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Why are people so cruel?

sunny 22 °C

21st January 2007

It’s 1 am and I feel despair for those around me combined with a slightly sick feeling in my stomach that I can sit here in the comfort of my apartment and write about it.

I’ve had such a range of experiences the last few days, each of which worthy of a blog entry, that I don’t really know where to begin.

I would start with my high powered meeting at the US embassy on Wednesday, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful who ‘seem’ to want to do good in this country. Then there is the a posh press conference breakfast at the Intercontinental Hotel on Friday, again meeting the US players, and also directors of important agriculture NGO’s, journalists, MP’s, The Minister for Education, Science and Technology.

But those memories become very quickly eclipsed by four happenings that all occurred today. First, the opening of the World Social Forum: an event bringing people together from far and wide under the banner ‘Another World is Possible’. Gazillions of NGO’s, charities, left-wing groups and interested people dancing about before a stage that hosted charismatic speeches interspersed with sensual and exciting music.

Had to leave the party early for experience number 2: to attend my German flatmate’s farewell bash. Her project had been mapping the pit latrines in Africa’s largest slum (Kibera) so she wanted her party to include those friends and a few of us travelled down to the slum to drink beer and eat Nyama Choma (roasted goat meat). I had not seen an African slum before, close up, and only now got to see the very edge of this place which is home to over 1 million people. The dirt; the rubbish heaps; the foul smelling ditch with what might have been sewerage running down the middle of the track; the people looking up to smile as we walked by; the community all living on top of each other. Banter was fun in our part room and Patrick (secretary to the local resident’s committee) explained to us something of what life was like. Crime was almost non-existent. Community life was too strong to allow theft. Two middle class African girls laughed at their naivety as teenagers. Not knowing, properly, till their twenties about the facts of life. Children in the slums apparently grow up knowing these from an early age since there is no privacy, but they still don’t know real facts. Nor get good HIV education. He told us enthusiastically of how David Miliband (UK Environment Secretary and wildly tipped to become Prime Minister one day) had visited him in November. Patrick thought that he had been very sensitive and sharp, asking clever questions and seeming to genuinely care.

It was dark as we left the slum, but Patrick and friends had us under their official protection we weren’t worried or expecting experience number 3. We found our way back to the main road and started walking along to where our Taxi Driver was waiting. Then I heard screaming! Coming from somewhere… in front… right… down. Mita (my Dutch/Indonesian flatmate) had stepped off the tarmac and fallen down a 3 metre hole. I couldn’t even see her at the bottom in the dark, but Patrick and his friend Francis leapt down into the shit at the bottom to pick up the whimpering girl and drag her out. Shaking and wet we bundled her into a taxi and took her to Nairobi Hospital. After a few hours she was joking and laughing again but still delicate as we got her back in the taxi to arrive home shortly after midnight, not expecting experience number 4.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned before but my flat is within the Kenya Comfort Hotel Suites that is literally spitting distance from a small slum. The slum has shops, businesses, a pub, a church and a very annoying cockerel that wakes us up at 5 am each morning. I’ve been meaning to venture into for weeks now. I know several people who live there including our laundry lady, Sarah, and the ladies who run our corner shops.

But when we arrived back home we could see something wasn’t right. Lots of people milling around on the main street. We went up to our flat and looking out the window could see a bulldozer ploughing through our neighbourhood slum! Just rolling through the corrugated iron contractions that people call home. Happily squashing everything in site. People could be seen ducking in and out of the rubble carrying chairs out of their houses. The city council have declared it an illegitimate settlement (complete with water and electricity) and it must go.


See how close the slum is to our swimming pool.

I just felt sick. What could I do? The middle class Brit inside me thought about running down and standing in solidarity with the slum dwellers, blocking the way of the bulldozer. I thought cynically about the World Social Forum and how at least 50 delegates were staying in our Comfort Hotel Suites. Probably looking out the window… doing nothing. But what could anybody do? Apparently the bulldozer had come with an armed escort. And you don’t want to mess with the police in this country


They've rescued some belongings and all there is left to do is drink.

I had to help Mita get to bed after returning from hospital and after a while the noise stopped. Looking out again, half the slum was in carnage, half remaining and the bulldozer stationary. A bit braver, I ventured down to enter my second African slum that day. I didn’t really know what to do. I wanted to offer support. I wanted to say something comforting. I didn’t want to invade a community in which I didn’t belong. I didn’t want to appear like a western voyeur of poverty. I got chatting to a group of guys. They said that the bulldozer had broken down. As Mr Obed Anjele Ochuacho took me over the ruins of what had been his small shop (a green grocers) we talked. The demolition had begun at 10 pm on Saturday night. Some families were in bed. Some people were out. He had not heard that this would happen although others said they were informed yesterday. He showed me where his still-standing house was. To be knocked down as soon as the City Council found a spare bulldozer. Some people were madly scrambling through the rubble trying to save things. Others were just standing there in bewilderment. Looking lost. “Why rescue things? Where will we take them? We have nowhere else to go.”


I called Sarah, our laundry lady, and asked if she wanted some money. Not now, she said. She had to wait with her belongings. She could not leave them.

I’m back in my flat now; 2.15 am; the bulldozer has just begun again; and the shouting. I feel sick. Sad. Helpless.

My German flatmate, Christina, says

“You come here wanting to help, but you can’t.
Not when the government doesn’t care.
These people. They had nothing. And now even that has been taken away from them. It’s so cruel. People are losing their houses.
The place I got my cold tusker beer; it’s gone.
The place I got my veg; it’s gone.
The place I got my meat when I cooked; it’s gone.”

Posted by happydaves 14:29 Archived in Kenya Tagged business_travel

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Thanks for writing about your experiences. I felt sickened and shocked just reading about the slum demolition.
I hope you don't mind, but I've put yours on this site called Newsvine which is a user-generated news site. It's at http://ericnicolaas.newsvine.com


by dr.pepper

I was also staying in the Kenya Comfort Hotel Suites during the week of the WSF. My colleague and I witnessed the destruction of the shacks and the fire that the residents built to prevent the bulldozer from returning (worked the night they built the fire but bulldozer returned the following night to finish the job). After all that happened, after all those people lost their homes, belongings, and livelihoods, it turns out that the city issued a document that granted the residents the right to live where they were. Of course the city isn't going to rebuild the homes or offer any compensation unless the residents initiate and win what would probably turn out to be a very long and costly legal battle, which they cannot afford.
It was absolutely devastating to witness the events taking place in the neighborhood behind our hotel. We did visit the people of the slum and took two residents to buy blankets and groceries for the community. We too felt very conflicted about the fact that many WSF delegates were staying in the hotel and watching (as we had done) but could/would do nothing. Also ired at the BBC for prioritizing coverage of the WSF over an in-depth story of what happened to the neighborhood. The Daily Nation reporter was there but during the week of the WSF, only one picture of one of the residents going through the rubble appeared in that paper with no supporting story.

by zemfira1

Hey Womb! Got Obvious Question No. 2 for you:
What are you actually DOING there?!?!?
Matt (twin)

by MattPriest

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