Before its establishment as a stop over town for the lunatic express, Nairobi was a place of cool waters, a coolness that can’t be felt in its current state as ‘mji wa mawe’ (a town built of stones). This cool space has ironically become an unsurvivable space for most of its residents and was recently ranked among the most stressful cities in the world.
An aerial view or a structured drive around the city reveals the unjust and segregated planning or lack thereof that imprints this space. From the street naming that depicts what the authorities want us to remember or forget, to the chaotic building of “White elephants” (infrastructural projects that continue to alienate most residents from their “natural” dwellings). To survive within the marginalized ruins that anthropologist Wangui Kimari calls ecologies of exclusion, residents continue to create ways that make them critical city makers and are consequently helping them make the city possible. Like the colonial powers the authorities continue to turn its back on them, terrorizing them in their hustles and bulldozing their houses down. To challenge the institutionalized marginalization, Nairobi’s subaltern’s agency is being best depicted through the now nineteen social justice centres established in different parts of the city. The ‘made in Nairobi’ social justice movement gives voice to different groups in informal settlements, such as people living with disabilities (PWD) whose exclusion blade cuts deeper.
June Disability Justice march
On June 13, people with disabilities from different informal settlements within Nairobi gathered at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) for a peaceful disability march around the settlement and to the area’s administration offices. The comrades carried placards bearing different slogans. These placards, as many as they were, could not fit the many forms of injustices this population goes through; but were instrumental in sending the message both to the other residents and the administration (read police). As the walk criss-crossed different streets in Mathare, several strategic stopovers were made where the group engaged the residents in calling for humanization of people with disabilities. The soloist proclaimed “walemavu ni watu” (PWD are humans) urging parents and relatives living with them to let them out.
On the main road the group was keen on reclaiming the tarmac road, confidently occupying one lane. As expected during the planning, the now normalized policing of protest was evident as police officers passed the march several times. One ‘killer cop’, Rashid, well known and feared for his extrajudicial killing records of youths in different informal settlements choosing to for once allow a group practice their right to hold peaceful protests. Njeri, a volunteer at MSJC critical of what she called police ‘empathetic pretense’ would later narrate past confrontations and subsequent profiling of protestors.
Illegal arrest in the area goes beyond arresting comrades, there has been a normalized extrajudicial killing in different informal settlements, an area that has been a major focus of the different social justice centres. Perhaps the report that exposed the social movements work, MSJC’s ‘Who Is Next?’ chilling report went beyond and identified at least eight police officers who had been involved in repeated extrajudicial killings. The report which was also the first human rights report written in sheng (a clear sign of resident’s agency) has given birth to a social support group for mothers of victims and survivors network that has been instrumental in continuous documentation of these incidents and gone beyond by offering a social support infrastructure for the relatives of the victims through the tedious and often long court hearings that continue to delay their justice.
At the local administration offices, the marginalization of PWDs became even more apparent, as observed in an earlier survey by Open Institute Disability Program, the offices of the chief, the deputy county commissioner and other government officials had no ramp for wheelchair users, this angered the group who in unison asked, “Are we as (PWDs) meant to be served from outside, are we not human?”. The new inspector, who a few comrades described as lenient, listened to the group and advised them to send their representative later for a meeting with the chief. In PWDs related advocacy, caregivers have for long been left out, but not at the MSJC. Several of them were present and led the conversation with the inspector championing for their inclusion in the team to be sent for the official meeting.
Ultimately, the march achieved the much-needed community sensitization on PWDs by PWDs in the area. In the coming week, Mama Rahma, an active member of Nairobi’s social justice movement has received information of PWDs whose families continue to hide them in their houses and has managed to continue connecting with such families. The group also continues to chat ways they can better improve their living conditions such as joint investment even as they continue to fight for justice and dignity.
In summation the centre’s advocacy for this group and on other social and economic injustices reveals that such movements have become an urban ‘infrastructure of care’ in this unintended city. Within this infrastructure of care lies the affirmative power that is challenging the omnipresent pressure and violence in the city.
Mwangi Mwaura has vast research experience as a research assistant at the British Institute in Eastern Africa.