“The chief and his administration are always there when you need them,” said Jumia Hassan.1All names of interviewees have been replaced by pseudonyms by the authors. She lives with her two children and ailing husband in Pumwani, a poor neighborhood in Nairobi, where she sells chapatis (maize pancakes) from her doorstep for a living. During the pandemic, she says, food was donated through the chief’s camp, the lowest level of public administration in the Kenyan system. “The chief’s administration went door to door and were able to identify the needy and gave them the food stuff.” In Mukuru kwa Reuben, around four kilometers southeast of Pumwani, Mary Kariuki feels that assistance has been fraught with favoritism: “People were told that food was distributed to deserving families. But we noticed that the food was in the leadership’s houses. Money was distributed to select individuals.”
In November and December of 2020, we carried out 12 in-depth interviews with single mothers living in Pumwani and Mukuru, working in a variety of trades. We compared the interviews to a survey conducted among 102 respondents in the same communities. We wanted to know how Covid-19 restrictions were affecting those considered the most vulnerable in society. With over 200,000 residents, Mukuru is the largest and fastest-growing poor settlement in Nairobi with multiple socioeconomic challenges. Conditions may be slightly better in Pumwani, one of Nairobi’s oldest—but also poorest—neighborhoods, home to around 30,000 residents. With the onset of the pandemic, Kenya was quick to enforce strict containment measures in line with most countries: hygiene rules, social distancing, closure of schools, restrictions on movement, and curfews. The pandemic has shown how residents in neighborhoods like Pumwani and Mukuru kwa Reuben are largely left to their own devices while bearing the brunt of drastic restrictions. While the women highlighted the flawed power structures that lead to corruption and favoritism, many held differing viewpoints on the need for social control and the role of authorities.
Through our interviews, we were provided a glimpse into a fluid situation. While the pandemic is ongoing, we may not fully grasp the effects of restrictions on these women and their families. However, the sudden onset of rules and regulations to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus reveals the power plays and the structural limitations working against those residing in urban poor neighborhoods. It also shows how these women are active players in that control system; While settlements like Pumwani and Mukuru kwa Reuben may be popularly construed as informal and unruly places, they are also permeated by control mechanisms from city council authorities (through the chief’s camp representatives),2Offices of the local authorities. Located in each settlement in Nairobi, Chief’s camp representatives are well informed about ongoings in the community and are meant to be accessible to residents. The concept harkens back to colonial administrative structures. to landlords,3Nairobi’s housing market is overwhelmingly rent based, run by a few powerful, absentee landlords. However, due to legislature from the 1920s, Pumwani has a high number of local landlords who can only own one house where they normally rent out most rooms. and nyumba kumi initiatives.4A model of community policing. Neighborhoods in places like Pumwani are organized in groups of 10 households. The initiative is designed for citizens to know their neighbors, their activities, and report anything suspicious, especially crime and terrorism. While the women are sometimes critical of these authorities, they also play their part by being each other’s watchful neighbors. Instead of rallying against corrupt leadership, many voice their support of these authorities, and help cement the systems of control that often work against them. Why is this?
While the virus may be new, Covid-19 restrictions have only added to an existing list of negative circumstances, all part of life in poor and populous neighborhoods in Nairobi. The women we talked to have all attempted to adapt their livelihoods in order to make up for monetary losses incurred. “I added selling fruit,” said Grace Irungu, a single mother of two who lives in Pumwani. She has built a rather successful business selling second-hand timber for construction, but restrictions cut supply, and demand dwindled. “If I depend on the timber business then I will have to pack my things and go back to the village.” Other women depend on self-made networks, showcasing a range of mitigative strategies. They have taken up additional loans from their savings groups,5Many residents, particularly women, partake in savings groups where members are encouraged to collectively save small sums. Savings are used to cover members’ expenses such as house repairs, investment in business, or school fees. have been provided postponements on rent by landlords, have been supported by relatives or adult children, or received other forms of financial support. Some have even renegotiated the terms of their business leases with city officials. But others are less fortunate.
Hope Muiruri lives in Mukuru kwa Reuben with her two children and brother. She deals in mitumba clothing6Second-hand clothing. A large industry in East Africa with global outreach. but has been forced to downscale considerably. As a result of the emotional strain, she developed ulcers and was diagnosed with high blood pressure. In our conversations, the women’s need to protect themselves and their children from the virus was weighed constantly against their need to support them with income, housing, schooling, and food. Fear of the virus almost always won out. Almost all of the women we spoke to were actively involved in a wide range of community issues before the pandemic. They worked to secure water, aired grievances over police violence, petitioned for improved garbage collection, ensured schooling for children in the community, and so forth. Now, these outlets for community work have been cut off and their active engagement is relegated to observing hygiene and social distancing. This has effectively barred the women from partaking in what we could call city-making: the daily participation in the production of space that sustains and develops a community.
Even though they were sequestered in their homes, the women tried to maintain their roles as key actors in their community. Not only did they highlight the importance of control and containment during the pandemic; most of them also admonished others for not being vigilant enough. “They should put harsh penalties for those who are caught not following the guidelines,” said Faith Kimathi, a single mother of six, who runs a successful business as a fishmonger in Gikomba market, down the road from Pumwani. “People should take it serious.” There could be various reasons for such moral positions. One being the sensitization and outreach work of long-standing religious institutions such as St. John’s in Pumwani,7St. John’s Mission was established in Pumwani in 1923 and has since become an important powerhouse in the development of the community, providing training, jobs, and opportunity, mainly to women. where many women are active members. The institution’s ethics are echoed in the women’s rationales. But the emphasis on morality also points to a structural concern. Bound by gender and class, exhibiting moral superiority becomes a tactic, an attempt at bypassing the confines of tradition and asserting themselves in a position of comparative power. “The other day I was in a matatu [minibus],” said one woman, “and a guy was drunk and saying stupid things: ‘The government is lying to us so they can get funding. It is money they want. There is no disease.’ If I had my phone, I would have recorded him.”
Pointing judgmental fingers may also be the byproduct of fear of stepping out of line. Poor urban women traders inhabit the bottom rungs of the societal ladder in Kenya. Like most petty business owners in poor neighborhoods in Nairobi, the women we spoke to often find themselves at the mercy of authorities who demand bribes. “Every Thursday I give 100 shillings for levy, but they don’t give a receipt,” said Grace Irungu. Asking for a receipt might bring problems, she continues. “To avoid our business being ruined, we just comply.” Many of the women operate in a grey area with regards to licensing and suffer the consequences by paying bribes. But in a society where bribes are commonplace, the women do not associate lack of licenses or paying “levies” with something criminal. They argue that they have little choice: They cannot afford licenses and cannot afford to not pay bribes. The women are in a predicament. By paying bribes and complying with government regulations and admonishing others who do not, the women indirectly support corrupt and authoritarian control structures.
The women we interviewed do differ in their views on those who enforce restrictions. Around half of the women see a correlation between their precarious situation, their limited possibilities for action, and the actions of people in power directly contributing to their adverse situation. These are respondents that have invested heavily in their livelihoods, particularly in physical structures (stalls in the market, a business premise, or a shop) and equipment. Their critiques focus on those authorities directly responsible for the fate of their businesses. “For us who deal with food, we have to be very careful. If someone gets infected, they might take away my business license, and that will be the end of me,” said Faith Kimathi. It’s not only Covid-19 related; they are afraid of arson in the market, tax hikes, or the area’s redevelopment. “Every year, there is usually a fire outbreak in this market,” said Grace Irungu who participated in protests against land grabbing. “We don’t know how it starts, but it is speculated that traders will be evicted.”
The other half are also in a precarious situation with limited recovery options. While they see that authorities sometimes are corrupt, they nonetheless have positive opinions of them and the restrictions. Mary Kariuki explained that while she may be critical of the handling of assistance to the community and sees leadership as corrupt, it is her immediate day-to-day troubles that most concern her: patrons on credit who refuse to pay, drunks who become aggressive, landlords demanding rent, competition among food sellers, and the dwindling number of clients. Others echo this inward focus. “If it’s something that doesn’t affect me directly, then I don’t bother. I just let the government be government,” said one woman. In order to get by, the women play to every possible opportunity that arises. Having good relations with local authorities, or power figures like landlords, is a survival strategy—as is keeping in line with the local mosque, church, or NGO.
Effects on city-making
Since the onset of the pandemic, Kenyan police have overseen the enforcement of containment measures. But in places like Mukuru kwa Reuben, we have observed how the police keep to the main thoroughfares in the community, rarely venturing into residential quarters. “I haven’t seen anyone coming to enforce,” says Mary Kariuki. “People have been left to take responsibility.” With places like Mukuru kwa Reuben permeated by control mechanisms—the tentacle reach of the chiefs, the internal structures like nyumba kumi, and the moral gaze of its residents—there is indeed little need for a uniformed presence. Whether control is formal or informal is a distinction that means little to residents.
What matters to many is that they have been increasingly cut off from participating in social or political events during the pandemic. “I have previously attended community meetings to talk about security and children’s rights, but this was before corona,” said Esther Njeri, a single mother of three. Others feel that there is no room for community involvement, regardless of Covid-19. “Programs are usually planned from outside. When community grievances are voiced, they aren’t sufficiently addressed,” said Rose Waweru who cares for her disabled child in Mukuru kwa Reuben by selling vegetables by the roadside. Community platforms have been shut down during the pandemic. While such closures are necessary to curb the spread of the virus, the effects are disconcerting. Containment measures have effectively splintered people’s ability to partake in city-making. While Mukuru kwa Reuben’s main thoroughfares are normally busy, restrictions have sequestered people to their homes and shared courtyards. Whereas containment protocols and disruptions in “formal” Nairobi were less consequential to the better-off residents that live there, the urban poor rely on social interactions and negotiations among themselves and with the local administration to survive. During the containment period, these residents have been forced to focus inwards on the challenges and spaces of their households, foregoing participation in self-help groups, trade organization meetings, barazas, or organized protests, all of which have been the only way for urban poor communities to air communal grievances and collectively participate in city-making at their level.
But this disruption is not new. The mix of state control, seemingly laissez-faire attitudes toward urban poor areas by outside authorities, and strong internal structures have a long history in Nairobi. This has resulted in a city that has developed in non-democratic ways, helped by a culturally and historically ingrained reverence for leadership. Covid-19 has proven to be a looking glass into the architecture of these control mechanisms. It has shown how easy it is for the government to revert to undifferentiated curbing measures that insidiously place inordinate burdens on the urban poor and position them in a unique position of containment. The responses of the women we have interviewed show that this form of social control is not only exacerbated by limited options for the urban poor during a time of crisis; it is also facilitated by the grassroots structures established by the authorities—ironically accepted by residents.