Sharp-sailed dhows still ply the sparkling waters off Kenya’s northeastern Lamu archipelago, home to an ancient Swahili settlement and a UNESCO World Heritage site. But terrorist attacks in recent years have crippled the idyllic beach community, along with much of Kenya’s coastal tourism sector.
Now the Kenyan government, in cooperation with a Chinese construction firm, has decided to transform Lamu into a massive seaport — potentially the largest in East Africa — complete with new resorts and a pipeline to channel oil from South Sudan through Kenya to the rest of the world.
But a number of groups have raised concerns that the port project — likely to increase the population in Lamu from about 100,000 today to over a million a decade from now — could incite further conflict in the historically marginalized part of Kenya, especially if not done with careful attention to current land claims and resource use patterns.
The problem is that good information about Lamu’s residents — who they are, where they live and what they do for a living — doesn’t exist, said Primoz Kovacic, co-founder and director of operations at Spatial Collective, a Nairobi-based social enterprise that collects and analyzes various forms of geographic data.
A chorus of voices praises the power of data to drive better results, more efficiency and greater transparency throughout development planning and implementation. Good information, whether it be demographic data, land title records or simply well-reported, representative stories about life in an urban slum, is vital to responsible planning for development. But collecting good data — and finding true stories — is easier said than done.
That is certainly the case in Lamu, where a mix of both indigenous and relocated ethnic groups tap local resources through a broad mix of livelihoods — livestock, farming, fishing, hospitality, and hunting and gathering. This patchwork of land and water uses, access rights and ownership is complicated at best, and highly conflict-prone at worst, and some fear the potential for violent disputes could grow if ambitious development plans move forward.
Already the region has seen enough disruptive violence. Last July, al-Shabab killed 29 people in the Lamu area, claiming the attack was in response to theft of Muslim lands by Kikuyu immigrants from central Kenya. U.S. government personnel are currently restricted from traveling to Lamu County and other coastal areas.
Social enterprise Spatial Collective wants to map and anticipate those potential conflict hot spots to better understand how proposed development plans might incite or suffer from conflict.
“[The port project] is going to be a big thing for East Africa … The thing is, nobody asked the people there,” Kovacic told Devex.
According to Kovacic and his colleagues, who work out of an open-plan office space in a part of Nairobi blossoming into a tech sector, developers are “treating [Lamu] like there’s nobody living there.”
That information void persists despite efforts by the World Bank to collect demographic and land use data. Another Spatial Collective employee describes that data set as “mostly all wrong.” In some cases people have moved since the data was collected, or their locations are incorrectly recorded, or their names are simply wrong.
Kovacic unrolled a large laminated map that shows outlines of islands and channels, overlaid with rich descriptions of how people use and access different areas. He pointed to one example — residents of an island in the archipelago might travel by boat to another to visit a hospital. During storm surge events, they use a more sheltered route to make the trip. If developers don’t know about that sheltered route, they could locate infrastructure in the middle of it, and unwittingly deprive islanders of vital health services.
The question is whether the potential boon for Kenya’s economy will translate to local benefits for a highly heterogenous population — or whether Kenya’s ambition to be a regional powerhouse will trump local concerns.
“We have to first figure out who they are and what they do,” Kovacic said, “and then what are their fears about development.”
There is no guarantee that better information will compel the Kenyan government or its Chinese development partners to go about the project differently — though that is Kovacic’s hope — but, “if nothing else, at least there’s a record,” he added.
Mapping what’s under the surface of a slum
Spatial Collective prides itself on collecting data “from places where most people won’t go.”
With the recent uptick in terrorism concerns and prohibitions against traveling there, Lamu is one example of those places. Nairobi’s crime-ridden and underserved Mathare slum is another.
Kovacic and his partners used to work in the notorious Kibera settlement, but decided to relocate after they noticed the famous urban slum seemed overattended to, to the detriment of others that are at least as marginalized, but far less visible than Kibera.
The group has developed an online platform — Mtaa Safi, or “safe community” — that allows Mathare residents to post pictures of dangerous situations or broken municipal infrastructure and post those pictures to an online map.
Kovacic likens it to mobile apps in other parts of the world that allow drivers to report potholes, and Spatial Collective hopes to build out the platform to include monitoring features that will detail the status of ongoing repairs. With issues reported and documented, municipal departments can respond to them and slum residents can hold their city government accountable for what’s not being fixed.
There is always the concern that people will begin taking pictures of problems, post them to Spatial Collective’s map site, and see little in the way of municipal response, only to grow more frustrated and disenfranchised.
While technology can play an important role as “neutral broker” between residents and government officials, Kovacic said, it is ultimately community organizing that creates action.
In Nairobi’s slums, where municipal services often don’t penetrate, residents have found ways to provide for themselves. Kovacic uses terms like “alternative governance modalities” in describing some of these self-organizing systems for dealing with the day-to-day management of a dense residential area.
Youth groups, for example, have stepped up to do garbage removal, but they’re relatively underequipped and disorganized. Instead of collecting waste and relocating it to appropriate dumping grounds, they simply find open spaces that are out of the way and relocate garbage from one place to another.
Better information about where and what kinds of problems exist in the settlements can aid these groups as they strive to become more professional. But the work they’re doing, in difficult conditions and with almost zero official support, can also help planners understand how communities function in the absence of external resources.
“What is intriguing about slums,” Kovacic said, “is people live on almost nothing,” and not only that, “they thrive.”
“We can learn so much,” he added.
But that learning requires information about what really is happening under the surface of settlements where “informality” is often taken to mean that nothing exists at all, or in coastal communities where it can be tempting to ignore potential conflicts instead of mitigating them.
Putting researchers in the right hands
While Nairobi’s Mathare slum remains, at least for now, mostly off the map, the Kibera settlement on the other side of town is one of the most studied urban slums in the world.
But that doesn’t mean researchers and organizations necessarily have access to the best information about what happens there. Fred Kayiya, a young entrepreneur and aspiring research assistant in Kibera, wants to help fill that good information vacuum.
Researchers are “flocking to Kibera,” Kayiya told Devex. He’s seen outsiders arrive thinking they will be able to coordinate a project on their own, but “sometimes they end up in the wrong hands.”
They end up relying and reporting on a lot of bad information, Kayiya explained, much of it sensationalized to near-mythic proportions. For example, the oft-quoted misnomer that there is only one toilet in all of the Kibera settlement. Small inaccuracies — like a hospital access route that changes during bad weather — can have outsized effects. They can also create an impression of a place that does not reflect the life of its inhabitants.
Kayiya is working to help build datascoup.com, a resource for researchers, development workers, and journalists who want access to people and information in Kibera — or who need feasibility studies, conducted by people who live there and who can provide feedback on what is or is not possible before outside researchers waste time and money pursuing dead ends.
Kayiya takes evening classes, including in research methodology, and leads tours of Kibera during the day. Books by Paulo Friere, the Brazilian education theorist, line the shelves of his sparse, one-room apartment in Kibera.
Billions of Kenyan shillings have poured into Kibera, and that has led to a proliferation of small, often dubious, “NGOs.” People complain there are “so many organizations” working in the slum, Kayiya explained, and accountability is often an afterthought. It can be hard for outsiders to distinguish an organization that is actually doing what it claims to do from one of the many “briefcase NGOs,” which pop up to receive donor funding and disappear without implementing any tangible projects.
That phenomenon, while frustrating to outside researchers and aid officials, corresponds to the actual theft of community resources in the eyes of Kibera’s residents. As one of them, Kayiya wants to help pull back the curtain on a community development story he says has overpromised and underperformed.
Telling true stories
Kayiya is not the only Kibera resident who feels facts cited and stories told about the slum and its residents don’t always correspond to the day-to-day experience of living there. A small team of media entrepreneurs, operating from inside the settlement, has set out to overcome what they see as a deficit of true stories originating from their neighborhood.
Stephen Gwara and Victor Okal have a vision: to build a television station based in Kibera, with TV crews and reporters telling stories from and for the people of Kibera — and they’d eventually like to expand their services beyond Kenya to the greater East Africa region.
Their current headquarters — a one-room office on the second floor of a nondescript concrete building next to one of Kibera’s few paved roads — belies their ambition. “Black Continent TV” has already produced short films detailing some of Kibera’s persistent problems — human waste removal, housing shortages — and the small team relies on a network of friends to find the equipment they need.
When it comes to journalism inside the slum, storytellers are often challenged by residents’ eagerness to view participation as a chance to supplement their income.
Gwara, Black Continent TV’s director, explained that if compensation is involved people are often willing to tell a story, whether or not it’s true. He recalled one instance when the group was reporting on Kibera’s housing situation. They’d been told about a family living in unbearably cramped quarters, but when they showed up unannounced one day found that several of the people said to be living there were not.
According to Gwara, the line between advertising and journalism inside Kibera is often blurred. Some production companies — particularly those working on behalf of a political or issue-based organization — do compensate their subjects for good stories, perpetuating a situation where the truth is fungible and a good story is the top priority.
“I always tell people, ‘it’s not an advert. Just tell us your story if you’re willing to do so,’” Gwara said, adding, “maybe we provide lunch.”
Gwara and Okal, Black Continent TV’s production manager, are looking for innovative ways to make video journalism accessible to residents of the slum. In one project, “My Community, My Concern,” they ask school children to draw pictures of things in the slum that make them angry. Then they select a small number of those pictures and create short documentaries about the issues children have raised.
“We want to be a center for the truth of Kibera,” Okal told Devex.
The pair has plenty of ideas — and plenty of daily inspiration when it comes to issues that need attention. In Kibera, residents often rely on improvised illegal electricity connections, and the settlement has seen a rash of deadly fires because of them.
Some stories are more hopeful. Gwara wants to produce a story about the concept of “Kadulgo,” or “small economy.” He’s interested in highlighting slum residents’ astonishing ability to turn $5 of “startup capital” into a small business. It’s a theme that clearly resonates with the homegrown young media entrepreneurs, though their own ambitions for Black Continent TV are anything but small.
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