Their shack settlement was told to move. Their demand: Move us together.

Why We Wrote This

“Home” usually doesn’t just mean a building; it means a community. When governments need to relocate residents for development projects, does their responsibility include more than money for individuals to find a new house?

Halima Gikandi
Children walk on burning garbage in Deep Sea, an informal settlement that is home to some 12,000 people in Nairobi, Kenya. A planned road project would slice through the center of the community and displace many of its residents.

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Nairobi, a city of 3 million, is a study in the extremes of urbanization. New buildings sprout up like weeds, while informal shack communities expand just as quickly – fueled, in part, by wealthier residents’ desire for low-cost workers.

More than half of the city’s residents live in such off-the-grid settlements, including Deep Sea, a community of some 12,000 people. Technically, its residents have no ownership of the land. In 2009, the country’s roads authority announced a major new construction project that would displace at least 2,000 of them. In most shack communities in Nairobi, that would have been the end of the story.

But Deep Sea residents have done something no similar settlements have managed this long: resisting, arguing that the government should relocate them safely, and together, as a community. To some, Deep Sea’s members are simply squatters. To others, their experience is a test of the Kenyan Constitution’s recognition of the right to accessible housing.

“Our lives are here,” says resident Jacinta Njeri. “I don’t have anything to inherit; I don’t have somewhere else to go.”

It was 1997, and Jacinta Njeri had nowhere to go. The family of her child’s father had kicked her out of her home a few years earlier, and she was sleeping on the streets of downtown Nairobi. Each evening, she stood on a quiet street corner and offered her services to men who passed by, hoping to scrounge enough to feed herself and her children that day.

Then one day, the mother of three stumbled across Deep Sea: an informal settlement named for the open, cavernous space it inhabits between the wealthy suburbs of Parklands and Muthaiga. 

To outsiders, it didn’t look like much. Few people owned the land they lived on. Sewage pooled in narrow passageways between corrugated tin homes, and in the rainy season, unpaved paths became dangerously slick with mud.

But Ms. Njeri, like many of the settlement’s estimated 12,000 residents, saw something else: a clean slate.

Before coming here “I wanted to kill myself,” says Ms. Njeri, citing the consistent lack of food, safety, and dignity when she was living on the streets. “Deep Sea is where my life began.”  

But for the past 10 years, Deep Sea, like many informal settlements across the Kenyan capital, has been at risk of forced eviction, with its prime location coveted by both private developers and local government. In 2009, the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) announced a major road construction project would slice through the center of the community, displacing at least 2,000 of its residents.

In many shack communities in Nairobi – and around the world, where 1 in 8 people lives in similar conditions – that likely would have been the end of the story. Residents would have been handed a small sum of “relocation” money and told to get out before the bulldozers rumbled in. 

But so far, Deep Sea has managed to resist for longer than any other informal settlement in Nairobi, drawing on local activism, legal support, and international pressure. 

“The community pushed KURA to negotiation, consultation, and the law – told them to put away the guns,” says Naomi Barasa, who runs Amnesty International Kenya’s campaign on the right to adequate housing and has supported the Deep Sea community in its negotiations with the road authority. “The government is not used to negotiating.”

Halima Gikandi
Jacinta Njeri (r.) is working to save Deep Sea, an informal settlement at risk of eviction. The community is named for the open, cavernous space it inhabits between the wealthy suburbs of Parklands and Muthaiga in Nairobi, Kenya.

City of extremes

Like many African cities, Nairobi is a study in the extremes of urbanization.

Across the city of 3 million, new buildings – from office blocks to high-rises to apartments – sprout like weeds in vacant lots and brush land. 

But alongside these new developments, informal shack communities are expanding just as quickly, fueled by middle-class residents’ desire for low-cost workers like nannies, security guards, and gardeners, and those same workers’ need for affordable housing of their own. More than half the city’s residents live in creaky shack settlements off the government grid, according to a 2014 report by the African Population and Health Research Center.

“It’s no surprise that every middle-class or upper-class suburb is cheek to jowl with an informal settlement,” says Ambreena Manji, a law professor at Cardiff University in Wales who studies land reform in eastern Africa. Wealthier residents “have demands that this type of work be done and then don’t want to actually see where these people have to live.”

As Nairobi’s population has doubled over the past three decades, regular conflicts have emerged between residents of these informal settlements and wealthier residents, private developers, and the government.

Rumors of development rippled through Deep Sea for years, until 2009, when the country’s roads authority announced a new, European Union-funded project called Missing Links to connect two major roads near the settlement. The initiative was an effort to ease the city’s notorious traffic, which is estimated to cost about half a million dollars in lost productivity per day. And a quarter-mile of the road would run directly through Deep Sea. 

More than 1,000 affected residents were offered sums between $50 and $150 to move out, according to community members and Amnesty International – an amount KURA says is in line with the typical process for evicting communities that don’t hold title deeds to their land. Much of the community’s land is owned by the government.

“If there’s space, it’s OK; people can live there for the time being,” says John Cheboi, chief of corporate communications at KURA. “But the challenge is ... Nairobi has become congested, and since it has become congested we have to build roads wherever it is possible so we can have people moving from one end of the city to the other.”

Staying put

But Deep Sea residents balked at the idea. They asked, Where could they go with such a small amount of money? And what about the community they had built? Leaders including Ms. Njeri encouraged residents to reject the compensation offer. If they could convince the entire community not to move, they reasoned, it would give them more bargaining power.

They were soon joined by outside supporters: legal and housing groups like Amnesty International and Kenyan nonprofit Hakiijamii, some of which encouraged Deep Sea’s residents to bring Kenya’s new constitution to the fight. In 2010, that constitution went into effect, spelling out the right of every citizen to “accessible and adequate housing.”

On top of that, the Missing Links road project was partially funded by the EU.

“The involvement of the EU gives the negotiations some strength and some standing,” says Professor Manji. Kenyan officials “feel like they have to abide by the international standards.” (The EU Delegation to Kenya did not provide comment by time of publication. In a statement, however, the delegation writes that it “takes concerns about the implementation of this subproject very seriously” and “is fully committed to ensuring that human rights standards are fully respected.”) 

And so Deep Sea’s residents, led by a committee of 12, began to demand that they be relocated together, somewhere safe and well located – and they wanted the Kenyan government to foot the bill.

It was a simple-sounding request, but also, experts say, a revolutionary one.

“There are very, very few precedents for resettlement” instead of payment, Professor Manji says. Indeed, shack communities are still regularly evicted by the city. In July 2018, for instance, residents of shacks in the Kibera neighborhood woke to bulldozers crushing their homes. Many had been sent eviction notices, but critics said residents had not had sufficient notice, and the United Nations’ human rights body condemned the move. More than 30,000 people were expected to be left homeless, according to a statement from the U.N. refugee agency.

The government says those it evicts are squatters and never had a right to live on the land. 

“This was not your land in the first place,” says Mr. Cheboi of KURA. “Why are you asking for land when you are just squatting?”

Legal activists, however, argue the constitution’s promise of affordable housing means even those occupying land they don’t own have a right to a place to live.

Meanwhile, in Deep Sea itself, years of fighting to stay put have taken their toll. Negotiations with the city have stalled and restarted multiple times. Most recently, in January of this year, the city served the community yet another eviction notice. But so far, almost no one has left. 

“Our lives are here,” says Ms. Njeri. “I don’t have anything to inherit; I don’t have somewhere else to go.”

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