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Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Kenya’s burgeoning culture and civilisation of poverty

slum youth

Amnesty International recently published a report titled, Kenya: The Unseen Majority: Nairobi’s Two Million Slum-Dwellers. In its introduction, the report states that “life is precarious for the approximately 2 million people who live in Nairobi’s informal settlements and slums. They make up over half the capital’s population yet are crammed into only 5 per cent of the city’s residential area and just 1 per cent of all land in the city. They are forced to live in inadequate housing and have little access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare, schools and other essential public services. They also live under the constant threat of forced eviction from the makeshift structures they have made their homes.”

Out of these slums, a culture of poverty is emerging. Commonalities of value systems continue to grow, resulting in an “us” versus “them” civilisation. As anthropologist Oscar Lewis who studied the phenomenon of the culture of poverty argued, the burdens of poverty lead to the formation of an autonomous subculture as children and the youth become socialized into behaviors and attitudes that perpetuate their inability to escape the underclass.

More recently, Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai alluded to disempowerment or alternatively powerlessness the breeds strong feelings of marginality, helplessness, dependency, and social exclusion of the poor.

This culture of poverty is now growing into a civilization which according to Samuel Huntington author of “The Clash of Civilisations”, can be described as the highest cultural grouping of people.

Huntington further points out common elements for civilization-building such as language, history, customs, and ultimately subjective self-identification. In Kenya, the poor have languages that are not heard of in Nairobi’s central business district. A slum-dweller describes themselves by gender, youth, ethnic grouping, but ultimately by their state of poverty. Above all else they are poor.

Even though the term “civilization” may seem an over-statement, the number of people with such commonalities and who uphold their poor culture as ultimate, do indeed form a civilization. Civilizations can and do involve a small number of people. Shared experiences of police harassment, disintegration of family units, crime and gender based violence hold the poor together pitting them against the rich “wabenzi’s” who live in leafy high-cost neighbourhoods just adjacent to Nairobi’s slums.

Civic responsibility and entitlement seem to have been eradicated in the slums. And now, even more alarming has been the birth and growth of sub-civilisations of poverty. Examples of these include the emergence of youth groupings such as the Mungiki, Taleban andBaghdad Boys who reign in the slums. These groups have in turn provided a basis for youth identity which have overcome historical divisions of tribe. The hopelessness of their lives has coalesced their interests. Unemployment, being targeted for arrests solely due to their youth, and an insensitive political elite that bickers more over their SUV’s than empowering them has meant that any ideological or ethnic historical difference has been over-run by commonalities in disaffection.


Kenya’s slum population is growing rapidly at nearly 6% annually, and according to the World Bank, “nearly 10 million individuals are packed into miniscule ‘tin cans’ within the Nairobi slums…” Thus it is imperative that measures be immediately instituted to prevent a clash of civilizations between the poor and the rest of Kenya.

During last years post-election violence, Nairobi’s slum and informal settlement areas became de-facto no-go zones. Kibera was barricaded by the dreaded General Service Unit, only allowing those that could prove they had work outside the slum passage. Entrepreneurs within the slum were hit by shortages in basic commodities, because the illegal barricades would not allow any deliveries. Only charities such as the Red Cross allowed in to provide relief.

Civilizations are meaningful entities, and as Huntington writes, though the lines between them may seem elusive to the ordinary eye, the fault lines are indeed sharp and real. As Kenya’s economy grows and infrastructure brings people more into contact with one another, consciousness of civilization of the poor and the civilization of the rich is growing faster than bandwidth.

Unless something is done, firstly starting with the full and immediate implementation of Agenda IV of the National Accord, the fault lines between the civilizations of the “have’s” versus the “have-nots” will continue to further divide. After all, it is possible for one to be half Luo and half Kikuyu. It is impossible to be half rich and half poor.

Read Hon. Gitobu Imanyara’s Bill to create a Special Local Tribunal to try suspected perpetrators of post election violence here.


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