Shattered shelters

Jennifer Wang

By Jennifer Wang

A graduate student in Global Health and Environment at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, Jennifer is in Nairobi, Kenya, researching the effects of climate change on people's health in the city’s "informal settlements," or slums.

All summer long, between all the meetings and field visits and interviews and note-taking, I had been thinking a lot about shelter as a recurring theme that touches on my more direct interests in climate change, food security and health. For such a basic human right, how could shelter be so disparate, so inadequate, so cruel? How does it contribute to good or poor health, to vulnerability and capacity, to life and death?

This post is a loosely structured collection of musings on the theme of shelter, serving as my closing thoughts from the summer. I write in honor of the dozens of people killed and hundreds injured in the recent pipeline explosion in the Sinai slum in Nairobi, in which environmental and social conditions played no insignificant role.

I wish I could present some of my results and fieldwork experiences on this blog, but I haven’t had a chance to write them all up yet. Please comment if you would like to learn more and we can connect via email!

Jua kali

Selling vegetables under the hot sun in Mathare

Selling vegetables under the hot sun in Mathare.

In Kenya there is a concept of jua kali, the popular practice of streetside entrepreneurship, such as fixing shoes and making household goods. The literal meaning is “hot sun,” plainly describing the conditions under which these men and women work all day long, and often into the night. The hot sun, the swirling dust, the din and odor of the congested roads all contribute to a decidedly unforgiving environment that is both the source and the suffocation of their livelihoods.

I noticed this exposure quickly when we went on our field visits to the slums, and especially when I did my resident and food vendor interviews in Mathare. A day of walking and talking in the hot sun amid rusty iron sheeting is exhausting. I can go home for a hot shower and a cold drink to soothe my aching muscles and fuzzy mind. The slum dwellers have to stay.

Endangered Rothschild giraffe. (Photo by Donna Brown)

Man vs. wild

“All the time I fought and struggled like a trapped animal. The more I strained for freedom, the more they tightened the sack, till I had no room to struggle.” – Ben Okri, The Famished Road

“In this country, we treat our animals better than we treat our people.” – A young urban planner working with the urban poor in Kenya.

A limber young male cheetah struts confidently across the savannah, framed by a faint rainbow in the soft light of the late afternoon. He draws near a herd of wildebeests, who skirt nervously along the edge of the bushes, eyeing their predator while trying to move away without provoking a chase. Their effort proves futile as the cheetah suddenly begins to sprint towards the herd. Their hooves trample an arc in the grass as the cheetah follows easily alongside, looking for his victim. The cheetah — the fastest mammal — soon takes his pick and wrestles with a wildebeest in a tangle of flying limbs. We notice a spot of blood on the cheetah’s back, but the wildebeest is now still, his windpipe at the will of the cheetah, suffocating to death. Still breathing heavily, he declares victory and looks up at the gathered crowd, wildebeest hair hanging from his mouth.

Fresh kill

Fresh kill.

There are now about 20 safari vehicles parked in a semicircle around him, camera flashes going off as the sun sets, hushed whispers of excitement coming from this strange species that always hides behind steel. The cheetah looks confused, yet indifferent, as he catches his breath and begins to dig into his dinner with ferocity, “putting on lipstick” as the wildebeest’s mother looks on from a distance.

At the Maasai Mara, the animals are gods, the hills are golden backdrops, the river is a road to glory for crocodiles and vultures and a road to perdition for zebras and wildebeests crossing during their annual migration. The safari groups roll in and out with their cameras and binoculars, but the animals stay. Their land — their shelter and livelihood — is preserved by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Whether the animals’ lives and habitats are made better or worse by the high park fees charged of foreign tourists — and the impact these tourists make on the animals and natural resources — is up for debate. But what the animals have over humans is some semblance of land rights. They have tenure security, even if that security comes with the side effect of 4WDs. They have food security thanks to the savannah, the rains, and the ruthless mechanics of the food web. During lean seasons, in order to protect the population of certain charismatic mega fauna (I’m looking at you, lions), rangers will even provide supplemental food.

I recognize that wildlife conservation is a worthy goal unto itself, and it is also linked to human well-being — by providing livelihoods, preserving biodiversity and enabling ecosystem services. I was just unsettled by the cheetah enjoying its feast of fresh game meat. And it wasn’t just because of the blood.

Creatures of the night 

Day and night. Work and rest. Predators and prey. Freedom and death.

The animals in the savannah rest during the day to conserve energy, coming alive at dusk and dawn to play and exercise, to keep fit for survival. After dark, the creatures of the night work for their prey. A gazelle could be ambushed, slaughtered and consumed, leaving no trace of its remains, all in one night.

The people in the informal settlements work during the day, but some have to work during the night. If you come home after dark, you risk being beaten, mugged, raped, or killed. Survival of the fittest extends its cruel claws into the slums.

The color of money

One of my research assistants, a slum resident, recently had a break-in at his home, and the burglars took all the valuables he had to speak of. It shocked me, and even more so when a brutally honest local collaborator suggested that when slum residents are seen too often with wazungu (foreigners, white people), they become targeted by thieves. I called my research assistant to see if he was OK. He shrugged it off and changed the subject, sounding enthusiastic as ever. But I couldn’t help but feel burnt by the color of money, remorseful that this color rubbed off, and angered that perhaps color has everything to do with status and security.

Mobility is stability 

A Turkana shelter, northern Kenya - image courtesy "sambukot" via Flickr

A Turkana shelter, northern Kenya. (Photo by sambukot)

The Turkana people in northwestern Kenya are pastoralists — livestock are their livelihoods, their food, even their shelter in the form of cow dung used on roofs during the wet season. Livestock are their lives. They move their animals across the desert, and with the animals they move.

The Maasai people in southwestern Kenya move their villages every several years because of termites. We saw a new village being constructed and wondered about the villagers’ lives during this forced transition. But their ability to improve their shelters while maintaining their social organization is something that cannot be said for the “Mathare people,” that trapped tribe of ex-pastoralists-ex-farmers-ex-landowners.

Mathare girl

Mathare girl.

Shattered shelters

Finally, I want to come back to the slums. I want to return to these places where people die horrible deaths in front of their homes because they were desperate to survive. To come back to the open sewers with the sweet kids running through, to the crowd of ladies washing clothes in front of the communal toilet. I wish I could see again that destitute single mother we had interviewed one day and was later burned to death in her home, due to an accidental fire from illegal electricity connections.

They live in shattered shelters, and they live to demand better.

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2 Responses to Shattered shelters

  1. Hello jennifer,
    What a great site I stumbled on here!
    I was wondering if you had another site with results from your visit or a complete paper.
    Myself I am leaving for Nairobi to visit Mathare and Kibera slums (will be my 5th time, although not always related to my thesis) to interview local community leaders of the slums along with NGOs, IGOs and other organizations.
    Anyways, hope to read more about your trip.
    Best wishes,

  2. Jennifer says:

    Excellent work, excellent article. Let me write a couple of words on social & legal context

    So if an island nation is submerged beneath the ocean, does it maintain its membership in the United Nations? Who is responsible for the citizens? Do they travel on its passport? Who claims and enforces offshore mineral and fishing rights in waters around a submerged nation? International law currently has no answers to such questions.

    United Nations Ambassador Phillip Muller of the Marshall Islands said there is no sense of urgency to find not only those answers, but also to address the causes of climate change, which many believe to be responsible for rising ocean levels.

    “Even if we reach a legal agreement sometime soon, which I don’t think we will, the major players are not in the process,” Muller said.

    Those players, the participants said, include industrial nations such as the United States and China that emit the most carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases. Many climate scientists say those gases are responsible for global warming. Mary-Elena Carr of Columbia University’s Earth Institute said what is now an annual sea level rise of a few millimeters will increase dramatically by the year 2100. “The biggest challenge is to preserve their nationality without a territory,” said Bogumil Terminski from Geneva. International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.
    t present, however, there appear to be at least three possibilities that could advance the international debate about ‘climate refugee’ protections and fill existing gaps in international law.

    The first option is to revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate (or environmental) refugees and to offer legal protections similar to those for refugees fleeing political persecution. A second, more ambitious option is to negotiate a completely new convention, one that would try to guarantee specific rights and protections to climate or environmental ‘refugees`.