Evans Mutisya sits hunched over on a chair to the side of the road in the Mukuru kwa Njenga informal settlement, or slum, in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The fifteen-year-old’s head rests heavily in the palms of his hands. He is writhing in pain. For more than a week, he has been in the hospital where doctors have attempted to treat a bullet wound.
On December 27, as Nairobi’s residents spent time with family or traveled to the coastal region for the holidays, the impoverished residents of Mukuru kwa Njenga were gifted with live bullets by Kenyan police. Dozens of families, including Mutisya and his family, have slept in a sprawling tent settlement for more than two months, erected on top of the ruins of their homes, destroyed in a mass government demolition campaign that began in October. Bulldozers destroyed at least 13,000 homes, along with businesses and schools, and displaced some 76,000 people.
Tensions reached their breaking point on December 27 when clashes broke out between police and residents. Mutisya was inside one of the makeshift tents at the time. “They [the police] were shooting tear gas and the gas came into the tent,” Mutisya recounts, speaking in a low tone. “I ran out from the tent and toward the water tank on the street to wash my face.” At that moment, a police officer shot the teen in the lower back, the bullet exiting from the front of his stomach.
On pure adrenaline, he ran from the officer, who was charging toward him, finally collapsing when bystanders crowded around to help him. Since being released from the hospital, Mutisya has been unable to lie on his back or his front, owing to the excruciating pain from the bullet wound. Police shot and killed two others on that same day, according to the residents, while scores of others were injured.
The demolitions and evictions in Mukuru kwa Njenga have shined a bright light on the historical injustices and state corruption shaping Nairobi’s rapid urban development. While these projects have provided comfort and convenience to the city’s rich, they have unleashed extreme violence on the poor of the informal settlements, who make up the majority of Nairobi’s population.
“I wish there were no government,” Mutisya says, wincing his face, as he slowly lifts his body up on the chair. “They destroyed our home and then came back to shoot us. We would all be better off in Kenya if this government didn’t exist. I wish they would just go away and leave us alone.”
The first round of demolitions in Mukuru kwa Njenga, one of the largest slums in Nairobi, began on October 10. The government announced their plans only two days prior. Bulldozers, accompanied by armed police, flattened homes to clear a thirty-meter-wide strip of land along the Catherine Ndereba Road. Their aim was to make room for the construction of Nairobi’s new expressway, financed by the Chinese state–owned China Road and Bridge Corporation and designed to ease traffic in the city.
Mukuru kwa Njenga, located about 11 kilometers from the central business district, is situated between the city’s industrial zone and international airport. The seventeen-mile expressway will link the international airport with the city’s business district and upscale residential areas. The new road will significantly expand the existing highways and includes an elevated route that follows the old roads, which is expected to cost motorists $1 to $15 in tolls to use. Residents in Mukuru kwa Njenga, meanwhile, either live rent-free or pay about $13 per month for their accommodation. The project itself has been controversial and is being referred to as a road for the rich, highlighting the city’s elite-centric development and deepening inequalities.
Matatus, microbuses that are the most popular form of transportation for the city’s poor but a nuisance to the city’s rich, will likely be excluded from the new highway. Only 13.5 percent of Nairobi’s residents use private vehicles. The rest of the population either walks or rides buses and matatus. Critics have long pointed out that Nairobi’s infrastructural development largely caters to the elite minority in the city while ignoring the needs of the poor majority. Residents of Mukuru kwa Njenga nevertheless agreed to peacefully vacate the thirty-meter strip of land along Catherine Ndereba Road to allow demolitions to commence.
A few weeks later, however, these demolitions mushroomed into a chaotic land grab involving senior government officials and private developers, who took advantage of the expressway demolitions to clear a 300-acre piece of adjacent land, the site of the current tent settlement.
“We weren’t happy about these expressway demolitions,” says Minoo Kyee, a twenty-six-year-old activist from the Mukuru Community Justice Center, whose office was also flattened amid the demolitions. “But eventually people accepted it and moved to allow the highway’s construction. Then about a month later, they decided to destroy everything.”
According to Kyee, residents protested in early November for three days against the escalating demolitions, which came with no warnings. “Hundreds of police arrived with trucks that shot water cannons at people,” she recalls. Thousands of peoples’ homes were flattened under bulldozers. At least one person was crushed to death while attempting to rescue his belongings.
Police grabbed the cell phones of residents attempting to film the chaos and threw them beneath the tracks of bulldozers. The media did not arrive in Mukuru kwa Njenga until a week after the demolitions began, which continued for three weeks.
Ramadhan Jarso’s family had lived on this land since 1972 and claims ownership over his living plot. Under Kenyan law, if someone lives at a property undisturbed, without facing eviction orders, for more than twelve years, the individual can claim ownership. However, for residents in Mukuru kwa Ngenga who have faced disputes over land for decades, such a claim would be shaky in court.
Nevertheless, despite not having a land title, everyone in the community of Mukuru kwa Njenga knew that this plot of land belonged to Jarso’s family. He was born and raised here and was living in a home with his now pregnant wife and two children, ages eleven and four. He had also constructed other homes, made mostly of tin sheets, which he rented out to about twenty people. He was able to make about 30,000 Kenyan shillings ($266) a month from the rent.
“We were able to save some money, and we were investing in building better quality homes, made from concrete,” the thirty-year-old tells me, standing at the site of his former home and rental units, all now reduced to rubble. “But before we were even able to rent them out and make back some of our investment, the bulldozers came and demolished everything.”
Jarso is visibly shaken. He says he was not able to rescue any of his possessions in the demolitions. “I couldn’t even look at my land plot after the demolitions,” he tells me. “It was too painful to see. I couldn’t take it. We lost everything we had spent our lives working for and what our parents had spent their lives working for . . . just in a single day.”
Jarso now has to rent a unit adjacent to the demolished site for 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($44) per month. He has not seen his older brother, who he grew up with, since the demolitions, as families were left scattered in different directions. “We lost everything, so neither one of us can afford the transportation to see one another,” he says. “Since I was born, there has not been a day that my brother was not by my side. Now I haven’t seen him for months.”
“I am now living in this world in the same way I came into this world, with nothing,” he adds. “I wasn’t against the road passing here. But they took advantage of that and decided to destroy our lives. These people don’t care about us. It is something evil what they did to us here.”
“They can take your life from you, and they won’t feel anything. They even tried to kill me the other day.” He lifts the sleeve of his T-shirt to show a wound caused by a live bullet that scraped past his arm, when police opened fire on the tent residents in December.
According to Diana Gichengo, a local human rights defender, the conflict in Mukuru kwa Njenga is the result of decades of political corruption and historical injustices. The area was settled in the 1950s and, like many of Nairobi’s informal settlements, emerged on public land and became a source of cheap labor to the white and Asian populations in the segregated urban areas of the capital, where Africans were not permitted to live.
Following independence, the population of the informal settlements exploded, tripling within two decades, as scores migrated from the villages to the city in search of work. But even as Africans moved into areas of Nairobi to which they were previously denied access, these jarring power disparities between the informal settlements and the rest of the city remained unchanged.
Seventy percent of Nairobi’s population live in the informal settlements that make up just 5 percent of the city’s residential area. These homes are often made of corrugated tin sheets and lack access to adequate sewage, electricity, or water systems. Just a few minutes’ drive from Mukuru kwa Njenga are the city’s plush suburbs, with shiny high-rise apartments protruding from pockets of green forests.
Throughout the decades after independence, widespread political corruption passed these public lands, where the informal settlements are located, into the hands of private individuals from among Kenya’s political elite. These elites often used the acquired land as collateral to access loans from banks. When landowners failed to pay back the loans they had taken out, banks assumed ownership.
Dr Nicholas Orago, executive director of the rights group Hakijamii and lawyer for the displaced residents, says that the contested land, now the site of rows of makeshift tents, was used as collateral by still unknown private owners. According to Orago, in the documents lawyers received from the land ministry, the names of the owners, along with the history of the land before the bank acquired it, have been redacted.
In the 1970s, the national bank auctioned off the land after its owners failed to pay back the loan, selling it to Orbit Chemical Industries, a company manufacturing industrial chemicals and fertilizers. Orbit spent the next thirty years in court attempting to remove the residents from the land, to no avail.
“So, in order for them [Orbit Chemicals] to recoup the money they used to purchase the land, they subdivided it into around 1,300 units and sold them to different individuals,” Orago explains. The Mukuru residents, of course, were not informed of these land purchases. Orbit had not demarcated these units on the ground, only chopping up the area into pieces and selling them based on a paper map of the land.
Following the clearance of the area where the road was to be constructed in Mukuru kwa Njenga along Catherine Ndereba Road, “someone took advantage of that situation to then start demolishing and removing the community from this other piece of land that has been contested,” Orago says.
The fact that bulldozers and construction machinery, owned by the Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS), were present, along with hundreds of police officers, suggests government involvement, according to Orago:
This was senior and high-level people in the government, who have interests in this particular piece of land and are using government machinery and resources to enable them to clear the land and demarcate it so they can undertake their own construction.
He tells me that he received the names of 100 of the new landowners, most of whom are known private developers in Nairobi, who likely want to replace the slum dwellers with high-rise buildings that can serve the city’s upscale residents. The senior government officials involved, however, “want to remain in the shadows so that they can continue to use the resources of the state for their own personal benefit.”
Kangethe Thuku, the deputy general director of NMS, was put on leave following the incident amid investigations into misuse of official government equipment during the demolitions; however, he has since been promoted to another position. Augustine Nthumbi, Nariobi’s police commander who oversaw the demolitions, and James Kianda, county commissioner with the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, both allegedly have interests in the land.
Orago says, however, that the “person calling the shots and giving directions must be very high up in the government hierarchy” — more so than these officials, as government entities recently disobeyed a presidential directive to halt the evictions.
Mukuru kwa Njenga is within the city limits, making its land value extremely high and coveted among private developers looking to reap as much profit as possible from Nairobi’s development. According to Orago, an acre of land in Mukuru kwa Njenga is currently priced at 250 million Kenyan shillings (more than $2.2 million), a value that far exceeds the price of land even in the most upscale areas of the city. Therefore, that contested 300-acre piece of land is worth billions of Kenyan shillings, or more than $665 million.
On December 27, the day Mutisya and Jarso were shot, some of the new landowners, who locals refer to as the “cartels,” had arrived at the site to erect beacons to demarcate the plots allegedly detailed in their land titles, sparking furious resistance among residents of Mukuru kwa Njenga. Police arrived at the scene to defend the new landowners, and the conflict erupted into intense street battles between police and residents.
Forced evictions in Nairobi’s informal settlements are common, but demolitions on this scale, causing a humanitarian crisis, are rare. Mukuru has faced several prior demolition campaigns over the years, along with other informal settlements situated near upscale neighborhoods in the city. In most of these cases, government machinery and resources were used without proper authorization.
In 2020, thousands of people were made homeless, mostly single mothers and children, amid demolitions in the Kariobangi informal settlement, despite the residents having land titles issued to them by the city county, to make room for a sewage dump, most likely for an upcoming rich neighborhood planned by Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta’s family, according to local activists.
Kyee thought her family’s home was spared in the weeks-long demolitions. “I was actually sleeping at the time,” Kyee says. “Luckily, my cousin saw what was about to happen and ran to my home and woke me up. We were one of the lucky ones because we were able to grab some of our belongings out of the house.”
Kyee speaks to me from the site where her home, which she shared with her mother, father, and brother, once stood. Several of her neighbors sit on a log balanced on crushed concrete around an area they use to light fire during the cold nights. Even displaced residents who moved into places nearby often return to the demolished site during the day to sit and chat, attempting to hold on to the sense of community that was ripped away from them.
Square-shaped tents, made from sheets and Styrofoam, are also erected on top of the rubble, as families who sell chang’aa, a traditional alcohol, rebuilt their dens in the exact locations before the demolitions so that their loyal customers would know where to find them.
Kyee’s family is now broken up and scattered across different rental units. Before the home was demolished, they lived rent-free. “We are all struggling so we used to combine everything we made in the month and compile it, so we could do shopping and eat together,” Kyee explains. “Now we’re all split up and having to pay rent at two places,” each costing about 2,500 Kenyan shillings ($22). “Life is not the same. It’s become much harder.”
“We all knew each other,” she explains, speaking of the now displaced residents. “We were like a big family. So, it’s not just our homes that were destroyed. They also crushed a lot of our social networks and support systems.”’
Mary Kathike, fifty-nine, was only able to salvage a small mattress and some utensils before the home she had lived in since 1999 was crushed to rubble. She lived there with her husband, three children, and three small grandchildren. Like Kyee, the family now must pay rent in multiple locations. The small children have not attended school since the demolitions because the money they used for school fees has been repurposed for rent.
“We have so much stress,” Kathike tells me. “We lived in that house for two decades, so we don’t know how we can put our lives back together again. It’s very difficult for us to sleep at night because we are scared the bulldozers will come back again and demolish the whole area.”
That fear is not unfounded; if the residents of Mukuru kwa Njenga had not put up a fierce battle, the entire slum would have likely been demolished. The residents have refused to leave the land and are fighting tooth and nail against Nairobi’s corruption-laden development.
At the settlement, resembling a camp for displaced persons, many living in the tents are women and children. They appear distraught, hungry, and frightened. But they are also on the front lines of this fight; their presence creates the most significant barrier to the new landowners’ plans to grab the area and install fencing around the grounds, which they would then use to sue any of Mukuru’s residents who tried to enter for trespassing — a common tactic among Nairobi’s private developers.
Frida Mwende, thirty-two, sits on a couch positioned on top of the debris, in between tents, on the contested piece of land, with her two-month-old child in her arms. The mother of eight was at the hospital giving birth when the demolitions happened. She has lived in one of the tents since. She lost all of her possessions, and her husband abandoned her after the evictions. “We don’t have money for food or rent, so I think seeing our home demolished was too much for him to handle. He decided to run away from the stress,” she tells me. “And now I’m just left here by myself.”
“I’m scared because we hear a lot of threats,” Mwende says. A small child, dressed in a glittery, purple dress, stumbles into a pool of black water from sewage that was unearthed during the demolitions, which splashes spots onto her dress. “Every night there are rumors that we will be chased away. People will come with pangas [machetes], and our tents will be burned so that people can come in and make nice buildings for the rich people.”
The president’s office announced on January 6 that the demolitions and evictions in Mukuru kwa Njenga were “insensitive and unnecessary” and that the displaced residents would be permitted to return and be given assistance to resettle on the contested land. The government also assured residents it would provide them assistance to regularize their settlement.
Hours after Kenyatta’s announcement, at around 2 AM the following morning, about twenty uniformed police officers crept into the area, with the intent of forcibly removing the tents. But the Mukuru residents, never naive enough to trust government statements, were prepared for them. Since the demolitions, they have developed a rotating security system around the contested land, where young men guard the area in shifts.
In a video shared with me by residents, people can be heard making loud howling noises, becoming louder and louder as more residents join in, alerting everyone in the Mukuru area that police were present. Residents bombarded officers with stones, forcing them to retreat. After the incident, locals found the identity card, presumed to have fallen on the ground during the confrontation, of the senior deputy county commissioner from the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government.
“No one here trusts this government,” says Frank Bett, vice chairman of the Mukuru Community Justice Center:
They have made several promises to us since the evictions, and not one of them has been fulfilled. It’s been three months since these evictions, and the government has done nothing. People are still sleeping in tents, and the police are still attacking us. We will believe what the government says when we see it. Until then, no one believes them.
Josiah Kariuki, thirty-five, is eager to show me her small, makeshift tent at the site and invites me inside, where a small mattress lies in the cramped and dirtied space. “Look what they did to us. I was living here for twenty-eight years,” says Kariuki, a mother of a six-and-one-month old. “I was at the market at the time of the demolitions, so I couldn’t save any of my things.” The Red Cross has donated blankets and other items to displaced residents, she says.
“I don’t believe they [the government] will ever help us,” she adds:
They were part of these demolitions. They helped destroy our lives, and now they want to tell us they will help us. Here in Mukuru, we don’t have a government, we only have God. And God is the only one who will come to help us.