Esther Wanjiku Gitau does not like to remember what transpired in May 2020, when she and thousands of others were forcibly evicted from their homes during brutal mass demolitions of a long-established community in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
“I can’t think about that day without crying,” says Gitau, who is in her seventies. More than two years ago, government demolitions flattened her home in Kariobangi, an informal settlement located about ten kilometers from the city’s central business district.
When Gitau remembers her neighborhood, the Kariobangi North Sewerage estate — or simply the sewage estate, where hundreds of families had established themselves over almost three decades on about twelve acres of land, a rare smile takes over her face.
“I was very happy to be in that place because it was mine,” Gitau says, sitting on a stool in her small one-room home in another area of Kariobangi, where she moved following the evictions. A ray of sunshine enters from outside, illuminating her tear-streaked face. “No one could ask me for rent or why I was there. The community was like one big family. If I ever ran into problems I could immediately go to my neighbor and ask for help. I loved that place because we were united as one.”
But on this morning, during one of Kenya’s worst rainy seasons, Gitau’s life would change forever. About five bulldozers arrived in the area at around 5:30 AM, along with hundreds of police officers. At the time, there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew enforced throughout the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gitau was inside her small home, made from iron sheets, with her disabled son, who is now forty-five-years-old and cannot live independently.
“I was sleeping at the time,” she says. “I heard people screaming and a lot of noise. So I woke up and ran outside. That’s when I saw bulldozers crushing homes around me. I can still hear the noise of the metal being flattened under the excavators.”
“We weren’t given any warning,” she adds. “I tried to grab some things, but then we had to run. The bulldozers crushed everything.” Her eyes become blurry with tears as she recounts the chaos.
“Life has become too hard,” she continues. “Before 2020, I was happy. After 2020, I’ve been miserable.” By the end of the evictions, which continued for days, around eight thousand people, many of whom were women and children, were displaced, becoming homeless overnight.
While forced evictions are a common occurrence in Nairobi’s impoverished neighborhoods, demolitions on this scale, causing a humanitarian crisis, are rare. Their frequency, however, is on the rise.
Less than two weeks after city authorities demolished the Kariobangi sewage estate, they also carried out forced evictions in the Ruai informal settlement, removing more than a thousand people. Last year, some seventy-six thousand people were displaced from Mukuru kwa Njenga, another informal settlement situated between the city’s industrial zone and international airport.
According to Patrick Njoroge, program manager at Akiba Mashinani Trust, a group that works for slums to be improved and integrated into the city fabric, under President Uhuru Kenyatta’s outgoing administration the city has experienced “the worst evictions in the history of this country” — often coinciding with planned developments catering to the city’s elite minority.
These mass evictions are just the beginning for displaced residents, who must start from scratch to rebuild their lives. Years later, those brutally evicted from the Kariobangi sewage estate are still grappling with the trauma of the demolitions, which overturned their entire lives.
“I Was Happy”
Gitau was one of the first residents of the Kariobangi sewage estate. She worked for three decades for the city council, now the city county, as a gardener and caretaker of Uhuru Park and City Park.
According to Isaak Abdi Aden, the chairperson of the Kariobangi Sewerage Farmers self-help group, one of the community collectives that managed the area, in the 1980s the city council provided 378 workers with plots on the estate, where several large septic tanks that drain much of the waste in Nairobi are located, so they could establish farms to help supplement their incomes. The workers planted maize, beans, and various vegetables both for subsistence and to sell at the markets.
“After work each day, we would all come to our farms and cultivate our small plots,” Gitau remembers. “And we started building a community.” Once Gitau and the other workers retired, they organized themselves into self-help groups to obtain land allotment letters from the city council in 1996.
This is when Aden united with the retirees to form the self-help group, of which he would become chairman. After receiving allotment letters, they began to move to the piece of land, building makeshift structures with iron sheets. Some, like Gitau, built additional homes to rent.
Residents made sure to invest in one another, spending their money within the community. They also practiced table-banking, a microlending practice in which group members take turns to lend and borrow from one another. Over the years, the small community grew to include thousands of people.
Seventy percent of Nairobi’s population lives in informal settlements that make up just 5 percent of the city’s residential area. Homes in these areas are often made of corrugated tin sheets and lack access to adequate sewage, electricity, or water systems.
Despite the poverty, all the former residents of the Kariobangi sewage estate remember their community fondly. “It was a place where people who are poor came together,” says Ubah Isaak, Aden’s thirty-year-old daughter. “We had churches, mosques, and small schools. Everyone was friendly and supported each other. It was a humble place to live for the poor.”
Gitau was able to build additional makeshift homes on one of her plots, which she rented out to eighteen people, each paying two thousand Kenyan shillings (about US$17) per month. She also sold her fruits and vegetables at the markets. “I was content with my life,” Gitau says. “I was able to afford educating all my grandchildren and I could eat directly from my farm. I invested everything into that land.”
After receiving the allotment letters, residents were given lease agreements and by 2019 individuals began receiving land titles for their respective plots. For those living in informal settlements, possessing land titles or leases is a rarity, with most residents organizing themselves through informal communal land arrangements. Life, therefore, was secure and peaceful for the sewage estate residents, who believed their documents protected them from violent evictions affecting the rest of the informal settlements.
In Nairobi, however, the increasing price of land means no poor residents are safe from violent land grabs, even when they have obtained ownership documents for their plots. These demolitions are part of the “struggle to control Nairobi,” says George Kegoro, the former executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), and have become increasingly “big and brutal” over the years.
“As pressure for land increases, the value of the land goes up,” Kegoro explains. “There’s always an element of greed behind these demolitions and a feeling of poor people not deserving a place to live and that land should be available to do high-end economic activity. . . . Inherent in that, then, is corruption because the only way to access that land is through the use of violence through the state.”
Aden tells me there were “rumors” spreading that the village may be demolished. In response to these rumors, Aden and other community leaders, with the assistance of the KHRC, went to the courts to obtain a legal injunction.
“We felt safe after that,” Aden says, from the living room of his current home in Korogocho, another informal settlement. “But it didn’t matter to this government.”
The demolitions were particularly painful for Aden. Being the leader of the community, he was forced to stand by and watch hundreds of homes and structures crushed under the weight of bulldozers, suspected to be the property of the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS); he was powerless to stop it. “We were running up and down showing the police the court order,” remembers Aden, who also rented to about ten tenants — his sole source of livelihood. “But there was nothing we could do to stop it.”
It was also less than two weeks into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. When the bulldozers pummeled over his home, “I was so shocked; I couldn’t stand,” Aden recounts. “I grabbed a stick to help me balance myself. I started just asking for water because I couldn’t hold my fast. I didn’t know where I was. My tongue was not working. I couldn’t see. It was only darkness.”
People were screaming, frantically running to and from their homes to collect as many of their possessions as they could before the bulldozers reached them. Some were desperately trying to locate their children. Elderly residents fainted upon seeing their homes destroyed, some of whom had to be carried out of the pandemonium by other residents.
One woman who attempted to salvage items from her home was picked up inside the mouth of the bulldozer, almost crushed to death. Residents’ goats, chickens, and rabbits scattered in various directions; some of them were run over by bulldozers and killed.
“It was like watching a horror movie,” Aden tells me. “Everyone was asking, ‘Chairman, what do we do? Where should we go?’ And I couldn’t even speak. Some people weren’t wearing shoes. I felt like I had failed my whole community. Our country failed us and even the courts failed us.”
“I died on that day,” Aden adds, diverting his eyes to the ground. “It’s just that God did not take my body. But in every other sense I died. That was the last day of my life. The night before, we had a home and community. Then in the morning we were homeless — without even a change of clothes. We returned to zero.” Aden was admitted to the hospital for a week following the demolitions, overcome with shock, and remained bedridden for weeks.
“We weren’t prepared for it,” Aden continues. “If we had been given some formal notice then we could have taken our things and planned to go elsewhere. But there was no warning. It came abruptly.” Forced evictions without adequate consultation and the provision of alternative housing or compensation are illegal in Kenya.
Kevin Mukoya, twenty-four, was at his stall where he irons clothes in nearby Korogocho when he heard about the demolition. He ran as fast as he could back to the sewage estate, which took him about ten minutes. He had lived there for ten years, since he arrived in Nairobi from his village in western Kenya in search of work.
“When I got to the house I jumped inside to try and grab as much as I could,” he says. “But when I was inside, the bulldozers hit the house and everything collapsed on me.” The bones in his right leg were crushed and other residents had to frantically pull him out from the rubble. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors were forced to amputate his leg.
Mukoya has continued his business ironing clothes with a few other youths, but “now I have no future,” he tells me. “I was working to build up something better for myself. But now without a leg everything has become much harder and my future looks even bleaker.”
About three hundred of the sewage estate’s displaced residents, many of whom were elderly, women, and children, established a tent settlement on the rubble of their homes immediately following the demolitions, sleeping outside in the rain and cold, relying entirely on charity. After about a month, the police arrived in the middle of the night and evicted them once again, burning their tents and firing tear gas at them.
“It was inhumane what they did to us,” says Gitau, who resided in the tent settlement with her disabled son. “I don’t like to speak about this government. I never hated anyone. I never experienced much anger in my life. But now I feel furious; I feel so much hatred inside me every time someone brings up this government. I’ve never experienced pain like this before.”
Some evicted from the tent settlement were rescued by concerned citizens and provided shelter; but others were forced to continue sleeping on the streets for weeks. Peter Kyalo, forty-three, slept on the cold pavement outside with his wife and two children, now ages fifteen, thirteen, and nine, along with a group of other evictees.
“It was scary,” he tells me. “We were left just out in the open with no protection. At night the men didn’t sleep so we could guard our wives and children.” Displaced residents who spoke to the media began receiving calls from anonymous numbers threatening to kill them if they continued speaking out.
At the time, it was reported that the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) was behind the evictions, carried out to make way for the Kariobangi Sewerage Treatment Plant, which forms part of the city’s urban development plans. It is still unclear, however, who gave orders for the evictions and on what legal grounds. But “you cannot have that scale of violence against people without high levels of government ordering it,” Kegoro says, adding that it is also not clear what development is being planned in that location.
More than two years later, the land of the sewage estate, having once hosted a thriving community, remains completely vacant, with a twelve-foot-high perimeter wall erected around its grounds. During a recent visit, I witnessed this space being used by the government to burn excess money, sending toxic smoke throughout Kariobangi, making it hard for residents to breathe.
“You see how our government treats us,” says thirty-six-year-old Joyce Mwangi, who led me to the roof of a tall apartment building so I could view the grounds of the sewage estate. “We are suffering with no money here, but then they decide to come here to burn their money and poison us. Our government does not see us as human beings.”
Mwangi, a mother of a three-year-old boy and eighteen-year-old twins, worked for years as a house cleaner in Oman. When she returned to Kenya in 2015, she invested all her savings into purchasing a plot of land at the Kariobangi sewage estate, which she then built additional homes to rent out.
Following the demolitions, her husband abandoned her, unable to deal with the stress of losing their entire livelihood. Forced to raise her children alone, Mwangi now relies on sporadic house work, such as cleaning and washing clothes. It is often not enough to survive.
“They have done nothing with that land since the eviction,” Mwangi says, peering down at the massive piece of vacant land that she once called home. She begins coughing and pulls her T-shirt over her face as the wind directs the black smoke emanating from the pile of burning money in our direction.
“It makes me so sad and angry,” she continues. “All of this pain and they are not doing anything with that land. It’s just sitting there. What was the point of destroying so many peoples’ lives and then not even using the land for years?”
Mourning a Community
Years later, the displaced of the Kariobangi sewage estate continue to struggle; some have been reduced to begging and others continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress.
According to Njoroge, the mental, economic, and social impacts of such violent evictions remain a permanent fixture in the lives of those displaced from the city’s informal settlements. “The first thing people suffer from after evictions is the breakage of that social fabric that existed before,” Njoroge tells me. “People live together; they support each other and do things together. After evictions, everyone goes their own way and those support systems are severed.”
“Then a lot of people’s livelihoods are disrupted,” he continues. “People become beggars overnight. We have a lot of cases of people building up rental homes or had their own businesses and then overnight it’s completely wiped away. They have to rebuild from scratch without any compensation or support.”
Gitau says she and her son are now entirely reliant on charity to survive. “If I knew the government was going to steal that land, I wouldn’t have invested my whole life into those plots,” Gitau tells me; streams of tears return to her face. “And now I’m an old woman. What am I supposed to do now?”
“They stole not just my life, but the futures of my children and grandchildren,” she continues. “They have impoverished us for generations. We can’t even think about tomorrow. We can only think about today and how we will get food. This government took everything from us.”
In the morning, Gitau cannot bring herself to wake up or get out of bed. Sometimes if she’s able to get her hands on sleeping pills, she takes them in the morning so she does not have to be awake throughout the day.
“I still have nightmares about that day,” she says. “I’m just waiting for God to take me back now. I’m looking forward to it because everything I worked for in my life was taken — and by my own government. I have nothing left to live for.”
Even those who need just a small amount of funds to reestablish their businesses have been pushed into crippling poverty — saving money is nearly impossible. Kyalo was renting a unit in the Kariobangi sewage estate and was running a small business frying chips. But all of the equipment, which he could have salvaged if there was an official eviction notice, was destroyed.
Kegoro says that ensuring there were no official warnings before the demolitions was a strategic act. “They knew if they give any warnings then people will organize politically or legally to resist the eviction,” he tells me. “You also can’t give warnings without accounting for who is behind the demolition; so the decision not to warn people is also about maintaining the secrecy of who is exactly driving the evictions.”
It is not the first time Kyalo’s life has been radically changed owing to government politics. In 2007, interethnic violence fueled by allegations of electoral manipulation led to as many as fourteen hundred people being killed in the span of fifty-nine days, while six hundred thousand people in the country were internally displaced.
Kyalo, who is of the Kamba ethnicity, was attacked by a group of Luo youths, brandishing machetes. “They slashed me all over my body,” Kyalo recounts. “Then they chopped off my arm.”
At the time, he was working at a tire repair shop. After the attack, he was no longer able to work. “Around that time, I started frying chips,” he tells me, sitting beside his wife on a couch at his current home in Embakasi West. “And the government came and took that away too.”
Kyalo says it would cost about fifty thousand Kenyan shillings ($428) to restart his chips frying business. But having lost everything in 2020, and backed up with months of unpaid rent in his current unit, Kyalo cannot find the funds for the initial investment.
“This government has made my life so difficult up until now,” Kyalo says. “It was because of them that people started fighting each other over politics and I got my arm chopped off. Then when I finally rebuild myself they take everything from me again. Our lives would be much better if we didn’t have a government.”
Mary Kaswii, Kyalo’s wife, is terrified over the impacts these experiences will have on her children. “They still remember that day,” she tells me. “It’s not normal for children to see their own government shoot tear gas at them and take their home from them.”
According to Njoroge, government demolitions disrupt the lives of children, with some being left out of school for extended periods of time. Schools are often destroyed in the demolitions and documents are commonly lost in the chaos. Losing livelihoods and homes also makes it so parents are no longer able to afford school fees.
Following the demolitions in Mukuru kwa Njenga last year, there are still children who have been unable to return to school. “After these evictions, people’s lives are completely distorted,” Njoroge says.
Yunis Njeri Mwangi, fifty-one, has not slept in peace since the 2020 evictions.
Njeri, a mother of five children, had rented a place at the sewage estate for about eight years and ran a kiosk in the community, selling oil, flour, milk, and other basic food items. Like the rest, she spoke lovingly about the community at the sewage estate. She was able to salvage just a table and a few chairs before the bulldozers reached her home.
“That experience was traumatizing for me,” she says. “I still have a lot of fear. I feel like everything I have can be taken from me at any moment. Even at night, if I hear any kind of commotion outside, I’ll immediately wake up and think it’s the government coming.”
“Sometimes when I’m outside the house, I feel this anxiety inside myself . . . that maybe when I come back to my home everything will be gone and demolished. I’m very scared because what happens if the government comes for us again?”
According to Aden, at least ten people from the sewage estate have died since the evictions, mostly owing to high blood pressure, which residents say is caused by the unfathomable stress of losing their homes and livelihoods. Njoroge says premature death is very common following government demolitions, especially among the elderly. While two of the recently deceased from the sewage estate were elderly, the rest of them were not, Aden says, and were in good health before the demolitions.
“The stress of coming home and seeing everything you own and worked for in your life demolished becomes fatal over time,” Njoroge tells me. “I’ve seen several cases of someone looking at their demolished home and just dying on the spot. He faints from the shock and never wakes up.”
One elderly man from the sewage estate has not been able to speak a single word since the demolitions. “He is not alive,” Ubah says. “But he’s also not dead. He’s just there. He never speaks and he has to be spoon fed. Before the evictions he was fine.”
“It took us more than a year to forget what we saw that day,” Ubah adds. As Kenya’s general elections are fast-approaching in August, Ubah says no one from the sewage estate has any intentions of voting.
“There are many who say they will burn their identity cards because they no longer want to vote or even to be Kenyan,” Ubah explains. “We will never vote again. When the demolitions came we cried to our president, to our governor, to our MPs, and no one heard us or tried to help us. Why should we have any hope in this country?”
Like the others, Aden is still reeling from his loss. “We were there for twenty-six years, with documents,” he says, shaking his head in frustration. “And it still didn’t matter. Since my forties, every single thing I had, I invested in that land. And now if I die today, what do I have to leave my children? Nothing.”
“There’s no point in having laws in Kenya because if you are rich and powerful then you don’t need to follow them,” he continues. “It makes us feel like we’re not even part of this country.”
Ubah interjects: “There’s no justice for the poor in Kenya.”