Visiting Kibera can be an unnerving experience.
As soon as you disembark from your vehicle and start walking around, residents size you up and steal glances that seem to remind you one thing: you aren’t one of them.
But even more unsettling is when young men and women follow you around, often from a distance, talking in hushed tones.
The youth mean no harm, though. They are simply looking after their community. Every non-local here receives this kind of scrutiny.
Kibera residents have many challenges, but a strong sense of community is not one of them. The people are so united that word quickly spreads across the nine villages as soon as visitors are spotted.
To visit any of the villages in the 2.5 square-kilometre locale, having a local fixer in tow isn’t an option. With one, you will explore the area with ease, and unharmed.
Locals have their unity to thank for the successful implementation of some of the development projects here, among them water and sanitation facilities and nature-based interventions to mitigate flooding.
Some of these empowerment initiatives have been recognised globally for promoting public participation, where communities are involved from the design stage to construction/implementation and use.
This year, Kibera was one of five finalists shortlisted for the ‘Cities Prize’ for innovative approaches to tackling climate change and urban inequality.
World Resources Institute, the organisers, say Kibera has demonstrated resilience and innovativeness through “its work on flood prevention through the Kibera Public Space Project”.
This project is supported by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a community development organisation behind numerous urban planning projects in Kibera and comprising landscapers, urban planners, civil engineers, community organisers and researchers.
Kibera shook off stiff competition from 262 submissions from more than 150 cities in 54 countries globally.
Argentinian city of Rosario won the competition for its innovative project that converts “vacant land for sustainable and healthy food production”, taking the grand prize of $250,000 (Sh27.5 million).
Nairobi was a runner-up, among four other cities, namely London, Monterrey in Mexico and Ahmedabad, India. Each took home $25,000 (Sh2.7 million) for various sustainability initiatives.
After two years of advocacy by KDI, the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) approved a “Special Planning Area” for Kibera last year, setting the stage for this recognition of public-private-community partnership in urban planning.
Consequently, the approval by NMS has made it possible for the slum to be integrated into formal city planning endeavours by the government, a departure from past practices where informal settlements were given a wide berth.
Already, construction of new structures has been suspended in Lindi, Makina, Laini Saba and Sarang’ombe wards for two years, to allow the formulation of harmonised standards and guidelines for buildings and other forms of development.
While Kibera didn’t win the ultimate prize, its pioneering model made a mark globally.
Urban planning experts say this recognition could influence authorities beyond Nairobi, especially county jurisdictions, to “integrate informal settlements into formal city planning practices”.
Lack of participation
In the past, different entities, including the government, have bypassed participation by residents of informal settlements when planning development projects, with undesirable consequences.
The government, for example, built dozens of public toilets for use by residents in this neighbourhood but these “NYS toilets”, are shunned by residents, owing to lack of local involvement on how they are run.
In other cases, sanitation programmes have compounded the residents’ woes after the existing infrastructure was damaged.
In July, workers hired by the office of Makina Ward representative Solomon Magembe to install a new sewer line destroyed the old sewer system resulting in raw sewage from toilets draining into a nearby ditch, creating an eyesore and health hazard.
Mr Daniel Abunga, a village elder in Makina, says: “Our people want to be involved in the planning of these projects because it’s they who are targeted.
“The county government didn’t involve us when it came to dig drainage trenches. They should just have left us to manage the waste situation ourselves.”
Managing waste and other social challenges by themselves isn’t new to Kibera residents. Where authorities have failed to provide critical amenities such as sanitation, the community has stepped in to fill the gap.
Vuma, an acronym for vijana, usafi na maendeleo (youth hygiene and development), for instance, is a community group that supplies water, toilet and shower facilities to residents of Makina, through volunteers.
KDI provides technical and financial support, including a play area for children, complete with swings and slides.
In Kibera, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have flourished because they are are able to extensively engage residents in identification and filling of existing social gaps, from education to provision of water and socioeconomic empowerment, where the government has failed .
Incidentally, various reports show that the presence of non-profit entities in Kibera by far outstrips the government’s.
Since its launch in Kenya 15 years ago, KDI has helped design and construct 11 public spaces in Kibera to respond to different needs, including increasing access to water, sanitation, flood control and social amenities.
These projects serve more than 125,000 residents.
To mitigate against effects of flooding in Andolo Village, KDI has sponsored construction of gabions through the Andolo Beach Community, a local youth group.
This village that borders the Ngong River to the south suffers losses nearly every rainy season as residents drown and property swept downstream by floodwater.
KDI is also behind a community-driven weather warning system. Called Daraja Ambition that allows residents to prepare for floods by unclogging drainage systems in the neighbourhood and, for those living near water courses, to evacuate.
Residents have also been provided with gutters by different organisations to collect rain water. Previously, this water would gather quickly and flood the crammed shacks in the settlement.
Where the community has been involved extensively, residents are receptive to new projects.
Such is the case with 20 ablution blocks constructed between 2018 and 2021 by the national government and NMS in various villages in Kibera under the Nairobi City Regeneration Programme.
Meanwhile, local politics, resistance from a section of residents, corruption and incitement make the terrain of public participation difficult.
So complex is the process that in a project to mitigate effects of flooding, up to 17 community workshops were held in different villages before works could start.
Even so, community involvement is the only way out, according to Ms Regina Opondo, the communication director at KDI.
“Infrastructure doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is built for people and you must engage them. Only the person wearing a shoe knows where it hurts,” Ms Opondo says.
She argues that while development is good for the people, capacity building is equally important.
“Public participation as one of the principles of good governance makes projects more sustainable,” she adds.
Nairobi-based urban planner Edwin Kabugi shares these sentiments.
Planning and design
“To realise sustainable cities, we must involve communities in planning and designing them,” says the planner at GeoMaestro Consult Africa.
He adds: “Involving people allows us to come up with cities that serve the needs of all dwellers.”
Beyond public participation, Ms Opondo believes collaboration between the different players and the government is the next necessary step for sustainable projects.
“Lack of coordination leads to a multiplicity of projects because there’s no sharing of information among the NGOs,” she notes, adding that this results in competition rather than unity of purpose.
Political and legal hurdles feature too.
While an organisation may provide showers for the residents, for example, the government could come in and disconnect the water because of an illegal connection.
Ms Opondo notes that engagement with chiefs, area MPs and ward representatives can bring in quick results.
First, when these leaders attend public participation forums, they come with their followers, increasing reach.
Second, because land tenure in slum areas is quicksand, Ms Opondo says that when government officers are present, negotiating the hurdle becomes easier.