23 September 2022| Thomas Jeffrey Miley| Ukombozi Review

“Though the battle might seem so big,
Jah is fighting for we.
Is fighting for me!
See the shadows in dark ages,
Take my soul and set me free.
Jah love me, Jah love me.”

What can and must self-determination mean in the twenty-first century?  This is a question that has oriented my inquiry ever since my encounter with the Kurdish Freedom Movement, at least, and perhaps especially with the impressive re-articulation, re-elaboration, re-definition of the concept and principle expressed and achieved by the movement’s leader and inspiration, Abdullah Öcalan, penned from his lonely prison cell on Imrali Island.

The paradigm of social ecology, and the political program of democratic confederalism, that Öcalan has adopted and adapted, and that the movement has sought to put into practice, promises an alternative to the catastrophic combination of planetary plutocracy, never-ending war, and ever-intensifying climate emergency, wrought by the rhythms of capitalist modernity.

But if it is to deliver on this promise, then the paradigm and program must spread, and quickly.  How to engage, and help propel forward, the struggle to combat unjust and illegitimate hierarchy in all its forms?  A multiplicity of tactics must proliferate, no doubt.  There cannot and should not be but one answer for such a monumental quest and question.  Be that as it may, I set my sights on Mathare, in the very city where Öcalan was abducted.

Frantz Fanon famously defined decolonization as nothing less than the realization of the dictum that the last shall be first.  So let us seek out the last, in fulfilment of the imperative to struggle alongside them.

The wretched of the earth are rising, once more.  As Bob Marley predicted, per chance, by the power of the Most High, they keep on resurfacing.

There they are, struggling for self-determination, day by day, night by night, right in the heart of Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya, Africa.  An informal settlement, say some, a ghetto, a slum.  However you feel least uncomfortable calling the location, the fact remains, it is one of the most densely populated places on the planet.  And it is characterized by severe deprivation – in terms of access to clean water, to sanitation, to adequate housing, to health clinics, to roads, to schools.  The basics: you name it, they need it.  They are fighting, they are dying, in droves.  Though some are surviving, somehow.  They are up against the merciless logic of capital, in lock step with a brutal, post-colonial state.  According to whom, they are but surplus, to be constricted, confined, and controlled.  And so are subjected to periodic forced evictions and systemic extra-judicial police murders.

The place has a history, of course.  It is where the Mau Mau once roamed, their headquarters in Nairobi, during the colonial “emergency.”  And it is located on the site of an old quarry, from which stones were extracted to build the city’s distinctive colonial-era buildings.  A legacy of freedom struggle, in a landscape scarred by extraction, these are but different dimensions of the local heritage.  For over a century, at least, the dynamics of construction and destruction, of oppression and resistance, have thus here been intimately, indeed dialectically, intertwined.

Just off Juja Road, across the way from the Moi air base, can be found the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC).  It was founded in 2014, by a group of committed community youths, who came together to create a space conceived for the purpose of “promoting” more participatory forms of justice.”  On their website, they explain: “For years Mathare has been a place where much violence has been allowed to go on without any redress for the community, especially as most continue to live in fear of the consequences of standing up for their rights.  These forms of structural violence include, but are not limited to, land grabbing, forced evictions, police abuse and extrajudicial killings, political impunity, and other economic, social, and psychological violations.”  In response to such structural violence, the MSJC was formed, to propagate a vision of a Mathare without human rights violations, and with a mission, to fight for social justice, through engaged community and social movement platforms.”

The MSJC is at the nucleus of a burgeoning network of some 30 social justice centres that have sprung up around Kenya in the past few years, a group of confederated grassroots organizations dedicated to the principles of community mobilization and self-organization, committed to the struggle against human rights abuses and for people power and participatory justice.

Close to six decades have passed since Kenya obtained its independence.  Yet for the inhabitants of Mathare, freedom remains but another word for nothing left to lose.  Mathare is a site and symbol of structural and state violence, a space where the wretched of the earth dwell.  Both the colonial and the anti-colonial legacies live on in this subaltern space.  The former, perhaps most emblematically, in the guise of the police force, which was first constituted as a tool of the colonial administration and was heavily implicated in the attempt to eradicate the Mau Mau rebellion, and which today continues to terrorise the inhabitants of Mathare.  So too does the anti-colonial legacy survive.  The flame lit by the freedom fighters who once inhabited this space has yet to be extinguished.

In 2017, the MSJC would publish an important document, titled “Who Is Next? A Participatory Action Research Report Against the Normalization of Extrajudicial Executions in Mathare.”  The document begins with a rehearsal and expression of collective memory, a revindication of a rich history rife with resistance and struggle.  Next to an image of the valley, replete with dilapidated, cramped, and makeshift housing, row upon row of shanties made of old tin and mud, under a blue sky, dotted with clouds, the report commences thus:

 “We are coming to about one hundred years of Mathare’s existence.  Today’s settlement of approximately 250,000 people crammed into three square kilometres was originally a quarry, whose valley provided rock used to build Nairobi’s characteristic colonial-era stone buildings.  It was settled initially by the quarry’s African labour, mainly in the cave dwellings that resulted from the excised rock.  Then, slowly by slowly, particularly after the Second World War, and especially the independence era, people began to build homes, though ones deemed and still deemed ‘illegal’ in the segregated (post-)colonial city.  Mathare has been witness to many wars, occupations, and forced evictions; many everyday struggles for basic services, dignity, and freedom.  It was, after all, part of an area referred to as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army’s (‘Mau Mau’) headquarters in Nairobi during the colonial ‘emergency’ period; forming its pulse, and for which the settlement paid the heavy price of being raised to the ground” (p.7).

The report goes on to give details about the cases of some 50 extrajudicial executions that took place between 2013 and 2015 in Mathare, and also documents in an appendix fully 803 such cases covered in the Kenyan press during the same period.  The MSJC poses the difficult question: “Why have these extrajudicial killings become accepted as ‘normalized’ common everyday events in Kenya?” (p.8).  It, furthermore, makes clear that, “[f]or us this register of young victims is not separate from a larger fight for rights for all: land for the landless, food for the poor, houses, education, healthcare, and … security of tenure” (p.9).  It then pays tribute to the inhabitants of other informal settlements as well, by insisting, in framing the purpose of the report as follows: “This is a humble commemoration of our community members and their mothers who live with so much pain in their breasts, their pain is not a lie.  This is for Dandora, Kibera, Mukuru, Biafra, Ziwani, Eastleigh, Mombasa.”  It contrasts these notorious names with those of Nairobi’s wealthy neighbourhoods, by continuing: “It should not be illegal to be young and poor in any of our homes.  After all, we are human too, humans don’t just exist in Muthaiga, Runda, and Karen, we are also humans in Mathare.”  This before concluding, emphatically: “We will not keep asking: who is next?” (p.10).

Nor is this the only powerful such report prepared by the MSJC over the past few years.  In 2019, it would publish an equally moving report, titled “Maji ni uhai, Maji ni haki (Water is life, Water is a right). Eastland Residents Demand Their Right to Water. A Participatory Report.”  Here the group would call attention to the critical issue of the lack of clean running water in and around Mathare and in similar informal settlements.  This report begins, again, by reciting a series of neighbourhood names: “[i]n our neighbourhoods in Mathare, Kayole, Dandora, Kariobangi, Mukuru, Githurai, Ruai, Tena, Umoja and elsewhere, water provision costs more, is less safe, and is less consistent than in other richer parts of the city” (p.4).  It proceeds by explaining that “[b]y being marked as ‘informal’, and intentionally maintained like this, our home areas, particularly those called ‘slums’, are largely neglected by government through the denial of basic rights and infrastructure.”  In this vein, it continues, “[e]ven though, for example, Mathare has been around for close to 100 years, there is still no sufficient piped water infrastructure, or adequate housing and sanitation provisions” (p.4).

The report cites a 2005 article by Gulyani et. al. to buttress the claim that though “70% of Nairobi’s residents live within informal settlements, only 20% of these residents have access to piped water, leaving them to rely on private suppliers, many of whom are involved in powerful water cartels” (p.5).  As a result of this desperate situation of clean water scarcity, the incidence of cholera in these neighbourhoods increases in the rainy season.  And the report is in fact dedicated to all the residents of Eastlands who have died of this thoroughly avoidable disease.  “No one should die from drinking a cup of water” (p.2), the MSJC convincingly contends.

The report goes on to include personal testimonies of Eastlands residents, who recount, among other things, their travails in the pursuit of access to clean water.  “There have been many times that I have had to choose between washing my baby and cooking” (p.14), one mother explained.  Another resident told of the death of his cousin at the age of 18 from cholera, before articulating the demand: “A lot has to be done, and it has to be done with urgency.  The community has to be allowed to participate in informing government projects so as to eradicate illegal connections and avail adequate and safe drinking water to the people” (p.11).

The report concludes with a list of some ten concrete demands, among them, that water be distributed “according to population density and not according to wealth,” and also, significantly, that “[a]ll water bodies should have at least three representatives from poor urban settlements on their board,” and that “[t]hese should include a woman, a community activist, and a person with a disability chosen by the community” (p.34).  The demands thus go beyond the mere call for the provision of a basic need by the government, to address the very principle of distribution of needs, calling for a democratic rather than a capitalistic logic to prevail, and for democratic inclusion in the bodies that make decisions about the provision and distribution of water.

The testimonials included in the report, as well as the demand for democratic empowerment of the community, reflect the basic orientation of the MSJC as a consciously grassroots movement, which defines itself, at least in part, in opposition to the Non-Governmental Organizations which constitute an essential component of governance and governmentality in a place like Mathare.  Indeed, according to Gacheke Gachihi, one of the founders of the MSJC, “NGOs reappropriate state and neoliberal mechanisms within their work, requiring that independent social movements … challenge their position” (2014, p.14).

*The author is a Lecturer of Political Sociology, The University of Cambridge

This article was originally published Ukombozi Review