Acumen Blog

Jamii Bora and the environment in Kenya

Kenya - Kibera situation.jpg(Photo: Gabriel Kadidi)
It has been several weeks since both Pakistan and Kenya began to experience political and social unrest. As Jacqueline initially reported (here and here), Acumen Fund’s communities on the ground remain safe, but the environment in both countries has taken a decided turn for the worse.

The past weeks in Kenya have been heartbreaking. Tremendous excitement about an election year has turned to frustration over the process and its impact on the country’s stability.  Kenya was on the rise as an economic model for East Africa. Acumen Fund investee Jamii Bora had overcome legal obstacles to begin to realize the dream of Nairobi’s poorest to build a new town for its members. By December, nearly 500 homes were under construction…Dedan — JB’s bicycle messenger who had lost a leg as a young boy — had qualified to compete in the Beijing Paralympics. There was a sense of forward progress and real opportunity. But the view held by many involved in Jamii Bora’s work has now been turned upside down.

First, there is an unexpected stop-work order on the construction of Kaputiei town. Just before Christmas, an opposition group threatens to dismantle JB’s proud new homes. Then, the presidential election. What initially appear to be containable pockets of rioting in the urban slums yields to myriad disruptions throughout the country, opening up historical political grievances and tribal tensions in the worst cases. Particularly in the slums, there are accounts of looting, people being killed and maimed, homes and businesses being destroyed. By year’s end, Ingrid Munro, Jamii Bora’s trustee, writes: “Hell has broken out. President being sworn in at this moment. Pray for us.” 

We reach out to our friends and colleagues at Jamii Bora. Ingrid, Consolata, Kennedy, Elijah, Richard … they all respond. Joseph – no reply, Gabriel – no reply. Both Joseph and Gabriel are Kikuyus living in the heart of the Kibera slum. 

Ingrid reaches out to the international community for emergency aid and money to help rebuild. She estimates that over 50% of Jamii Bora’s members have been negatively impacted. Many members have scattered to the countryside and cannot be found. Food is running short. Money is short. Communications are down as there is a shortage of cellphone minutes and it is difficult to buy more. Transportation has virtually stopped.

Finally after days of no response, Gabriel sends me signs of life. “This has been the darkest time of my life” he writes. Gabriel (aka Kadidi) is a talented multimedia artist and photographer who has created his own radio show and who has contributed photos of Jamii Bora to Acumen Fund’s website (as well as the photo that accompanies this post). “Slowly things are getting calm, I have managed to get my mum out of there to my grandmother’s, her 6 houses were burnt down last night, my stuff stolen, I can’t sleep at my house, damn it’s crazy!  After what I have worked for a long time!!! I have no words to express my sadness to all in Kenya who have been affected this way! She is safe now, at least today I can get some sleep after 5 days.” 

I am so relieved and send him a text message telling how glad I am to hear that he is safe, which is the most important of all. I also write that he can and must rebuild. Yet I already know that’s exactly what he was planning on doing.

Gabriel and I finally talk by phone. I also catch up with Ingrid. What moves me the most is that, despite everything, there are signs of faith in the human spirit … hope has not yielded. Yes, Gabriel is sad about his loss and about how cruel man can be, but there is no discussion of resentment or revenge.  I ask him why. He answers simply that he as well as the members of Jamii Bora came from nothing. Yet they learned how to believe in themselves and make something of themselves. Despite his loss, Gabriel was occupied with giving blood and helping to distribute food to others. Ingrid too is busy with recovery. Jamii Bora is currently working with the Red Cross and the UN World Food Programme to help distribute food to the slumdwellers … and with rebuilding.

This crisis period reminds me of just how vulnerable the poor are. The personal accounts I hear vary depending on one’s station in life and where one lives. For the lucky, the disruptions are inconveniences and you can still fend for yourself. However, for those in the slums and the poorer towns and for Kikuyus living in the Rift Valley and Kibera, conflict and instability are daily realities. 

You can read more from Kenya on the Acumen Fellows blog as well, where fellows Catherine Casey and Jon Yates have been documenting some of their own experiences during this time.

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