NAIROBI, Oct 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Peter
Nyagesera's sisters died, leaving him to raise their nine
orphaned children, he felt drawn to help other single mothers
and street children living in the narrow alleyways of Kenya's
gigantic Kibera slum.
Nyagesera, 40, and his wife started clearing a swampy dump
site on the edge of the Nairobi slum by hand, laying soiled rags
and plastics out to dry in the sun before burning them.
A decade later, the former dump site is a clean, gravelled
playground, where children in green school uniforms play tag
alongside a dining hall where they eat rice and cabbage for
lunch - for many, their only hot meal of the day.
"If it was not for this centre and other centres like this,
most kids would be roaming the streets," Nyagesera told the
Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting in the school dining room.
But if the government wins two court cases brought by
residents against its plan to build a road through Kibera, the
children may be back on the streets, Nyagesera said.
The battle highlights the precarious situation faced by slum
dwellers globally who have no legal rights to the land they have
occupied for decades, thwarting their efforts to invest in
essential services, like education, to better their lives.
Nyagesera fears a government victory in the cases, one of
which is to be heard on Oct. 18, may result in children having
to scavenge for food again while their parents trek to upmarket
areas in search of casual jobs, washing clothes or working on
Some 100 metres away, yellow diggers pour earth into trucks
at the start of a road that is slated to slice through the slum,
bulldozing 10 schools, including Nyagesera's, along with
thousands of homes, churches, clinics and graveyards.
There are only two government schools in Kibera for more
than 50,000 children, according to Map Kibera, which has
digitally mapped the slum. Most children attend some 330
Kibera is one of Africa's oldest, largest and
celebrity-favoured slums, just five kilometres from Nairobi city
Tours of the bustling slum became popular after actress
Rachel Weisz won several awards for her portrayal of an activist
working in Kibera in the 2005 film "The Constant Gardener".
Along the century-old railway line, stalls selling broken
electronics and vegetables blast out tinny music to attract
Women wash and hang clothes between low-slung roofs as
children play and men sit chatting on its tightly-packed earthen
streets, retreating at night to their one-roomed, mud-walled
homes powered by stolen electricity lines.
A 2009 census recorded Kibera's population as 170,000
although the numerous charities working to provide food, water,
toilets and medical care estimate it at up to one million.
Nyagesera, who filed one of two petitions against the road
works, won a temporary injunction from Nairobi's High Court in
February, arguing that the government started painting red
crosses on buildings it intended to demolish without consulting
residents or offering them compensation.
He believes officials have been bribed to change the route
of the road to bypass the properties of influential residents,
highlighting the challenges of improving lives in slums without
"It is my mortal fear that somebody has interfered with the
development plan of Kibera either for personal or political
gain," his court petition states, describing how youths marked
the route using an undated, unsigned survey map.
The Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) parastatal, one of
the respondents in the case, dismissed the allegations as
rumours, saying it is following the route laid out in a 2013
The Attorney General, another respondent, declined to
comment as the cases are in court.
A second group of residents from the marginalised Nubian
community won a further court injunction in August, arguing they
have nowhere to go if the road is built through their ancestral
land, given to them by British colonialists a century ago.
"Young men kept coming and causing nuisance in the wee hours
of the night announcing they would demolish the houses," their
Three residents told the Thomson Reuters Foundation their
properties were marked with red crosses after February's
injunction by more than 50 rowdy young men wearing reflective
yellow KURA jackets.
"They even painted one old man," said Mongare Nyakundi,
headmaster at Love Africa School. "He was painted red all over
when he tried to ask them what they were doing."
The police used teargas in June to control a crowd who said
they were trying to stop buildings being marked for demolition.
"(The police) told me, 'My friend, if you try to bring any
(trouble), you will eat bullets'," recalled one resident, Samuel
Sabwa, who was later arrested for creating a disturbance.
KURA spokesman John Cheboi said the road agency has
respected the court orders and residents were arrested for
trying to burn the contractor's machinery.
Kibera residents have known about the road building project
for years and talks between KURA and their representatives are
ongoing, Cheboi said.
"It is not that we are inhuman," he said. "We will give them
some allowance to enable them to move, to obtain residence
elsewhere. We are not forcing them out."
The government has demolished numerous luxury homes and a
gigantic supermarket in recent efforts to decongest the
rapidly-growing city of Nairobi by expanding major roads.
In a country plagued by decades of unbridled corruption, it
is often hard to tell whether the property owners knowingly
encroached on public land or if they were the victims of conmen
who made a quick buck by selling sites they didn't own.
"The government gives us the chance to compensate people who
have title deeds because those are the real owners," said
Cheboi, tracing the road on a map of Nairobi criss-crossed with
fluorescent lines highlighting KURA's latest projects.
"But if you are just a squatter, then you are just given an
Officially, everyone who lives in Kibera is a squatter as
its corrugated iron shacks, perched next to open sewers, are
built on public land.
Kibera was first settled in the early 20th century by Nubian
soldiers from Sudan who fought for the British and were rewarded
with a 4,000 acre plot on the outskirts of Nairobi.
They never received title deeds. With independence in 1963,
other communities moved in, jostling for scarce housing.
The Nubians were forcibly evicted from much of what they
call Kibra - Nubian for forest - in the 1970s and 1980s to make
way for middle class housing estates.
While campaigning for the 2013 elections, President Uhuru
Kenyatta promised the Nubians a title deed. But the plan was
shelved following opposition from other Kibera residents.
"We are waiting to be awarded this land," said Mohamed
Abubakar, a Nubian who lives with his mother, wife, children and
numerous relatives in a spacious, leafy compound built by his
"Once we are scattered, I think the community will be done
... We'll lose our values, our culture, our language."
Kenya introduced legislation in August laying out the steps
for communities to acquire titles to their ancestral land, which
makes up about two-thirds of the country.
"Their history is clear - (the Nubians) have always occupied
Kibera," said Luke Obala, an expert on urban land conflicts at
the University of Nairobi.
He said the state should provide the court with evidence of
its plans to give them alternative land or compensation.
Forced evictions are common across Nairobi, where the
majority of its four million residents live in slums.
There are tensions between Kenyans who want the right to
property to be respected and campaigners focusing on the welfare
of the poor whom, they argue, often have no choice but to become
squatters because the state has not provided affordable housing.
International law regards forced eviction as a gross
violation of human rights, regardless of whether or not the land
was occupied legally.
Such evictions often push people into extreme poverty,
posing a risk to the right to life itself, the United Nations
Kenya introduced a law in August that says people illegally
occupying public land should only be evicted after receiving
three months notice in writing, in a national newspaper and via
the radio in a language they understand.
But the law does not oblige the government to consult
affected people or offer them alternative housing or
compensation, said Amnesty International activist Naomi Barasa.
"It does not have the capacity to safeguard the victims of
forced evictions," she said.
Nyagesera fears for the 11 orphans who live in his school.
"They will have nowhere to go," he said, trying to quieten
exuberant children running up and down during break time.
"Children are going to suffer."
(Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org
to see more stories.)