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January 30, 2007

STORY: Milimani Neighborhood Informal Settlement bulldozing

During the exact six days of the World Social Forum, I had a parallel experience in my hostel's backyard, with an "informal settlement" getting illegally evicted and bulldozed. It was quite an experience in the weave of these stories...


Saturday, January 20th, 10pm

After the exhilarating opening celebration of the World Social Forum, a bunch of us were hanging out at our hostel, preparing for the first day of workshops. All of a sudden, Larry, a guy from Bellingham, WA, ran in and shouted “THEY’RE BULLDOZING THE SLUM NEXT DOOR AND EVERYONE’S SCREAMING!” He had come from his fifth floor hotel room next door, which had looked down onto a peaceful shantytown (legally there) full of homes and businesses.

Suddenly, without warning to the people there, a bulldozer was destroying everything. After thinking twice about our first instinct to use our “international presence” to try to stop it, we went over to the hotel room to videotape it from above. It was horrifying. The bulldozer was zigzagging around crushing everything to bits and even running full speed at people running away with a few of their possessions. People were screaming. Rumors were that the bulldozerman had been drugged, and was paid by a “rich man” who wanted to destroy the land and buy it cheap. The police (in uniform and plain clothes) and a handful of city council members made sure that the people didn’t make a bother.

The bulldozing continued for hours, until it ran out of gas. We watched it circle the property, apparently aiming at wherever people were gathering. We watched a group of people form a line to help a store owner pull stuff from his store (first the refrigerator and then cases of food and other products). As they did this, the bulldozer turned to plow down the store, and the last man jumped out as the walls collapsed around him. It was very intense. Very scary.

Soon, we went down and joined the crowd outside. Suddenly, I was a white woman in this African crowd, obviously out of place. But I trusted that my humility and humanity would speak louder than my skin color, and most people saw that we really cared and they politely explained the situation to us.

Some people said that they received no notice of this event until they heard the bulldozer at their doorstep. Since it was 10pm many people (including children) were sleeping. Others said that they owner of the property received a 30-day notice the night before (Friday). Later we learned that the 30-day notice was backdated, so that it expired that day. Everyone was bewildered and angry as they watched their life possessions violently crushed.

One man was arrested for getting angry, and when his friends surrounded the police paddy wagon, the police, with the city councilor, screeched out of the road to the station.

I didn’t take any photos that night because a) enough people (locals) told me that it was not a good idea—people were quite volatile and b) I didn’t want to be taken as just a tourist… but was I? I was feeling allied with the people losing their homes and wanted to connect with them as someone who believes in and wants to support the grassroots, the “bottom” of our society, against such overt abuse of power. I wanted people to know that my life work is to fight the top-down control and exploitation of humanity (and earth). I wanted to be part of their struggle, because since I witnessed it, it was my struggle too.

But was it?

Thus began my week of personal struggle with the role of the “do-gooder American,” as I call it. Was this my struggle? In some abstract sense maybe yes, but at this two-acre settlement where I was staying in a hostel next door and would be leaving in 10 days, how was I really “supposed” to engage?

Sunday, January 21st, 7am

The next morning, I came back to the settlement to talk to folks and take photos. People were depressed, angry, hungry and exhausted from not having a place to sleep. Others were sifting through the remains looking for their belongings, money or any other scraps of their life. I looked down and saw a bag of someone’s photos, a registry from the grocery shop and some sheet that said, “opinion matters.”

We started piecing together the story… an old woman owns the land and was renting it to thousands of people for at least the past ten years. We learned about “land grabbing,” where a politician will abuse his power to steal land for personal gain. Someone said that a rich man made a deal with the city council to get the land to build a hotel. I looked up at the two tall hotels surrounding the settlement and wondered what used to be there. How many places and products that we use are built on top of someone else’s back, blood and turmoil?

I wanted to take photos to share this story with all of you, to incorporate this into my worldview and use it to fuel and direct my activism. But I was also wondering if I was being a tourist. I thought about my options. I could be a tourist, take photos and leave. I could dive in, learn what was happening, and try to help them organize in some way. I could utilize the unique resources of the WSF, finding groups that could help them, groups from other places that could share solidarity stories, and media that could highlight this as an example of what the WSF is all about. People at Milimani seemed to like the idea of media. They kept asking us to get the BBC. (Of course, their story is typical in Kenya (and other places) but the contrast/complement to the WSF would be the story of interest.)

Most of my WSF/hostel friends took photos and went about their business with the Forum. But I couldn’t do that… once I became friends with folks and listened to their stories and saw that they didn’t know what to do, I felt like with all of my schooling and knowledge of organizing, investigating things and making a fuss, was there something that I could share? But was that being the “white hero” that so many people still seem to expect (between colonization and international aid, whites hold positions of resources and perceived ability)? How can I use my experience but get out of the way and let this group form its own process? What about the fact that I really didn’t know Kenyan land politics and history? What about the fact that as a white person and strong-minded American I could have probably talked my way into some Member of Parliament’s office and raised a fuss? Or was I being egotistical to think that I could do anything at all?

All I knew was that I was there, connecting with people as a fellow human being, and then going off to the Forum to discuss grassroots organizing against oppression… somehow the two things (Milimani and the WSF) must connect… somehow.

Sunday, January 21st and Monday, January 22nd daytime

Karen, a hardcore peace activist (and Larry’s wife) really took the lead in trying to get some attention from the WSF. Karen got in front of a bunch of cameras and spoke about injustice. She hunted down Members of Parliament from three continents and engaged them in the story. She found the Kenyan Land Alliance, which is the overarching group that works on land issues, and worked with them to plan a visit with Forum-goers to Milimani.

I was hesitant to really “take it on” because I was so weary of getting involved on a level that I really shouldn’t… it was not my place to do so. It had to come from the people being affected directly. But I had (and still have) such a hard time knowing that I have certain power and privilege and knowledge and experience and that if this happened to me personally, I would be making a huge deal out of it (well, I guess this is sort of kind of what happened with TLC Farm – in a Western sort of way). How could I just sit back with so many people feeling hurt and helpless against a corrupt system? So, my tactic was to start going to a lot more sessions about landless people’s rights and informal settlements to get people’s advice and learn more. And to follow along with Karen’s organizing.

One person I spoke with at the Forum said that people in settlements are complacent and don’t make the effort to be truly informed or take action. Others said that people don’t have access to real information. Others pointed out that the folks at Milimani were legal tenants, paying rent to live/work on private property and why should they have bothered to learn about evictions and such. Some people took the victim stance and said that this kind of stuff happens all the time and there’s little they can do about it. From talking with folks at Milimani, it seemed like they just didn’t seem to know what to do, or how to connect with other settlements facing eviction, or the other resources in the city. They said that the Red Cross was a kilometer away but they didn’t come to help… (but did the Milimani folks go over there? I don’t know.) And without really knowing this community, how was I supposed to figure out “the truth”?

So what was I supposed to do? Again, I couldn’t just say “oh that’s sad” and then leave. But to do anything else brought up layers upon layers of complex issues. I guess this is exactly why I came to the Forum and to Africa in the first place: to engage with the complexity and the interesting position that I personally am in.

By the end of the day on January 22nd I was exhausted, confused and sad (being my birthday didn’t help either). Karen and the Land Alliance folks organized a group to go to Milimani the following morning at 10am, and I said that I would make sure that the Milimani folks would be there to share their stories… my role was being the friendly diplomat, or something like that.

Tuesday, January 23rd 10am

The plan was to meet at the Land Alliance tent at 10am to go visit Milimani and be back at the Forum by 2pm. Ha! Nothing ever happens as planned, especially in a non-Western country. We ended up getting back to the Forum at almost 6pm, after visiting another settlement that was getting evicted illegally, speaking at a meeting of 300 people, busting the police who busted the meeting, and finally going to Milimani, four hours late.

And we were supposed to have a group of 20 people from the Forum: folks from the Kenyan Land Alliance, legal support, a Kenyan human rights group, members of various media (local and international), Members of Parliament from Europe and Kenya, and whoever else. We ended up being a group of 7: me, Karen, Lily from the Land Alliance, two guys from a legal aid clinic, one guy from another slum who works with youth on human rights, and a German guy interested in the issues. The Member of the EU Parliament was ready to come, but could only attend if his Kenyan counterpart came. He didn’t. Darn. Another lesson: a) Milimani is a typical story that people already know and b) it’s hard to organize anything at the WSF (between getting people’s attention and coordinating schedules without phones or email in an already chaotic context—it’s crazy).

By 11am when our little group was ready to leave, I was informed that we were going to make a “quick stop” at another informal settlement. Apparently, the WSF had organized a day of activities visiting settlements and witnessing/discussing the exact issues that we were. Made sense to stop by this WSF event and invite people to come with us to Milimani. I reasoned that according to “Kenyan time” being an hour or two late for our Milimani meeting was ok. Right?

Tuesday, January 23rd noon

By noon we pulled into the Kibagare slum. We drove right through the middle of this dusty shanty town, with everyone coming out to watch us drive through. It was similar to Kibera slum, where I was the previous week, but had fewer piles of trash in the streets. And besides the fact that the houses were 10x10 tin shacks, it felt somewhat serene and village like.

It took about 15 minutes to drive through to the other side, where we pulled through some corn fields and into an opening, where we were greeted by three big white tents and about three or four hundred people. We had pulled right onto the stage where a man was enthusiastically talking into a microphone. See below:

A big sign said, “*******************************.”

We quickly learned that this man was from an informal settlement on the coast and he was there rallying people to fight against illegal evictions. He was quite a motivational speaker (he spoke in Swahili but it was translated). It was great to see solidarity being built and information shared among settlements.

We stayed for half and hour, when we decided that we really should get going to Milimani. But as we made to leave, the speaker stopped and said, “You are in Africa, you must give a proper greeting to these people” and he handed us the microphone.

Karen spoke first and explained what we were doing and why we had to leave the gathering early. Kraus, from Germany spoke next. I didn’t really want to speak (still not wanting to be regarded as special just cause I’m white) but I really couldn’t avoid it at that point. So I greeted people and introduced myself in Swahili and basically said that it was an honor to be there, and then something to the effect of “true power will always be in the community – keep talking, singing and organizing, and we will too.”

Karen shared a good ol' activist chant:

Then from the left, a group of women in traditional dress got up and started singing… they danced us out of the center to our cars. It was wild.

And then they crowded around us and thanked us profusely for being there and asked us for help. “I have five children who are so hungry….” They all wanted our phone numbers and wanted us to come back. Again, I wanted to connect with these women as another woman, a friend, an ally, but NOT their savior. Being an American and being white has such baggage. It reinforced my questions: what is and should be my role in this? How do I use my “power” to reinforce that success will come with THEM organizing THEMSELVES. Or is there also a role for the white outsider to affirm and support their work in some way? And again, I was not planning on moving to Kenya or this settlement to take it on 100%. So was my presence there detrimental?

Tuesday, January 23rd 1:30pm

Five minutes after we were driving down the road to Milimani, we got a call that just after we left, the police moved in and broke up the meeting, without cause or warrant of course. Turns out they were waiting in the corn fields for us to leave. They arrested two people. What nerve of the police: this was an official WSF event – what were they thinking?

We stopped on the side of the road to consider our options. Was it safe to go back? What was happening? What should we do?

Since we had two guys from a legal support center with us, we decided to go to their

office (conveniently near by) and get their lawyer. So all of a sudden there I am sitting in a nice law office… and we quickly decided that the lawyer would come back with us to talk with the police and get the people released.

The lawyer also made a call to The Nation (newspaper) but they weren’t interested in the story. See video below:

What an adventure.

By the time we got halfway through the bumpy road in Kigabare slum, we bumped into the masses of singing people marching down the road… they got the police to release the two people because they really didn’t have a right to arrest them. The group at the meeting was certainly all riled up to stand up against the police in that moment.

But they were so happy to see that we had come back – it meant a lot to them.

Tuesday, January 23rd 3pm

Our “fact finding mission” finally got to Milimani settlement, four hours late. We were met by a group of 50 or 60 people, many of whom were dressed in their best duds. I felt so ashamed that we were so late, and didn’t have major media with us. I just hoped that connecting with the legal support and Kenya Land Alliance folks would be useful.

We quickly learned that the landowner had already acquired a lawyer and that there wasn’t much we could really do. The brothers of the owner (an old sick woman who couldn’t leave her house) showed us their documents from the City Council that permitted the businesses and houses, etc.

So our group toured the site, and I talked with a group of very sweet guys. Two of them were brothers and just happy that someone cared about their situation. And the third guy kept saying to me, “we believe you are a good Samaritan, now what are you going to do for these people?” I kept saying back, “what are YOU going to do?” and “what do you think I should do?” Again, I was trying to understand what I really could do AND not take on an unfounded hero role. So I said that we were still trying to get some media presence out here. That at least felt ok… to share the story is at least maybe educating the public a bit. I told them to stay in touch with Lily from the Land Alliance and work with other settlements to build a strong movement against illegal evictions. A few of them seemed to just want me to do the work. Nope, sorry.

Still, it is a very very difficult thing to connect with someone person to person, as a human, to look into each others eyes and share a smile, and then to walk away, knowing that I could freely do whatever I wanted with my life and that they were “stuck” there with no job, no house and a very corrupt society working to hold them down.

Tuesday, January 23rd 9:30pm

I got back from the Forum that night at about 9:30 and found a crowd of a hundred people in the street. I jumped out of the taxi and found out that the Milimani folks were waiting for the bulldozer to return to finish the job. On the opposite corner and down the road a bit was a group of about 15 men who I was told was from the City Council. The police were gathering near them.

People seemed confused, concerned and not very coordinated. Waves of energy flowed through the crowd, as people got worked up. I asked what they were going to do, and people really didn’t know. What were they supposed to do? Stand in front of the bulldozer and get shot by the police? Let the bulldozer go by and watch it crush the rest of their lives and hopes?

What was I supposed to do? This is exactly the kind of situation that I love to jump in and be the crystallizer of coordination, if I only knew what we should be doing. I felt that maybe this was a role I could play, to help bring some focused coordination of resistance, but I was still so new to Kenya and to this issue that I really didn’t feel like I knew what to do. And no one else knew either…

The group’s lawyer appeared and started yelling that people need to fight back, to resist, to stop the bulldozer at all costs. They had filed an appeal of their eviction and were waiting for the court to rule this thing illegal. And that was why the bulldozer came back tonight, before it was too late for them to continue.

Here he is:

So a group of men built a bonfire in the ally that lead to the site. And another in the other entrance. Then they pulled a big van across the driveway.

And the energy built. The police came closer and people started yelling. I was moving back and forth between seemingly safe places and being in the thick of it. I felt comfortable with my new friends but saw that they had fury in their eyes and I was honestly scared. The police had big guns and I just didn’t think that this was my time to stand up to that.

All of a sudden there was a noise, a flash and smoke. People ran. I did too. It was tear gas, and as usual, it did a pretty good job of breaking things up.

After another hour or so of people wandering around, wondering what was happening and meeting in small groups at other street corners, it was clear that the police and bulldozer had left. They got intimidated. Success!

That night people slept in various places outside but not at the site (where some had started to rebuild sleeping spots).

Wednesday, January 24th 10pm

Again, I arrived home at around 10pm and found the crowd in the street, just like the previous night. The difference this time was that there were loud noises behind us: the bulldozer was back.

This video is taken from Larry and Karen's hotel window, looking down at the bulldozer (the loud noises you hear) and the fire (failed attempt at stopping it). Larry is explaining what's been happening.

Apparently that night the police came back with a bunch of “thugs” with sticks who proceeded to jump out of their cars and beat up everyone on the street. During the violence and confusion, the bulldozer went around to the back entrance and ran through a house to get into the site. (The Milimani folks had built fires in the entrances again.) And that was that.

Their appeal was supposed to have been seen in court that day but the court closed early. It would be looked at the following day. Too late.

The bulldozing continued til at least 2am. At that point, all I could do is take a few photos of the evening’s activities and go back to the hostel. I was completely exhausted after five nights of five hours of sleep. At the hostel I sat for a few minutes with the group of travelers and Forum-goers who were in heated debate about what was happening and what we could do (or not). Behind us, just 100 feet away, the bulldozer was loudly flattening the rest of the settlement.

Thursday, January 25th, 9am

The next morning we woke to find that not only did the bulldozer finish the job, but he had also re-run over everything already crushed. That way people couldn’t reuse the wood or tin. Insult on injury, yes. Amazing.

We also got word that morning that the BBC was coming over. Nice! So we introduced the Kenyan BBC team to some of the Milimani folks and let them do their thing. See the video below!

As we were leaving a local TV station came to video. And a newspaper came later that day.

I don’t know how much it was our presence and effort that got the media coverage, or if the grapevine had finally gotten through… but it didn’t matter. Milimani folks felt like their could share their story and make a statement that this was not ok.

Friday and onward

Amazing how this whole thing happened during the exact same days as the World Social Forum. By Friday when Forum people were off to their safaris and whatnot, all we could do was say bye to our new friends. I actually hung out for a few more days, checking in on what people were doing and finding that this community had scattered and were finding new homes and places to rebuild businesses. I got invited to share ugali (corn meal mush) with a group. I told people that I was off to South Africa to learn more about land issues and that I’d be back in two months to see what was up… (that’s still my plan).

In the end it felt like it was a normal goodbye between friends… we had been through a lot together in the previous week. But still, I could walk away (and was) from this “story” but these were their lives, in pieces. Tough, tough dynamics. These are the dynamics that I have to accept or reject, and to utilize to the best of my ability.

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