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Kenyan railroad to sweep aside slums

Kibera slum

Kibera slum in Nairobi. khym54 under a Creative Commons Licence

In 2003, when Kenya’s government changed hands from long-serving autocrat Daniel Arap Moi to London School of Economics-educated Mwai Kibaki, many Kenyans looked forward to accelerated development and a shift from years of stagnated growth.

Indeed, that year, Kenyans were rated as the most optimistic people in the world, going by the enthusiasm and hopes for a new dawn that the entry of Kibaki, a renowned economist, heralded for the East African country.

And the former president did not disappoint. His model for growth was simple and ingenious – invest heavily in infrastructure development, roads, railways, air, oil pipelines and sea ports. This would spur growth in all other development sectors and the benefits would trickle down to the masses.

Master plans were drawn to expand and open new roads, railways and ports; with that inevitably came a flood of Chinese bankers and contractors, who at the time were beginning to have a pronounced presence across Africa, in pursuit of fresh opportunities and resources.

Among the major planned projects was the construction of a 472-kilometre ‘Standard Gauge Railway’ (SGR), linking the Indian Ocean city of Mombasa, to Nairobi, and on to Uganda and Rwanda. The project followed the tracks of the old East African railway built in 1901 by the British colonial government, which at the time ran the ‘East African Protectorate’.

The project did not develop during Kibaki’s term. In 2013, his successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, took over where Kibaki had left off, with the intention of making the massive $353-million undertaking his flagship project. In 2014, financed by China’s Exim bank, construction work kicked off in earnest.

As with other major developments across Africa, the railway will have its human victims, among them, James Mwangi, a resident of Nairobi’s Kibera slum, reputed to be the biggest in Africa.

Mwangi, together with some other 250,000 poor Nairobi slum-dwellers, has settled down along the path of the railway, in a shack where he lives with his wife and two children, and where 22 years ago, he started a scrap metal and hardware business.

He is among the residents of three slums, Kibera, Mukuru Kwa Njenga and Mukuru Kwa Reuben, that must now move at some point this year in order to pave the way for the massive project meant to increase haulage capacity from the seaport of Mombasa to the inland cities of Nairobi, Kampala in Uganda and Kigali in Rwanda – and on to the Eastern towns of the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) has made it clear that all structures, from dwellings to business sheds on the path of the SGR, together with their owners, will have to go. If the 2018 completion deadline is met by contracting company China Road and Bridge Corporation(CRBC), it will be just in time to see Kenyatta’s five-year term come to an end.

The KRC has not stopped there; it has made it clear that the residents, some of the poorest in the country, will not be compensated because they are squatting ‘illegally’ on government land.

They must then brace themselves to start another life elsewhere, irrespective of the number of years they have lived here. Some have been here for over 50 years.

The residents are yet to come to terms with the reality that they will have to move. Houses elsewhere in Nairobi are much more expensive, with the monthly rent for an average one-bedroom apartment $150; in the slums, a shack goes for $37 for those who rent, and about half the people live in shanties of their own.

A government project meant to upgrade the slums and build proper houses for its dwellers has been moving at a painfully slow pace. When the first 200 units were completed seven years ago, many were illegally allocated to government officials and their networks, leaving the poor of Nairobi’s slums in their usual place.

What’s more, the majority of the people work as labourers in city factories, within walking distance from the three slums, so when they are evicted they will have to begin paying daily fares to work. With daily incomes of $3 and families to support, that’s something they can hardly afford.

Those who run their own small businesses, like James Mwangi, will have to look for employment or other sites from where they can conduct their trade.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that some 5,000 workers will be shipped in from China for the railway project, allegedly to do ‘skilled’ work that locals have no expertise in.

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