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How Nairobi’s ‘road for the rich’ resulted in thousands of homes reduced to rubble

·12-min read

About 40,000 people have been made homeless by demolition works for a major Chinese-backed toll road in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

Amnesty International Kenya says it believes the roadworks have created a humanitarian crisis, as schools, businesses and 13,000 homes spread across nearly 40 hectares (100 acres) of the Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum have been demolished since October, clearing land for a link to the Nairobi expressway.

People lost clothing and other personal belongings, and dozens of families are now sleeping in makeshift tents in the rubble amid open sewage, during the seasonal rains. Left with no way of making money, some told the Guardian they have not eaten in days.

At least one person has died in a partially demolished building, with unconfirmed reports of children being injured in the chaos, says Amnesty’s Diana Gichengo.

  • A girl stands among the rubble of Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum, Nairobi, where 13,000 homes were razed to the ground

The first round of demolitions in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, which were publicly announced on 8 October, started only three days later. Heavy road-building machinery, some bearing government logos and flanked by Kenyan police, flattened homes and businesses along a 30-metre-wide strip of Catherine Ndereba Road.

Named after a Kenyan world champion marathon runner, the road connects Mukuru to the industrial area to the north, the airport to the east and the route of the new expressway to the west. In November, buildings on a large area of adjacent private land were also razed, with people living there telling the Guardian that they had no warning. This land, owned by a private firm, Orbit Chemical Industries, had been at the centre of several complex court disputes.

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“I got a call [from a neighbour] that my house was going to be demolished,” says Mary Ndhamba, who works in Briton school, next to the cleared area, which is now a landscape of rubble, sewage and scattered personal effects.

Ndhamba got a lift on the back of a motorbike and raced home. “There were police beating people and launching teargas. People were scattering and as we approached I could see the bulldozers were less than 100 metres from my house.”

She was only able to save her bedframe. Police “started caning people”, when the diggers were just metres away, says Ndhamba, who claims she had to kneel in front of them to beg “not to be hit”.

  • Top: the remains of homes, belongings and a school in the cleared Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum. Above: Emanuel Sikuku, 25, despairs in front of the site of his former home

People vacated their properties peacefully in October to make way for the development, but by November there were protests, says Anami Daudi Toure, coordinator at Mukuru Community Justice Center. “In November, resistance to the demolition mounted for a couple of days until hundreds of armed police moved in with riot vehicles mounted with water cannons,” Toure says.

“I ran to safety,” he adds. “I was lucky. When I came back to look for my belongings I saved my mattress, but everything else had been destroyed or picked up by street boys to sell.”

The 17-mile (27km) expressway will link the international airport to the central business district and plusher residential areas. It is designed to ease the congestion on the city’s A8 main artery, so notorious that it is said to cost the country millions in lost business. As Kenya’s election in August 2022 nears, the race to complete the road is seen as President Uhuru Kenyatta’s wish to complete his legacy project before his term ends.

  • The new elevated toll road will pass above the city’s old, potholed highway

The road is financed by the Chinese state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation, which will use the tolls to recoup their $550m (£410m) investment.

But critics point to the fact that the vast majority of people will not be able to afford the road in a city where walking is the dominant mode of transport, accounting for 45.6% of commuters, compared with 40.7% by bus, 13.5% by private vehicle, and 0.2% by rail. People walk because they cannot afford a bus fare.

Many people will struggle to afford the tolls, expected to cost between $1 and $15 depending on the vehicle and the length of journey. Critics have branded the elevated route a road for the rich, flying over the old, potholed highway in an illustration of the gulf between Kenya’s rich and poor. Even its bus lane is expected to carry only larger coaches, not the matatus favoured by the poor.

  • Children walk past the construction site of the expressway on their way to school

More than half of Nairobi’s population (more than 2 million) live on just 5% of the city’s residential areas in slums lined by rutted, ill-kept roads, while the green suburbs of the large, neat houses in the wealthy suburbs are far better served.

Mary Bosibori’s husband, Bernad Mogaka, was killed by falling debris as he tried to salvage belongings from his partially demolished house. “I am hurting,” she says. The grieving Bosibori and her nine-year-old daughter, Virginia, are now staying with 18 others displaced by the bulldozers in a 4 sq metre flat. There is not enough room on the floor for people to lie down, so they must sleep sitting in a row on the sofa.

  • From left: Mary Bosibori, whose husband Bernad Mogaka died trying to salvage belongings from their partially demolished house, and her nine-year-old daughter, Virginia; Samuel Kimonge holds a booklet commemorating the life of his brother Bernad Mogaka

“Bernad was the breadwinner, and left behind a young family,” says Geoffrey Onchieku, Bernad’s friend, and founder of the Briton school. “The government should stop dehumanising people – they haven’t told us where the expressway will start and where it will end. They just demolish all over without informing the inhabitants.”

Like many in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, which has been settled since the 1960s, Bosibori managed to scrape by in the informal economy, selling avocados by the road. The diggers took out hundreds of roadside businesses as well as homes, leaving many people unable to raise the money to rent alternative accommodation or even the bus fare to reach relatives.

  • Martin Muiruri at the spot where his small grocery shop used to be, in front of a demolished school

Martin Muiruri made about $700 a month with his grocery stall. He points to the rubble where it used to be. “They flattened everything mercilessly. I had to run for my life.

“My kids are supposed to be going to school. How can we pay for it now?” asks Muiruri, who is staying with a friend. “I have nothing now, nothing. We don’t know the way forward.”

Orbit Chemical Industries bought the site in 1987. The firm wanted to build a factory but was unable to, as the land was inhabited. After years of legal wranglings, Orbit Chemical says it decided, in 2008, to try to sell the land off in parts.

Orbit Chemical says some plots were donated and given to schools, churches and public facilities but, not wanting to completely lose their investment, the company also tried to sell plots to the existing community. However, rogue landlords were already charging tenants rent. “We came up against massive resistance,” says Sachen Chandaria, CEO of Orbit Chemical. Many of the plots are still in Orbit’s possession but others, outside the company, have their eyes on what could be lucrative land.

Questions are being asked about how heavy government equipment and state police were used to clear private and donated land without notice.

“Someone, somewhere – and we are still investigating to know who exactly – used that opportunity to actually evict people … who had no indication at all that their settlement would be demolished,” says Dr Nicholas Orago, executive director of Hakijamii, a social rights NGO.

  • The view from the first floor of Kim Potter school, which was partially demolished

Orbit Chemical says it is perplexed by the demolition. “We didn’t know. We have no intention to evict and we’ve never had intention to evict. We have been fighting this for 30-plus years,” says Chandaria. “If I really had the power to do this, why would I have been fighting for 30 years?

“We are manufacturers, I wouldn’t know who to call to do this. It’s a complete nightmare. I sit here every day wondering how to deal with this.”

Orbit Chemical was hoping their division of land would provide a model for the development of proper housing and infrastructure.

  • Jennifer Atiano near her tent where she now sleeps with her baby

Jennifer Atiano and her baby are living in one of hundreds of makeshift wood and sacking shelters that have sprung up. Both are HIV positive, but their medicine, documents and ID were lost. “Suicide even came to my mind,” says Atiano, who was sacked for being late for work the day after the demolition. Her boss refused to listen to “any excuses”.

The situation is deteriorating. Minoo Kyee, from Mukuru Community Justice Center, says: “With people sleeping outside, there is a lot of sexual and gender-based violence that is not being documented.” Kyee’s community centre was demolished, leaving people unable to report crimes or find social support. “Husbands are beating their wives out of anger and frustration over what has happened,” she says.

Abdia Noor, 52, a businessman now sleeping rough with his family, says: “Children are not going to school and toddlers are getting respiratory problems from sleeping in the cold.”

  • A makeshift displacement camp has sprung up in the rubble of Mukuru Kwa Njenga

Augustine Nthumbi, Nariobi’s police commander, says he oversaw the demolition and that “no one was injured”. He says the work was done “very quietly and by the time that they started … all those shanties … were already vacated, anyone who sleeps outside wants to sleep outside. There is nothing inhumane that happened there, unless people want to fabricate issues.”

Forced evictions happen regularly in slums but rarely on this scale. Gichengo says: “This is the biggest eviction during the pandemic. President Kenyatta had given a moratorium on all evictions and it’s coming at a time when the economy is under duress.” She says although there were meetings about the proposed demolitions, the message didn’t get to the majority of people.

  • People living in the temporary camp burn tyres to keep warm

Africa Kiiza, trade policy analyst at the University of Hamburg in Germany, says infrastructure development in east Africa is happening “at all costs, whether that’s environmental or humanitarian”.

“This is development for who? You are affecting the people who you are meant to be helping.”

Nairobi’s congested roads mean that business people and diplomats sit for three or four hours in traffic to get from the airport to meetings. The new expressway, which has been criticised by environmentalists, is part of a shift towards “emphasising and redefining the colonial trend of infrastructure mapping” says Kiiza, where roads, airports and railways are built in “areas of strategic importance with little consideration of the needs of the locals”.

  • Construction of the new expressway in Westlands, central Nairobi

The road will make up part of China’s belt and road initiative, an ambitious agenda to link land and sea trade routes across Asia and Africa.

According to Kiiza, African governments often look to China for funding development as the country is less rigid than US or European funders when it comes to human rights or corruption. “China does not care, as long as it’s getting the construction tender,” he says.

Kenya is heavily in debt to China. Kiiza describes the relationship between the two countries as “parasitic”. The power imbalance is a “reinforcement of imperialism, where, if a country fails to pay, it is forced to give away access and control to natural and strategic resources like ports and airports”, he says.

Related: Community-led upgrade to a Nairobi slum could be a model for Africa

Nairobi’s governor, Anne Kananu Mwenda, announced that people living in Mukuru Kwa Njenga would be helped to rebuild outside of the expressway’s path and Major General Mohammed Badi, head of Nairobi Metropolitan Services, tasked with carrying out the demolition, told residents that the president would use his own money to help them rebuild.

  • Mukuru Kwa Njenga residents try to register who was living in the demolished area

But many are sceptical.

“People are desperate, so when you bring the building materials people will fight to get the sheets and it will create violence in the community,” says Kyee.

The Kenya Red Cross has handed out tarpaulins for shelters, and church groups have been bringing food. Outdoors in the merciless rain, displaced people burn tyres to keep warm. Pastor Regina Ndinda, 53, sits on a red velvet chair among the rubble of her church and home of 25 years, reading her Bible. “I’m looking for something to comfort me, because my heart is broken,” she says.

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• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org.

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