Understanding violence in the slums: Resilience or normalization?

By Joseph Kimani

The mere existence of slums is violence. Poverty is the worst form of violence meted on human beings by fellow human beings…The present system is naturally violent. We have to build a non violent system, a ‘civilization of tenderness.’ Fr. Alex Zannetoli

Violence is a monster that is omnipresent in low-income areas. Slums have become synonymous with violence, crime, criminalization of youth and ‘illicit’ income activities. The feeling of oppression and deprivation makes the entire settlements a no-go-zone. As a result, innocent, poor, marginalized and vulnerable members of communities who cannot escape or leave the settlements are trapped hence affecting their health and wellbeing.

But violence within slums is not inevitable. It is the consequence of structural violence against poor and marginalized people and state responses that exacerbate the problem.

Living conditions

In Nairobi slums the population density stands at 466 people per acre compared to 18 people per acre for the rest of the city. Since the 1990s city space in Kenya, occupied by the poorer half of its population, has not increased. While informal settlement’ populations may have doubled in this time, the rate and scale of improvements have failed to match unrelenting densification and consolidation. There are challenges experienced by residents living in densely populated neighborhoods. In a neighborhood like Mathare Valley (one of the oldest settlements in Nairobi) there are high levels of intergenerational and concentrated poverty. A young man in Mathare explained this process:

Here in our hood, you will find a young man who is at 17 years whose father was a thief, his grandfather a thug all killed by the police…this young man (now a teenage father) will die and leave behind his “wife” and a young child who will grow without even knowing who his father was. At this rate, this child will end up dead…if the child is a girl, she might also be having a story of disadvantage inherited from her mother or father too.

Densification in the slums without secure tenure is associated with poor housing. Slum structures lack adequate sanitation thus exposing young girls and women to sexual violence and degradation. Poor drainage and physical infrastructure puts pressure on households to pay heavily to access essential services that are of low quality: “…a significant poverty penalty which means that they pay a greater economic and social price for poor quality services such as water, sanitation, child care and health care.”

Employment and education

The youth-led Safety and Market Survey in 2018, facilitated by SDI Kenya, found that youths used lack of jobs as the excuse and reason for participating in crime and violence. Other studies showed that crime by teenagers between the ages of 14-17 years old was in the increase. A coordinator with Ghetto Foundation, a Mathare Community Based Organization stated:

I have noticed lots of young men and women getting involved in drugs and substance abuse in the months of Decembers to March. By this time parents or guardians are confused as to what to do with their children who are unable to continue with the next level of education (post-primary and post-secondary level).

While there have been increases in the number of school going children being retained in education until completion, the Ministry of Education in Kenya has conceded that if all primary school years are taken into account, it means only 40 per cent of those who started Standard One were admitted to secondary school. Children who drop out miss out on training and educational opportunities that require at least a secondary school certificate. They are likely to earn less in their lifetime and suffer more ill-health.

While this pattern seems predictable and obvious, it is important to note there are few programmes, policies or systems to ensure theses transitions are smooth and purposeful. Community members are left waiting for support from non-state actors while resources that seems available from County government are not used to address this problem.

Political processes

Kenyan electioneering happens every five years. In the fourth year heightened campaigns are accompanied by deep messages of ethnic hate and violence becomes a way of politicians balancing their political selfish interests. During this period, young men are recruited by various political interests to use force and intimidate their opponents. The zoning of some regions and areas as belonging to others and the issue of treating other communities as a threat is entrenched in the minds of young people. The youth get charged into participating in violence by attacking other communities and get rewarded for it.

Post-election violence in Kenya is solved after politicians agree to share power as individual leaders and call for ceasefire. Once normalcy resumes, no one remembers to ‘de-militarize’ or ‘de-mobilize’ the already psyched up youth from acts of violence, hate and crime.

Policing practices

While there is a lack or absence of state intervention in the provision of secure tenure, amenities and infrastructure within slums there is a very heavy presence of police that intimidate, kill, and harasses young people with impunity and with little accountability. In a recent Kenyan TV interview (Town hall discussion by Citizen TV 14th October 2019 11pm) a representative from the Kenya National Human Rights Commission explained that police are discriminating in their application of rule of law. He, stated that, every month in the slums of Nairobi about 23 young people (mainly men) suspected to be criminals are killed by the police. This has contributed to low levels of trust between the state and youths in the slums. On the other hand, the police or state authorities blame young people for normalizing crime and violence.

During a dialogue forum between youth and police, a young person rose to present a concern, perplexed, he asked:

What is wrong with us robbing or attacking strangers…I think if we don’t steal or attack our own neighbors then you guys should not interfere period!

Those in attendance were unable to connect where this kind of hate was brewing from. There appears to be a growing sense of gratification if someone is involved in violence and more so if the attack is on an outsider.

Young men and women are in a state of hopelessness and powerlessness. In September 2019 youths participating in a conflict management training vented about a number of issues. In their analysis of conflict and power, participants talked about structural violence and horizontal violence. On horizontal violence, they raised concerns about state use of excess force to deal with young people. Issues of extra judicial killings and continuous police harassment were discussed. In addition, participants talked of how youths have lost their self and social esteem and suffer from psychological and emotional traumas without redress. This has pushed some of them into a state of powerlessness. A youth participating in the discussion exclaimed:

No wonder, nowadays boys in our hood are joining Islam in big numbers – and not for faith matters but in order for them to be buried as soon as they are killed. We don’t want to put our mothers into the burden of fundraising for funerals…

Gender inequity

The SDI Kenya Youth Safety and Market Survey Focus Group Discussion in Kisumu interrogated the issue of sexual and domestic violence. In one of the responses young women claimed that, dealing with the issue was complicated given the political protection the male perpetrators enjoyed. One woman said:

A lot of times I feel sexually harassed by the same young men who hang in a base (a place where three or more young people meet and is perceived to be a gang space) near our house. My father is helpless, and all our neighbors are scared you might be raped. They did that to another woman, and nothing was done to them. I am scared to confront them since I don’t want them to attack my parents. I am hoping one day, they will get to be arrested.

Efforts by civil society and the local administration to curb domestic violence has not yielded results raising doubts as to whether residents are just coping with the situation or helplessly accepting the problem. A recent case in the media of a woman who had been stabbed 14 times by her husband left many surprised when she went to court to state that she had forgiven him and wanted him released so that they can continue with their marriage. Are people giving up in regard to justice systems or are they afraid of losing their loved ones?

Courage for the future?

Those who have the courage to deal with the issues do not get enough support from those mandated to do so. The health and wellbeing of the community is slowly deteriorating as segments of slums become occupied by young men who women who have given up with themselves, the community and the state.

In Mathare, Korogocho, Kibira or Mukuru slums you will find young people occupying structures/houses that are along the riparian or edges of the settlements away from the main streets or open spaces. “We appear once on the road to harvest and then disappear again. We know the police will kill us and the community will celebrate our death. We don’t care!” a young person in a focus group discussion claimed.

Unpacking these challenges, requires a multi-sectoral approach and multiple stakeholders who will stand in solidarity with the community. The approach to address the inequity, injustices and lack of accountability and responsiveness by those with the mandate to tackle injustice should be systematic and must engage those living in affected neighborhoods. In Kenya, 70% of the population is below ages 35 years old therefore making slums more of youth dominated zones. The solutions should be youth-led and must restore the dignity, sense of worth and power to plan and manage resources in addressing their own problems and opportunities.


Photo credit: worthbak under a Creative Commons Licence