Some thoughts on place-based organizing in Kilimani, Kenya

Irũngũ Houghton is Chairperson of the Kilimani Project Foundation. The following was written on the occasion of the 2014 Council on Foundations (COF) fall community foundation conference.

“We are slowly thinking of leaving Kilimani for other suburbs. Yet, we forget Kilimani is a little Kenya. What we don’t like about Kilimani is showing up in all parts of Nairobi. The line stops here. If we can’t transform this ward, what makes us confident that we will not have to keep running forever?”

Kilimani, Nairobi and Kenya

Kilimani is one of the very few Nairobi neighborhoods in which 43,000 Kenyans can work, school, live, shop and be entertained. Very few neighborhoods have this. Neither higher end Karen, Runda or Loresho can boast this. Kilimani has a very wide selection of restaurants. Lenana road offers one of the best row of restaurants available. It is also a melting pot for several nationalities and ethnic communities ranging from the French to the Chinese, francophone West Africans to the Ethiopians. Kilimani is also a place of innovation, culture, activism and the arts. Kuona Trust Art Gallery, PAWA254, the Nest, i-hub, 3 mice, University of Nairobi, Daystar University and several other places of innovation are all located here. It is home to the President and State House, famous Kenyan musicians Maia von Lekow, Atemi Oyungu, Chris Bitok, Suzanna Owiyo, Justaband as well as photographers Emmanuel Jambo, Nadia Moussani and Rafique among others.

While Kilimani is rapidly becoming a high-density suburb, a melting pot for brand companies and a place of innovation, culture, arts and leadership, it is not yet an integrated neighbourhood. What’s missing? Choice, community empowerment and liveability. Utilities are in danger of being overstrained but there is little dialogue between County planners, developers and residents. Residents remain uninformed on their rights and responsibilities. There is private security everywhere yet we perceive ourselves as insecure. There are regular electricity and water outages and no integrated public information system. As Kilimani grows, the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are increasingly being displaced. There are no skills building or market support for informal or small entrepreneurs and market access remains limited despite growing potential markets. While diverse, we are also a divided community. Most of us are walking complaints and our experience of community is shrinking to our very homes.

While distinctively urban, largely middle income and in Nairobi, Kilimani reflects a predictable future for Kenya. A future where rapid private investment remains unmatched by public investment. High rise families constrained within their flats or calbro compounds behind tall fences and gates. The other Kilimani, hidden communities of domestic workers, security guards, gardeners, taxis and boda boda transporters, are neither properly serviced or integrated in future planning.[i] There are few opportunities left for converting pavement and concrete into green recreational spaces. More significantly, communities don’t get to choose and powerfully create inclusive public spaces around their homes.

An alternative vision for Kilimani

We continue to be inspired by a commUnity where: ‘Karibu Kilimani’ greets people passing through and those to take root, guests and those who work or live here; A bustling public library and theatre, where children ride bikes and families enjoy recreation facilities; Informal service-providers are integrated and inform planning processes; safety and security is an owned responsibility of everyone in partnership with the public and private authorities.  The community is known for its creativity, aliveness, tenacity and neighborliness. People find affordable, accessible and adequate housing and business diversity thrives in Kilimani. And the area rarely experiences violence, crime or a sense of isolation. It is, simply, the community of choice.

Irungu presenting at the 2014 COF conference

Six lessons on building community assets, capacities and trust over 2014

Lesson 1: Residency is not a given, has to be claimed: Despite a 115 year old history, many Nairobians do not see themselves as primary residents of Nairobi.[i] Originally a coffee estate, Kilimani was developed as a white residential area first in the late 1950s and only desegregated in the early 60s. Here anti-colonialist and women’s rights leader Muthoni Likimani would settle and buy a house. 50 years later in 2014 this house is home to The Kuona Trust, the area art gallery and 20 or so Kenyan artists.

From the mama mboga (market vendor) on the corner of Chaka avenue and Argwings Kodhek road to the single bungalow owners on Denis Pritt road, most Kilimanians see themselves as transient occupants. During elections, they will go to ancestral homes country to vote for leaders that cannot ultimately, serve their interests. They will invest their pensions in upcountry homes to retire to.

Nairobi politicians understand this game. They pay residents Kshs 300 (roughly $3) from neighboring low-income, high density communities like Kibra and Kawangware and bus them into this middle income, low density community to vote for them. During the run up to the 2013 elections, the Foundation invited ward, county and parliamentary aspirants to engage and covenant with residents. We also questioned why their posters never had any telephone or email contacts. We challenged them to commit to their aspirations whether we voted for them or not. Few have remained engaged around their covenant. Without the experience of residency, local issues and causes that matter to people cannot be the platform to build the active citizenship envisaged in the constitution of Kenya.

Lesson 2: Appreciative enquiry holds great communal power: Today, Kilimani is home to a mix of Kenyans, expatriates and refugee communities. It is also bordered by Kibra and Kawangware, two large low income areas. From francophone West Africans, Somalis, South Sudanese, Ethiopians to the latest and growing Chinese population, Kilimani is home to many national embassies as well.

Most of the public schools serve children from Kibra and Kawangware. Middle class children have long left the congested Kilimani based public schools for out-of-area private schools. Yet, they and their parents long for convenient green and recreational spaces. Spaces, the public schools have in abundance. Kilimani Primary School Headmaster Gideon Wasike puts it best, “We are both located and displaced in Kilimani”. Kilimani is less a community than multiplicities of communities.

Over 2012-2014, the Foundation has consistently convened the community to map what matters to them and what they would like to create. Some of these “kililogues” have included taking photos of the good, bad and ugly in Kilimani, holding six  breakfast meetings for 55 corporate, not-for-profit and diplomatic leaders and school hall meetings to discuss the Nairobi Urban Masterplan, Solid Waste Management, public safety and community policing. Glimmers of a sense of relatedness, connection and new friendships and contacts demonstrate the power of appreciative enquiry.[ii]

Lesson 3: Trust and solidarity is an online and face to face conversation: Like other urban Kenyans, most Kilimanians do not have a sense of relatedness to the community as a whole. Powerful conversations with the Officer in Charge of the Police Division, our Member of County Assembly, local businesses like Chandarana Supermarkets, Dawda Group of companies, Black Butterfly and Willlart Production Inc and the Management of local malls like Prestige Plaza and Yaya center have unlocked resources for the wider community.

Online we can reliably now reach 1,300 by twitter and 1,000 by direct email. Our twitter account is invariably challenged to take action on a variety of issues from noise pollution from the local bar, potholes, car-jacking and failing streetlights. Our experience demonstrates most citizens are not apathetic. They do want to contribute and make a difference in the community they live and work. What’s missing is the opportunity and platform to meet and act with like-minded people. This is probably the biggest asset the Foundation has. Still largely untapped, the Foundation has to continue expanding and deepening its strategies for enabling relationships of trust and solidarity not only between the Foundation and the community but between the community as well.

Lesson 4: Resident’s action is not only fixing utilities: Caught within a model of private solutions for public problems, most residents remain constrained by the vision of community foundations and residents associations as an alternative to effective County Government. This is both liberating and disempowering. It facilitates civic agency to own and take up the challenge of making communities work on one hand. On the other, it releases County Government from any obligation to provide value for money services in return for taxes and rates collected. It also contributes to the privatization of core services and “user pays” system managed by private companies. Lastly, it feeds a perception that personal choices rather than public policy choices matter.[iii]

Foundations and associations can only be complimentary to local Government. Local Government could work smarter with foundations and associations around citizens’ forums, budget hearings and development priority setting.  Resident Associations and Community Foundations could provide the Nairobi County Government with the much needed intermediary to speak with organized citizens. In so doing, perhaps we can raise the national statistic bar of only 5.7% of Kenyans currently participating in the citizens based forums.

Key to this, as resident Dr Kahare Miano would say, “…will be shifting perceptions of Kilimani residents’ relationship to streets as places’ not just non-places on the way to places.” Fixing public utilities is one thing, but creating new intersections between actors, places and interests could transform the inequalities and divisions between citizens. The community could, one day, say to the Nairobi Governor, “this is what we need done, thanks.”

Lesson 5: Leadership requires imagination, openness, this is a road not well travelled: In a capitalist society like Kenya, critics have mistaken the President’s call for the public to form neighborhood committees as a call to spy on each other. This is consistent with a worldview that keeps us isolated as individuals. It is consistent with the pattern of building cities that exclude each other like in Europe or North America. It is this that reinforces our appreciation of community only as far as our family, compound or ethnic community. The Foundation completely rejects this worldview and embraces the African community spirit of “we are our brother and sisters’ keeper”.

The other challenge the Foundation has faced is the perception that community organizing is essentially for communities living in poverty and marginalization. Middle income neighborhoods don’t need a community foundation so the argument goes. It is precisely the absence of an inclusive and caring community that robs the middle class of the opportunity to provide leadership, share excess assets and influence the world around them.

With 5-6% growth and a growing middle class with disposable income, this robs the country of an important resource. As leading Kenyan musician Muthoni Ndonga noted, “I went to school with the children of the who’s who and the woman who sold vegetables to my mother. The richer parents contributed to ensuring that the school had all the facilities of the private schools. Nowadays, the rich spend a fortune on expensive schools for 1 or 2 children, when they could be impacting on 1,000 children.” The consequence is two Kilimanis and two Kenyas.

Lesson 6: Place based focus yields tangible results: Since November 2012, the Foundation has organized over twenty community events with over fifty partners and scores of residents. The community has responded very well to some events, not well to others. In October 2012, we invited the community to take photos of the community as they went about their daily activities in what we called “picha sauti”.[iv] We got very few submissions but instead requests for us to organize collective photo walk-abouts. These were more successful and we got over 200 photos.

We have learned that it is easier to think in activities rather than new ways of being in the same spaces. Yet, activities are insufficient to transform the community’s relationship to itself in the absence of an iconic victory in an area that is important to residents. Cultivating a common interest and agenda around public spaces is where tangible change can be found. Encouraging agencies to renovate the swimming pool, canteen and library at the Kilimani Primary School provides the best example of the Foundation’s tangible impact over the last year.

Four challenges on building a community and foundation for 2024

If we were building a 100 year old endowed foundation that is be rooted in the Kilimani area, capable of providing community grants and is nationally recognized and influential, what could we do next? Learning from the Google business model, a strategic portfolio would focus 70% on our core business, 20% on programmes adjacent to core and the remaining 10% on radical new ideas.

We could identify one to two programmes that have the possibility of an iconic victory in an area that matters to the community. Earlier in 2014, the Foundation participated in a Master Planning exercise.[v] Possible options include redesigning the Kilimani square near Yaya to ease traffic congestion and support the small business enterprises, finding an alternative to the matatu terminus at the corner of Wood avenue and Argwings Kodhek avenue, securing a more permanent space for the Denis Pritt road and Prestige Plaza markets, ensuring safety for children walking to and from school and lastly, neighbors actions to reclaim the streets outside their homes.

We need to expand and strengthen the Board, staff and volunteers to take leadership in enabling community self-discovery, confidence and action. We also need to create pathways for large and small individual and corporate members and sponsors to give regularly to the programmes we run. This will allow us to take the baby steps towards an endowment and a permanent resource-base for the Foundation. These four steps must occupy the immediate focus of the leadership both in the Foundation and in the community.

Kilimani Project Foundation

The Kilimani Project Foundation started as a garden conversation of residents, educationalists, businesspeople and artists and urban planners in 2012. Critical for its formation was a sense that the physical environment was changing rapidly and this was happening without the vision and voice of the community. Public investment in utilities, facilities and services lagged behind the rapid sprouting of privately developed apartment skyscrapers. Key communities were being physically displaced from the public spaces they had operated from – the street garages, food courts, markets, taxi ranks – at a time when ironically, business opportunities boomed.

Over the last two years, the foundation has supported local NGOs, businesses, associations, artists, doctors, the police service to hold an appreciative photo exhibition, community festival and play, renovate the Kilimani Primary School canteen, library and pool, organize cleanups along Argwings Kodhek road and Milimani Primary School, organize a free public medical camp and an open day at the Kilimani Police Station among other activities.


[i] Many residents still behave as temporal migrants http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Nairobi

[ii] In many ways, left uninterrupted, urban middle income Nairobi development will predictably mirror the current realities seen in North America and Europe where 30-50% of the population don’t know their neighbors well enough to ask for help, interact or pick them out of a police lineup. http://www.macleans.ca/society/the-end-of-neighbours/ There are models of integrated planning we can learn from. See http://pubs.iied.org/17189IIED.html and http://www.huduser.org/portal/pdredge/pdr_edge_hudpartrpt_032213.html

[iii] For more on the future of gated world by 2050 see Joseph S. Nye’s http://forumblog.org/2014/01/2050-can-avoid-gated-world/

[iv] In English, photo voice exercise

[v] See some of the issues generated http://ow.ly/D9riY

[vi] Many of the public eateries where these communities eat together are on road reserves or plots waiting to be developed. There are only toilets at Yaya Centre and Prestige Plaza with the latter recording 14,000 flushes every day. The Prestige Plaza owners speak to this service as one of their biggest corporate contributions to the wider society.

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