Kenya “I’ve witnessed a million and one forced evictions”

For Blog Action Day 2013, Naomi Barasa, Campaign Organizer with Amnesty Kenya, recounts how seeing women stripping naked to protest inspired her to become a human rights activist. She paints a vivid picture of how brutal forced evictions can be, explains how a grassroots movement was born in Nairobi’s slums, and how you can support their struggle to end forced evictions.

I come from the second largest slum in Kenya, Korogocho. I’ve been an activist most of my life, but I probably didn’t know it when I was very young. We experienced a lot of discrimination and violence growing up – I witnessed women and young people being murdered, and children being married off at 12. I used to try to get people involved in responding to these things, because I knew that they were wrong.

Stripping naked to protest

The moment I realised I was an activist was when I became a member of a movement championing the release of prisoners of conscience. There was single-party rule in Kenya until 1992, and activism for political prisoners really intensified before they were released.

Women – mothers, daughters, aunties, sisters – were on hunger strike in a public park, and they were very badly mistreated. I was barely 19, and I took part in that protest even though I didn’t know a single political prisoner myself.

The women even stripped naked to protest against their loved ones being detained. It was surprising to see old African women’s nakedness -this is an abomination culturally. After I heard the women’s stories, I felt like I was a prisoner of conscience too – not within four walls, but in a wider geographical prison. Without the right to security and safety, a secure and dignified home, and access to education, how can you be free?

Crushing chickens

I’ve witnessed a million and one forced evictions. They are always abrupt in Kenya – people are just ambushed at night or very early in the morning, and bulldozed. Red Xs are sometimes marked on buildings, or you’ll hear rumours the night before. It’s a tactic to immobilize, disorganize and disperse people, because that way, communities can’t resist.

You’ll see very heavy police deployment, and big bulldozers and machines rolling over. And then people are just ordered to get out. In July 2009 – the coldest month in Kenya – 3,000 people were given three hours’ notice at 6pm in the evening to get out of their homes. At 4am the following morning, the bulldozers came and crushed everything. People lived out in the open, in the cold and rain, for a month without any humanitarian assistance.

I saw another eviction in October the same year. It was a school day and national exam time. They even crushed people’s chickens. We found women scavenging for their children’s sweaters in the rubble because it was raining.

Yet another time, I witnessed a woman being caught between two walls when the bulldozers started crushing the houses. She hung there for two hours because it was too dangerous to pull her out – a crane had to come to rescue her. Her injuries left her infertile, just after she had got married. Now she has a disability and walks with crutches. She used to be a tailor, but she can’t do that job anymore. She has to take expensive drugs daily because of the complications. That’s the reality of forced evictions.

After an eviction they usually put up a wall or fence to keep people out. Sometimes there are police or armed guards. Gradually, people start to disappear into other slums, go back to their rural home, or are forced into renting houses they can’t afford.

“We are like rubbish in this country” – Photos from communities affected by forced evictions. in Nairobi, Kenya

A grassroots movement is born

When the Marigoini community was bulldozed in 2009, we decided to visit the Kenya Railways Managing Director to ask why the company had thrown people off the land. After we made it very clear to them that what they were doing was illegal under international law, they agreed to let those evicted go back and consult residents properly about their plans.

This approach of confrontation and solidarity proved very effective, so people said ‘let’s do it again’. That’s how the Rapid Response Team (RRT) was born. Today, it’s a grassroots movement with over 1,000 members – 99% are from Nairobi’s slums. It’s a movement of men and women, the old and young. Many have either been forcibly evicted or live with the threat of it happening at any time.

Meet some of the people Naomi works with in Nairobi’s Deep Sea slum – including Diana Nyakowa, who is featured on the front cover of WIRE September/October – by clicking on the button below:

Their role is to monitor and report on forced evictions in order to prevent them, talk to the authorities, protest and demand that evictions follow due processes. Amnesty works very closely with the RRT. Together, we verify rumours, document and track evictions. We create awareness and train people in housing rights and how to resist evictions strategically. So by the time a rumoured eviction turns out to be reality, at least people know it’s a human rights violation.

The importance of just going to cry with people

If an eviction has already happened, it is still very important to just go and cry with people, to give them hope, tell them housing is a right worth fighting for. We try to keep people together so they don’t get dispersed hopelessly. The RRT has gone to local flea markets and persuaded traders to donate blankets for people who have lost everything, or made sure people get they get the drugs they need. This really says a lot to the victims.

And we are having an impact. Right now, we are pushing for a new eviction and resettlement law in Kenya that will make forced evictions illegal. Please help us make it happen by signing this petition. We’ll deliver all your signatures to Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Charity Ngilu, in November.

Thank you for supporting us, and for being a human rights activist.