove solid waste is just a PR exercise. It’s a waste of time.”

The story of Nairobi River 

Nairobi River is the main river of the Nairobi River Basin comprising Ngong, Nairobi, Mathare, Kiu, Riara and Gatharaini rivers. In Ondiri, Kikuyu, Kiambu County where the Nairobi River originates, the water is clean and clear. During a field visit in November last year, I found a man dipping his water bottle and drinking water directly from the river; he has done this since childhood.

But as the river winds downstream across the city, passing through residential areas, factories, industries, hospitals and businesses including in the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), the industrial area and the highly populated informal settlements like Dandora, the river gathers all manner of waste that now threatens its existence.

Putting on an overall and heading to the river to remove solid waste is just a PR exercise. It’s a waste of time.”

It is here in Dandora Phase 4 where Lucy lives that the Mathare River meets and joins the Nairobi River, draining into the Athi River east of Nairobi, and eventually into the Indian Ocean as the Galana River.

The Nairobi River and all its tributaries are heavily polluted with sewage from open sewers and industrial waste that is illegally channelled by unscrupulous developers. So bad is the pollution that studies have declared the waters too toxic for any useful purpose.

Acute water shortage in Dandora

Mwaura’s shanty in Dandora is just a few metres from Nairobi River. The 72-year-old says he does not pay rent because he owns the land. He however does not have a title deed.

Mwaura was born and raised in the shanty he calls home. Yet he could be uprooted at any time; like many others in the slum, his house is built without government approval and is considered illegally constructed as the government owns the land.

For years, Mwaura has tried to install piped water without success, forcing him to buy water from vendors, kiosks and water cartels at exorbitant prices. “The river water is black and poisonous. I cannot use it but if I had 10,000 shillings, I would pay this man in the neighbourhood who lets people connect pipes from his house to their homes. But that amount is too high. I cannot afford it,” says the former watchman.

Charlie, a recently widowed father of two, considers the river too toxic, “Water is everything but I will not endanger my children. I struggle daily wondering why I have to choose between buying food, paraffin or fetching water. Life was easier when my wife was here because fetching water is a woman’s duty.”

The Nairobi River and all its tributaries are heavily polluted with sewage from open sewers and industrial waste that is illegally channelled by unscrupulous developers.

He is fortunate however not to have to pay rent since his former landlord disappeared years ago. Charlie soon erected two shanties that he rents out to feed his family but to date, he is unable to install piped water because it is too expensive, he says.

Kenya’s constitution recognises that access to adequate food, housing, reasonable standards of sanitation and clean, safe water in adequate quantities is an economic and social right for every person. Dandora’s residents, however, say these rights are just on paper.

According to UN Habitat, only 22 per cent of Nairobi’s slum dwellers have piped water. Seventy-five per cent of residents buy water from vendors, paying more for water than those living in middle or high-income areas.

In 2020, UN Human Rights reported that the price of piped water in Nairobi’s middle class neighbourhoods ranged between KSh34 and KSh53 per cubic metre (1000 litres) whereas residents of informal settlements paid between KSh10 and KSh50 for a 20-litre jerry can.

Drawing data from Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) between 1985 and 2018 and Global Human Settlement between 1975 and 2014, a recent study further highlighted inequality in water distribution, access and cost between Nairobi’s high-income and low-income areas. According to the study, slum dwellers are unlikely to receive the 1,500 litres of water every month per person recommended by World Health Organisation (WHO), unlike residents of high and middle income areas who are four or six times more likely to receive the recommended amounts.

Kenya Vision 2030 targets 100 per cent provision of safe water and access to basic sanitation services by 2030, the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). Yet, today, just 50 per cent of Nairobi has piped water coverage, with only 40 per cent receiving water on a 24-hour basis.

Following extended periods of drought, the government introduced water rationing in Nairobi in 2017, with residents receiving water on specific days. Some residents have access to water for only a few hours a day while others receive water at least three times a week, leaving many at the mercy of water cartels.

According to NCWSC, which is mandated to provide the city with water and sewage services, Nairobi’s water needs have grown to more than 810,000 cubic meters daily against an installed capacity of 525,600 cubic meters.

“The demand is higher than supply. We are 20 years behind,” NCWSC Managing Director Nahashon Muguna said in an interview.

No waste facilities in Dandora

Mwaura’s pit latrine collapsed just a few days after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya. Now, every time he or his family needs to use the toilet, he must ask permission from his neighbour. “It sank to the ground but nobody was injured. This was my first toilet, a bit old but it was still my toilet and never drained to the river like the rest in the area,” Mwaura said.

The father of four says that many years ago he and his family used to practice open defecation because at the time, “there were bushes and the area wasn’t as populated as now”. A field visit to Dandora is an obstacle race over rocks, logs, open trenches filled with wastewater, human waste and heaps of garbage, all of which finally ends up in the Nairobi River.

The makeshift structures along the banks of the Nairobi River, including homes and businesses, all have pipe toilets that discharge waste directly into the river. Residents without pipe toilets—or who are not connected to sewer lines because of lack of money—confided that when their toilets are full, they empty them by scooping the waste with buckets and discharging it into the river.

Traders in Dandora, including those selling food, go about their business amidst the stench of sewage flowing through broken sewer lines, narrow open trenches, and overflowing manholes, all leading to the river.

Nairobi’s water needs have grown to more than 810,000 cubic meters daily against an installed capacity of 525,600 cubic meters.

“I’ve had typhoid several times this year [2021], but it wasn’t this food, it was from drinking that water,” Esther Muthoni, a resident told the Elephant as she pointed at the water pipes in the mess of sewage. The World Health Organisation warns that wastewater can seep into the water supply through damaged pipes making it undrinkable.

Everything is a risk here. But we’re used to the filth,” Muthoni said as she stuffed boiled potatoes in chicken necks to make kuku chipo ya kuchemsha for her clients.

People can be seen defecating in the open areas and near or in the river even as others wash themselves or clean their clothes, oblivious of the danger they pose to those using the water. The situation is no different in Korogocho, Kamukunji (Shauri Moyo) and other areas near Gikomba market.

According to Unicef, Kenya is one of 26 countries in the world that are responsible for 90 per cent of open defecation with an estimated five million Kenyans practising open defecation. The practice costs the economy KSh8 billion every year with approximately 19,500 Kenyans, including 17,100 children under the age of five years dying annually from diarrhoea according to the Ministry of Health Environmental Sanitation and Hygiene Strategic Framework (KeSSF) 2016-2020 report.

Kenya plans to eliminate open defecation by 2025. To do this, some 1.2 million latrines—at a cost of KSh1,530 each—are required. Overall, the ministry says, Kenya loses an estimated KSh27 billion (US$365 million) annually due to poor sanitation, about 1 per cent of the national GDP.

In another area of Dandora, David, barely two years old, is playing in the open trenches outside his family’s single room home. His sickly and heavily pregnant mother rushes to pick him up. Three days earlier, David had been taken to hospital at night following three days of diarrhoea, a leading cause of death and disability in Kenya. “I am tired of going to the hospital. But what do I do? He wants to play but there’s no space. It’s worse when I have to go work,” the mother of four lamented.

In Kenya in 2018, 1,499,146 cases of diarrhoea were reported among children under five years, with Nairobi accounting for 136,028 cases. 25.6 per cent of children living in the informal settlement had diarrhoea.

Kenya is one of 26 countries in the world that are responsible for 90 per cent of open defecation with an estimated five million Kenyans practising open defecation.

Residents of Dandora told the Elephant that they have nowhere else to take their waste and the river made sense as waste would “flow downstream” or “get washed away by the rain”.  Some thought the river was just an open sewer.

With funding from the Africa Development Bank (AfDB), the Nairobi Sewerage Improvement Project, which is part of the larger Nairobi River Basin Rehabilitation and Restoration Programme, has developed wastewater facilities and increased the city’s sewage coverage from 40 to 48 per cent.

The AfDB says that infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing population, industrialization and urbanisation, which has led to heavy pollution of Nairobi’s rivers, including Mathare, Ngong, Athi and Kiu, the main source of water supply for the city. Domestic and industrial waste is discharged directly into the rivers without being treated, which has an adverse impact on the river ecology.

Currently, Kenya’s urban areas host 12 million people and the number is expected to triple to 40 million by 2050. And as Nairobi grows, the World Bank says, more poor urban dwellers are pushed into low-income settlements, where there is little or no water or sanitation.

Residents of Dandora told the Elephant that they have nowhere else to take their waste and the river made sense as waste would “flow downstream” or “get washed away by the rain”.

According to the Nairobi County Assembly, 60 per cent of Nairobi’s 4,397,073 residents live in slums and informal settlements and occupy only 6 per cent of Nairobi’s total land area.

“It’s difficult to provide social amenities at a pace that matches the population growth hence facilities like water and sewerage have been overstretched,” the Nairobi County Government said in its 21/22 development plan.

Kenya’s capital Nairobi generates 525 million litres of wastewater daily, less than 200 million litres of which are treated. The city’s main treatment plants, Dandora Estate Sewage Treatment Works (DSTW), which was built in 1975, and Kariobangi Sewerage Treatment Plant, which was built in 1960 and started operating in 1963, have been overwhelmed. “The effluent from the treatment plant, which is discharged into Nairobi River for reuse, currently does not meet required quality standards due to overloading,” the Dandora treatment plant reports on its website.

The city also generates an estimated 2,400 tonnes of solid waste daily yet only 45 per cent is recycled, reused or transformed into a form which can yield an economic or ecological benefit. The rest finds its way into waterways like the Nairobi River, which provides a livelihood for many residents as a source of water for farming, domestic use, industrial use, and at recreation facilities such as the Dandora Waterfall and the Fourteen Falls in Thika.

Polluting companies 

Although residents living along the banks depend on the health of Nairobi River, factories and drainage have heavily polluted its waters for decades. Household and human waste, pharmaceutical and industrial waste, chemicals and heavy metals are among the pollutants that are discharged into the Nairobi River on a daily basis. Since 2019, 21 dead bodies—16 infants and 5 adults dumped in the river to rot—have been retrieved so far.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Keriako Tobiko, has directed that individuals, companies and public institutions discharging raw waste into Nairobi River be charged and prosecuted. The Technical Director of Nairobi Water and Sewage Ltd was arrested after the CS found sewer lines discharging waste to the river.

In mid-2020, the National Environment Management Authority identified 148 polluters who were to be arraigned in court. Companies and factories, including Apex Coating East Africa, Kamongo Waste Recycling Company and Associated Battery Manufacturers (ABM), have been shut down by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) for discharging untreated effluent into the river.

Since 2019, 21 dead bodies—16 infants and 5 adults dumped in the river to rot—have been retrieved so far.

During the “Ng’arisha Jiji” programme, former Nairobi Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko also directed the closure of 25 companies and hospitals for discharging raw sewage and aborted babies into the river. According to environmentalist Sam Dindi, sewage trucks empty waste into the river instead of taking it to designated waste disposal sites.

Toxins and diseases 

Many Nairobi residents are not aware that they could be eating vegetables that are killing them, or are using non-woven shopping bags scavenged from dumpsites like Dandora and washed in the Nairobi River.

Scientific studies show that lead and cadmium levels are 13,500 ppm (parts per million) and 1,058 ppm respectively along the riparian areas where farmers have channelled the river water into their farms, including in the Dandora dumpsite area. They rear animals, grow maize, arrowroots, Napier grass and vegetables that are later sold in the area, in estates nearby and in markets like Ruai, Muthurwa and Gikomba.

“I see the dirt as fertiliser and you can see vegetables are green and healthy,” says Willy, a farmer in Dandora Phase 4 who uses the river water. He says he made a killing last year selling traditional vegetables and even managed to pay college fees for his young cousin. While Willy moves from door to door in Dandora selling his vegetables, farmers in the neighbouring Lucky Summer Estate have established their stalls just outside the estate gates.

According to the environment CS, the river pollution and consumption of food produced with polluted water undermines the realisation of universal health and food security, which are among the country’s Big Four Agenda.

The pollution creates clean water scarcity, degrades the environment, and exposes people to heavy metal poisoning. The bacteria, sewage, chemicals and plastics suck oxygen from water supplies and transform water into poison for humans and ecosystems. Lab analyses of water collected at different points in the river showed that the amounts of lead, copper, chromium, zinc and manganese were greater than the limits set by the WHO and NEMA.

High manganese concentrations can cause liver damage, neurotoxicity, chronic respiratory inflammation and birth defects such as cleft lip, heart defects, imperforate anus and deafness, in addition to causing aggressive behaviour and libido disturbances. “The concentration of lead, one of the most insidious of all environmental hazards, was also above the NEMA limit of 0.01 mg/L for effluent discharge into the environment in all the sampling points,” the findings say.

Antimicrobials in the river have driven the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) where bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites have built resistance to the drugs used for treatment of diseases.

Efforts and solutions 

The first attempt at rehabilitation and restoration of the Nairobi River Basin took place between 1999 and 2001, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The second ran from 2001 to 2003 while the third was between 2004 and 2008.

In 2017, the fourth attempt kicked off with the aim of improving Nairobi city water, sanitation facilities, waste management, and roads and housing, especially in the slums and informal settlements. However, these initiatives have had very little success and the situation is deteriorating by the day.

Lack of community engagement and participation has contributed to the limited success, according to Josephat Karomi, Chairman of Kamukunji Environment Conservation Champions (KECC), a community-based group that turned the Kamukunji grounds on the banks of the Nairobi River from a dumpsite into a clean environment.

Many Nairobi residents are not aware that they could be eating vegetables that are killing them.

“Often, issues are discussed in closed offices and riparian communities are overlooked,” Karomi said. A multi-agency team involving residents, national and county governments, the private sector, NGOs, community groups, and community leaders would combat the crisis however, he said. Karomi believes that by forging partnerships, residents can create wealth from collecting, sorting and selling waste to recyclers as much of the waste discharged into the river could be recycled.

According to Sam Dindi, to accommodate the large number of households living near the river without toilets and sanitation facilities, the government should build public toilets and facilities for washing clothes, with the grey water directed to sewer lines. “This will give the clean-ups a meaning,” he said.

Wastewater can generate wealth as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are recovered as fertiliser and treated wastewater is used for agriculture.

Experts have attributed the stalling of the renovation and reclamation of Nairobi River to lack of funds and political will. However, in some areas like Kibera, through which the Ngong River passes, the regeneration project has shown positive signs. Fifteen community ablution blocks have been built and new sewer lines have been laid, with old lines being rehabilitated.

The Dandora Sewage plant is getting a facelift under the KSh1.3 billion Nairobi Water Project. The construction of seven ponds of 20,000 cubic metres capacity each at a cost of KShI billion and the erection of a perimeter wall on the 4,000 acres of land at a cost of KSh300 million are underway.

The World Bank has also provided sustainable access to sanitation and water services in selected low-income areas under the Nairobi Sanitation Project at a cost of US$4.8 million and says that more needs to be done otherwise experts say projects like the KSh82 billion Thwake Dam may turn out to be white elephant if the matter is not attended to urgently.

Research for article was carried out with the support of a fellowship from the Media Hack collective.

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Naipanoi Lepapa is a freelance investigative and feature journalist based in Nairobi Kenya. She is interested in under-reported stories and writes about gender, human rights, health and environmental stories. She also writes about culture and technology.

Politics

Moving, or Changing?

The purpose of the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe was the same as now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another, to change one’s social standing in relation to the country of origin.

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Moving, or Changing?
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Do we move to change, or do we move to stay the same?

That seems to depend on who we were, to begin with. In most cases, it seems we move in an attempt to become even more of whatever we think we are.

A good Kenyan friend of mine once (deliberately) caused great offense in a Nairobi nightspot encounter with a group of Ugandans he came across seated at a table. There were six or seven of them, all clearly not just from the same country, but from the same part of the country.

“It always amazes me,” he said looking over their Western Uganda features, “how people will travel separately for thousands of miles only to meet up so as to recreate their villages.

He moved along quickly.

“Most African Migration Remains Intraregional” is a headline on the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies website:

Most African migration remains on the continent, continuing a long-established pattern. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, a figure that is likely an undercount given that many African countries do not track migration. Urban areas in Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt are the main destinations for this inter-African migration, reflecting the relative economic dynamism of these locales.

Among African migrants who have moved off the continent, some 11 million live in Europe, almost 5 million in the Middle East, and more than 3 million in America.

More Africans may be on the move now than at any time since the end of enslavement, or perhaps the two large European wars. Even within the African continent itself. They navigate hostilities in the cause of movement—war, poverty and environmental collapse.

The last 500 years have seen the greatest expression of the idea of migration for the purpose of staying the same (or shall we say, becoming even more of what one is). The world has been transformed by the movement of European peoples, who have left a very visible cultural-linguistic stamp on virtually all corners of the earth. It is rarely properly understood as a form of migration.

It took place in three forms. The first was a search for riches by late feudal Western European states, in a bid to solve their huge public debts, and also enrich the nobility. This was the era of state-sponsored piracy and wars of aggression for plunder against indigenous peoples. The second form was the migration of indentured Europeans to newly conquered colonial spaces. The third was the arrival of refugees fleeing persecution borne of feudal and industrial poverty, which often took religious overtones.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity. The historical record shows that some humans have done this at the expense of other humans.

A key story of the world today seems to be the story of how those that gained from the mass and civilizational migrations of Western Europe outwards remain determined to keep the world organised in a way that enables them to hold on to those gains at the expense of the places to which they have migrated.

We can understand the invention and development of the modern passport—or at least its modern application—as an earlier expression of that. Originally, passports were akin to visas, issued by authorities at a traveler’s intended destination as permission to move through the territory. However, as described by Giulia Pines in National Geographic, established in 1920 by the League of Nations, “a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world”, the current passport regime “was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others”. Today the dominant immigration models (certainly from Europe) seem based around the idea of a fortress designed to keep people out, while allowing those keeping the people out to go into other places at will, and with privilege, to take out what they want.

Certainly, new spaces often create new opportunities, but only if the migrants concerned are allowed to explore the fullness of their humanity and creativity.

For me, the greatest contemporary expression of “migration as continuity” has to be the Five Eyes partnership. This was an information-sharing project based on a series of satellites owned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Its original name was “Echelon”, and it has grown to function as a space-based listening system, spying on telecommunications on a global scale – basically, space-based phone tapping.

All the countries concerned are the direct products of the global migration and settlement of specifically ethnic English Europeans throughout the so-called New World, plus their country of origin. The method of their settlement are now well known: genocide and all that this implies. The Five Eyes project represents their banding together to protect the gains of their global ethnic settlement project.

In the United States, many families that have become prominent in public life have a history rooted, at least in part, in the stories of immigrants. The Kennedys, who produced first an Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and then through his sons and grandsons, a president, an attorney general, and a few senators, made their fortune as part of a gang of Irish immigrants to America involved in the smuggling of illicit alcohol in the period when the alcohol trade was illegal in the United States.

Recent United States president Donald Trump is descended from a German grandfather who, having arrived in 1880s America as a teenage barber, went on to make money as a land forger, casino operator and brothel keeper. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States was the paternal grandson of a trader named Warren, a descendant of Dutch settlers who made his fortune smuggling opium into China in the 1890s.

While it is true that the entire story of how Europeans came to be settled in all the Americas is technically a story of criminality, whether referred to as such or not, the essential point here is that many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they impose on present-day applicants.

The purpose of migrations then was the same as it is now: not simply to move from one point to another, but also from one type of social status to another. It was about finding wealth, and through that, buying a respectability that had not been accessible in the country of origin. So, the point of migration was in a sense, not to migrate, but to change one’s social standing.

And once that new situation has been established, then all that is left is to build a defensive ring around that new status. So, previously criminal American families use the proceeds of their crime to build large mansions, and fill the rooms with antiques and heirlooms, and seek the respectability (not to mention business opportunities) of public office.

Many of the ancestors of these now prominent Americans would not have passed the very same visa application requirements that they put to present-day applicants.

European countries that became rich through the plunder of what they now call the “developing world”, build immigration measures designed to keep brown people out while allowing the money keep coming in. They build large cities, monuments and museums, and also rewrote their histories just as the formerly criminal families have done.

Thus the powers that created a world built on migration cannot be taken seriously when they complain about present-day migration.

Migration is as much about the “here” you started from, as it about the “there” you are headed to. It is not about assimilating difference; it is about trying to keep the “here” unchanged, and then to re-allocate ourselves a new place in that old sameness. This is why we go “there”.

This may explain the “old-new” names so common to the mass European migration experience. They carry the names of their origins, and impose them on the new places. Sometimes, they add the word “New” before the old name, and use migrant-settler phrases like “the old country”, “back east”. They then seek to choose a new place to occupy in the old world they seek to recreate, that they could not occupy in the old world itself. But as long as the native still exists, then the settler remains a migrant. And the settler state remains a migrant project.

To recreate the old world, while creating a new place for themselves in it, , such migrants also strive to make the spaces adapt to this new understanding of their presence that they now seek to make real.

I once witness a most ridiculous fight between three Ugandan immigrants in the UK. It took place on the landing of the social housing apartment of two of them, man and wife, against the third, until that moment, their intended house guest. As his contribution to their household, the guest had offered to bring a small refrigerator he owned. However, when the two men went to collect the fridge in a small hired van, the driver explained that traffic laws did not permit both to ride up front with him – one would have to ride in the back with the fridge. The fridge owner, knowing the route better, was nominated to sit up front, to which his friend took great and immediate exception; he certainly had not migrated to London to be consigned to the back of a van like a piece of cargo. After making his way home via public means, and discussing his humiliation with his good wife, the arrangement was called off – occasioning a bitter confrontation with the bewildered would-be guest.

There must have been so many understandings of the meaning of their migration to Britain, but like the Europeans of the New World, the Ugandans had settled on replicating the worst of what they were running from in an attempt to become what they were never going to be allowed to be back home.

A good case in point is the ethnic Irish communities in Boston and New York, whose new-found whiteness—having escaped desperate poverty, oppression and famine under British colonial rule on what were often referred to as “coffin ships” —saw them create some of the most racist and brutal police forces on the East Coast. They did not just migrate physically; they did so socially and economically as well.

It starts even with naming.

The word “migrant” seems to belong more to certain races than to others, although that also changes. When non-white, normally poor people are on the move, they can get labeled all sorts of things: refugees, economic migrants, immigrants, illegals, encroachments, wetbacks and the like.

With white-skinned people, the language was often different. Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate”, to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

According to news reports, some seven million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion were absorbed by their neighboring European countries, most of which are members of the European Union. Another 8 million remain displaced within the war-torn country.

This is an outcome of which the Europeans are proud. They have even emphasized how the racial and cultural similarities between themselves and the Ukrainian refugees have made the process easier, if not a little obligatory.

This sparked off a storm of commentary in which comparisons were made with the troubles earlier sets of refugees (especially from the Middle East and Afghanistan) faced as the fled their own wars and tried to enter Western Europe.

And the greatest irony is that the worst treatment they received en-route was often in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Many European media houses were most explicit in expressing their shock that a war was taking place in Europe (they thought they were now beyond such things), and in supporting the position that the “white Christian” refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed with open arms, unlike the Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians before them.

Human migration was not always like this.

Pythagoras (570-495 BC), the scholar from Ancient Greece, is far less well remembered as a migrant and yet his development as a thinker is attributable to the 22 or so years he spent as a student and researcher in Ancient Egypt. The same applies to Plato, who spent13 years in Egypt.

There is not that much evidence to suggest that Pythagoras failed to explain where he got all his learning from. If anything, he seems to have been quite open in his own writing about his experiences, first as an apprentice and later a fellow scholar in the Egyptian knowledge systems. The racial make-up of Ancient Egypt, and its implications, was far from becoming the political battleground it is today.

Top of the linguistic league is the word “expatriate” to refer to any number of European-origin people moving to, or through, or settling in, especially Africa.

Classic migration was about fitting in. Colonial migration demands that the new space adapt to accommodate the migrant. The idea of migrants and modern migration needs to be looked at again from its proper wider 500-year perspective. People of European descent, with their record of having scattered and forcibly imposed themselves all over the world, should be the last people to express anxieties about immigrants and migration.

With climate change, pandemic cycles, and the economic collapse of the west in full swing, we should also focus on the future of migration. As was with the case for Europeans some two to three hundred years ago, life in Europe is becoming rapidly unlivable for the ordinary European. The combination of the health crisis, the energy crisis, the overall financial crisis and now a stubborn war, suggests that we may be on the threshold of a new wave of migration of poor Europeans, as they seek cheaper places to live.

The advantages to them are many. Large areas of the south of the planet are dominated physically, financially and culturally, by some level of Western values, certainly at a structural level. Just think how many countries in the world use the Greco-Latin origin word “police” to describe law enforcement. These southern spaces have already been sufficiently Westernized to enable a Westerner to live in them without too much of a cultural adjustment on their part. The Westerners are coming back.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money

Cameroonian economist Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi died in 1984, either poisoned or by suicide. His ideas about the international monetary system and the CFA franc are worth revisiting.

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The Iron Grip of the International Monetary System: CFA Franc, Hyper-Imperial Economies and the Democratization of Money
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Despite being one of Africa’s greatest economists, Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi is little known outside Francophone intellectual circles. Writing in the 1970s, he offered a stinging rebuke of orthodox monetary theory and policy from an African perspective that remains relevant decades later. Especially powerful are his criticisms of the international monetary system and the CFA franc, the regional currency in West and Central Africa that has historically been pegged to the French currency—at first the franc, and now the euro.

Pouemi was born on November 13th, 1937, to a Bamiléké family in Bangoua, a village in western Cameroon. After obtaining his baccalaureate and working as a primary school teacher, Pouemi moved to France in 1960, where he studied law, mathematics, and economics at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Pouemi then worked as a university professor and policy adviser in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire. In 1977, he joined the IMF but quit soon after, vehemently disagreeing with its policies. He returned to Cameroon and published his magnum opus, Money, Servitude, and Freedom, in 1980. The recently elected president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, appointed Pouemi head of the University of Douala in August 1983—then fired him a year later. On December 27th, 1984, Pouemi was found dead of an apparent suicide in a hotel room. Some of his friends and students argue he was poisoned by the Biya regime (which still governs Cameroon), while others believe that harassment by Biya’s cronies drove Pouemi to suicide.

International Monetary System

Writing in the turbulent 1970s after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates, Pouemi anticipated the three “fundamental flaws” with the international monetary “non-system”: one, using a national currency, the US dollar, as global currency; two, placing the burden of adjustment exclusively on deficit nations; and, three, the “inequity bias” of the foreign reserve system, which makes it a form of “reverse aid.” All three issues have been highlighted by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Long recognized as a problem, the challenges with using the US dollar as the world’s currency have once again become apparent. Low- and middle-income countries (which include essentially all African countries) have to deal with the vicissitudes of the global financial cycles emanating from the center of the global capitalist system. As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation by engineering a recession—because if borrowing costs rise, people have less money to spend and prices will decrease—they are increasing the debt burden of African governments that have variable-rate loans in US dollars. Already, the World Bank has warned of a looming debt crisis and the potential for another “lost decade” like the 1980s. Moreover, higher interest rates in the US lead to the depreciation of African currencies, making imports more expensive and leading to even higher food and oil prices across the continent.

Pouemi viewed the IMF’s attempt to create a global currency through the 1969 establishment of the special drawing rights (SDR) system as an inadequate response to the problems created by using the US dollar. The issuance of SDRs essentially drops money from the sky into the savings accounts of governments around the world. The IMF has only issued SDRs four times in its history, most recently in August 2021 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With African governments dealing with falling export earnings and the need to import greater amounts of personal protective equipment—and, eventually, vaccines—there was a clear need to bolster their savings, i.e., foreign reserves. The problem is that the current formula for allocating SDRs provides 60% of them to the richest countries—countries that do not need them, since they can and have borrowed in their own currencies. Of the new 456 billion SDR (approximately US$650 billion), the entire African continent received only 5% (about US$33 billion).

Decades ago, Pouemi had slammed SDRs as “arbitrary in three respects: the determination of their volume, their allocation and the calculation of their value.” Instead, Pouemi advocated for a truly global currency, one that could be issued by a global central bank in response to global recessions and that prioritized financing for the poorest countries. Such a reorientation of SDRs could provide a way of repaying African nations for colonialism and climate change.

Secondly, unable to get the financing they need, African governments with balance-of-payments deficits (when more money leaves a country than enters in a given year) have no choice but to shrink their economies. Pouemi strongly criticized the IMF, which he dubbed the “Instant Misery Fund” for applying the same “stereotypical, invariable remedies: reduce public expenditures, limit credit, do not subsidize nationalized enterprises” regardless of the source of a country’s deficits. Devaluing the currency is unlikely to work for small countries that are price takers in world markets and instead improves the trade balance by lowering domestic spending. The IMF has become “a veritable policeman to repress governments that attempt to offer their countries a minimum of welfare.” The current international monetary non-system then creates a global “deflationary bias,” since those countries with balance-of-payments deficits must reduce their spending, while those with large surpluses—like Germany, China, Japan, and the Netherlands—face little pressure to decrease their surpluses by spending more.

The third major issue with the current international monetary non-system is that developing countries have to accumulate foreign exchange reserves denominated in “hard” currencies like US dollars and euros, which means they are forced to transfer real resources to richer countries in return for financial assets—mere IOUs. Pouemi claimed that “if the international monetary system was not ‘rigged,’ reserves would be held as other goods like coffee or cocoa, gold for example. But the system is ‘rigged’; coffee reserves are quantified as dollars, pound sterling or non-convertible francs.” Instead, in the late 1970s, governments like that of Rwanda effectively lent coffee to the United States by using export earnings to purchase US treasury bills, whose real value was being quickly eroded by high inflation in the US. Hence, we live in a world where developing countries like China and Brazil lend money to rich governments like that of the US. As Pouemi explains: “The logic of the international monetary system wants the poor to lend to—what am I saying—give to the rich.”

CFA franc

Pouemi was also a harsh critic of the CFA franc, since maintaining the fixed exchange rate to the euro implies abandoning an autonomous monetary policy and the need to restrict commercial bank credit. Pouemi also argued that the potential benefits and costs of currency unions are different for rich and poor countries, and that therefore it is inappropriate to analyze African monetary unions through a European lens. His thoughts are especially relevant at a moment when the future of the CFA franc and West African monetary integration are up for debate.

In theory, by fixing the exchange rate to the euro, the two regional central banks that issue the CFA franc—the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique de l’ouest (Central Bank of West African States) and the Banque centrale des états de l’Afrique centrale (Central Bank of Central African States)—have relinquished monetary policy autonomy. They have to mimic the European Central Bank’s policy rates instead of setting interest rates that reflect economic conditions in the CFA zone. The amount of CFA francs in circulation is also limited by the amount of foreign reserves each regional central bank holds in euros. Therefore, “the solidity of the CFA franc is based on restricting M [the money supply], a restriction not desired by the states, but one proceeding from the very architecture of the zone.” As a result, the economies of the CFA franc zone are starved of credit, especially farmers and small businesses, hindering growth and development. In Pouemi’s words, “There is no doubt, the CFA remains fundamentally a currency of the colonial type.”

When discussing the possibilities for a single currency for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Pouemi stressed that the potential benefits and costs of currency union are different for rich and poor countries. “There is not only a difference of perception of the mechanisms of cooperation” between Europe and Africa, “there’s a difference of the conception of common life. Economic cooperation as it is conceived in the industrialized West is the Kennedy Round, North-South dialogue, the EEC, etc.—in other words, essentially ‘customs disarmament’ or common defense; armament is the rule, disarmament the exception.” In Africa, however, economic cooperation is a positive-sum game. Conventional economic theory argues against monetary integration among African countries, since they trade little with each other. But to Pouemi, the goal of monetary integration is precisely to get these countries to trade more with one another. He also questions the view that monetary integration should come last, following the same sequence as the European Union from free trade zone to customs union to common market and, finally, to currency union. “This view is not only imaginary, it is practically non-verified; we have seen examples. Theoretically, it is indefensible: a 10% decrease in tariffs could be … offset by a devaluation of 10%.”

Pouemi also dismissed arguments that Nigeria would dominate the proposed ECOWAS single currency as another example of the classic colonialist tactic of “divide and conquer.” While he acknowledged that “monetary union between unequal partners poses problems,” these are “only problems, open to solutions.” They do not make monetary integration unviable. Such integration need not limit sovereignty. In a regional or continental African monetary union, no “currency would be the reserve of others. Each country would have its own central bank, free to conduct the policy that best suits the directives judged necessary by the government. The only loss of sovereignty following such a union would be the respect of the collective balance. It would not be appropriated by anyone; it would be at the service of all. It would be, for that matter, less a loss of sovereignty than the collective discipline necessary to all communal life.”

Pouemi advocated for an African monetary union with fixed exchange rates between members, the pooling of foreign reserves, and a common unit of account—like the European Currency Unit that preceded the euro. He thought that the debate over whether the CFA franc is overvalued is misguided, since there is no a priori reason for its members to have the same exchange rate. Fixed but adjustable exchange rates—as in the Bretton Woods system or European Monetary System—would allow each nation greater monetary and exchange rate policy autonomy. Settling payments using a common unit of account instead of foreign exchange reserves would help economize on the latter. Moving toward the free movement of capital, goods and labor—as envisioned by the African Continental Free Trade Area—would help diffuse shocks through the monetary union. Finally, such a union would need to have a common policy on capital controls or at least collective supervision of international capital flows.

As Pouemi so eloquently lamented: “History will hold on to the fact that all of [Africa’s] children that have tried to make her respected have perished, one after the other, by African hands, without having the time to serve her.” We do not know what Pouemi could have accomplished had he had the time to serve Africa for longer. All we can do is heed his call that “in Africa, money needs to stop being the domain of a small number of ‘specialists’ pretending to be magicians.”

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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The Post-colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh

The lesson from political economist Rok Ajulu’s academic work and activism: it’s not enough to change the “tenants,” but fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

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The Post Colonial Kenyan State: The Thorn in Our Flesh
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In early May 2022, with almost three months to the August election, Kenya had close to 50 presidential candidates, and 5,000 people running for the 1,500 Member of County Assembly (MCA) positions. Ultimately, not all of these aspirants will be cleared by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) (more like “blunder commission” judging from the 2017 elections and its lack of preparedness for the August 2022 poll), but the question remains—one that the political economist, Rok Ajulu, asked in his 2021 book Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State: what is it about the post-colonial state in Africa that makes so many people want to control it?

In this impressive compendium, Ajulu chronologically and exhaustively mapped out the authoritarian turns of the Kenyan post-colonial state. In doing so, he documented the predatory nature of the colonial regime and how three successive African governments— headed respectively by Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki—have built on this legacy and, in addition, weaponized ethnicity at specific junctures to consolidate control and accumulation. And not just any accumulation: predatory and parasitic hoarding—in the sum of trillions of dollars and with many detrimental effects for the population—that is only possible when steered, despite declarations to the contrary from the top.

While he charts the oscillating, often moderate and neo-imperial allegiances of actors such as Jomo Kenyatta (the late father of outgoing president, Uhuru), Tom Mboya and Moi—none of whom were great fans of the Mau Mau—Ajulu’s focus is on how the state “becomes brazenly the instrument of the dominant political elite. This type of regime gravitates towards authoritarian dispensation of power precisely because economic mobility and expansion of the new elite is largely tied to their continued control of state-power.”

This thesis, while not unique to Ajulu and recognized in everyday discourse, is anchored here in a prolific and comprehensive archive, which also makes evident, as does the author, that the predatory pursuits of politicians are not unencumbered, even against the heavy-handed authoritarian implements (read political assassinations, state sanctioned ethnic clashes) they use to entrench them. Although Ajulu does not dwell on protests or resistances  to this authoritarian rule over four decades(please read this powerful book by Maina wa Kinyatti for that), and focuses primarily on party politics and the trajectories of (in)famous politicians to narrate the incremental creation of an authoritarian state in Kenya, the constant tug and pull of class tensions and the heterogeneous actions of supposedly homogeneous ethnic populations are always on the horizon.

Who is this man Rok Ajulu? In the short film about him called Breakfast in Kisumu, his daughter, the filmmaker Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, documents his academic and political labors dating to his exile from Kenya in the early 1970s. Oriented around interviews she had with him—and it is his narrations that piece together the diverse landscapes that are the visuals for this film (we actually, interestingly, barely see Ajulu)—his voice takes us through his life as a student, political activist  and academic, in a journey that spans Bulgaria, Lesotho, the UK and South Africa. The evocative images of these countries where Rok Ajulu lived, while recent, anchor this narrative that accounts for a life of political praxes in academia and beyond. Though his sojourns mainly pivot around academic pursuits, we also hear about his labors as an agricultural worker in Bulgaria, a pirate taxi driver in Fulham, London and, importantly, as an organizer with the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS) while at the National University of Lesotho in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for this work he was imprisoned for three weeks).

It is, perhaps, this period as an anti-apartheid organizer in Lesotho that created the path to a life in South Africa from 1994. Here he taught at Rhodes University and married Lindiwe Sisulu, the current Minister of Tourism (and one of the aspirants vying to succeed Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa’s next president), and daughter of renowned anti-apartheid activists Walter and Albertina Sisulu. Consequently, it is in South Africa, rather than Kenya, where his influence was more extensive, even as Kenya appears to have been the primary focus of his academic scholarship.

Ajulu-Bushell’s poetic film demonstrates that her father’s life was not ordinary. But it is perhaps the internationalist and pan-African paths he chose that led her to recognize him, as she does in this film, as a “father” but not a “parent.” Her bid to understand her father’s life as an adult and, simultaneously, to document his political praxes, appear to be what has prompted this documentary. While the style of the film may not be for everyone—there are a few seemingly gratuitous appearances of the filmmaker—Breakfast in Kisumu is an important tribute to a father, and one who is representative of a generation who endured many unanticipated and painful exiles for nations and lands which did not always claim them, but for which they gave their lives.

As the final book Ajulu wrote before he died of cancer in 2016, Post-Colonial Kenya: The Rise of an Authoritarian and Predatory State is informed by questions that, likely, the author grappled with throughout his life.

Against the impending 2022 Kenya general elections that are not cause for much inspiration —with the male dominated alliances, handshakes, intrigues and elite contestations that characterize it—Ajulu’s thesis still rings true: that the state is the primary vehicle for accumulation and thus engenders a predatory authoritarianism by those who want to control it.

After years in an exile(s) documented by Ajulu-Bushell’s film, I’m not sure how optimistic Ajulu was for our Kenyan future, for he wrote in his final book: “Besides the change of tenants at the state house, not much really changed. The mandarins who used to lord it over the hapless rank and file remained in their same old places.”

At the very least, this generation can turn to the histories Rok Ajulu has documented in his book, as well as those he lived, to reflect on how, for this election and the next, we are not just going to change the “tenants,” but will fight to change both the “state” and all of its houses.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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