Slumdwellers

Since the Sinai event—it is ongoing—a startling consensus has emerged in Kenya’s newspapers, or perhaps simply the Daily Nation. It is probably best captured in Dr. Lukoye Atwoli’s statement:

Poverty has been made into the stock excuse for all the criminal activity we carry out, and we are bringing up children with a sense of entitlement that enables them to forcefully ask for handouts while warning us that the alternative is a life of crime.

We knew that slumdwellers were lazy and irresponsible—no doubt, this is why we entrust them with our children and our houses, as ayahs, nannies, domestics, gardeners, and askaris—now we know that they also feel “entitled.”

Good people, if you ever doubted that Kenya exists in a continual state of class war, welcome to the trenches.

Those who have tried to offer alternative ideas about poverty and social disenfranchisement have been dismissed as liberal do-gooders. Meanwhile, a line has formed behind Macharia Gaitho to defend his claims about slumdwellers. Macharia Gaitho, we are told, is a good guy. Why, some of the people who write for the DN have had drinks with him and can attest to his good nature. (“As Macharia Gaitho and I are colleagues, and have occasionally had a drink together, I can confidently say that he is neither insensitive nor elitist,” Rasna Warah.) Thus, his statements about slumdwellers are in no way intended to be malicious. They are hard, real truth. It is time we stopped coddling slumdwellers and let them know what’s what. Pampered slumdwellers need to get with the program, or they’ll be left behind as we head toward Vision 2030.

Slumdwellers are holding us hostage and they feel too entitled. (Since we don’t have welfare in Kenya, I am wondering where those writing against slumdwellers will find Cadillac-driving single mothers. No doubt, they will be found.) One thing is clear: we will no longer be hold hostage to the whims of irresponsible and entitled slumdwellers. We have drawn a line in the sand. If they cannot take care of themselves, so be it.

I wonder if these are the kinds of conversations that the Kenyan elite have about the rest of us. “If the Kenyan middle classes cannot figure out how to steal millions of shillings, then let them struggle. We cannot be responsible for their laziness and incompetence.”

The variously arrogant, condescending, and heartless statements circulating in our mainstream media about slums and slumdwellers should give us pause. The various consolidations around questions of personal responsibility and respectability, around middle class propriety and middle class values of “hard work” and “fair play” should similarly give us pause. One hears in all these statements that there are proper and right ways of practicing responsible citizenship, that slumdwellers have refused to fulfill the terms of their citizenship contracts, that we have little to no space and very little patience with those who refuse to be good wananchi.

Statements about slumdwellers circulate with such authority, such certainty that one can only stutter or remain silent in response. Slumdwellers have been surveyed by those who know—Dr. Atwoli is a psychiatrist!—and they have been found wanting. Criminal. Entitled. Unworthy.

Something ugly happened at Sinai.

Something even uglier continues to happen in our discourse on Sinai.

3 thoughts on “Slumdwellers

  1. The invisible elephant in the room is of course the inherent, inescapable cruelty of the economic system, the mint that doles out the opportunities which some ride to the joyous entitlement that permits naive pronouncements on slums and the poor.

    This same mint is at the core of the state, it creates our justice, our kindness and the entire framework we use to address social injustice.

    In this way we are all caught up in it, helpless critics pointing accusingly out of frustration and hoping that reformatory tweaks in efficiency or personnel will lead to lasting definitive change.

    This is why I find myself just as opposed to the scornful journalists as I am to those who would so quickly jump to blame the ‘government’ and ‘our leaders’.

    Few if any states, constructed for the protection and advancement of capital, would spend their resources differently than we do or in a way that would not lead to such inequality and lack as led to the disaster at Sinai – and its worth thinking about this in a broader sense, i.e what happens to compel migration from rural Kenya into the hazards of urban slums.

    Reform is woefully insufficient. Reform is a constitutional settlement that prizes representatives, executives and judges over doctors, nurses, teachers and policemen.

  2. Tom, if I remember correctly, there are longstanding debates about reproductive health policies and practices. While I am no expert on these, it strikes me that debates around reproductive health are incredibly contentious and create fault lines of geography, class, and ethnicity. Many women still struggle to discuss contraceptive use with their partners. While I’m sure some connection can be made between poverty and reproductive health, I hesitate to say that a reproductive health approach is “the” solution.

    B, to continue a longstanding conversation: I am not as convinced of the benignity of rural spaces. There are different opportunities afforded by rural and urban spaces–and always choice, that difficult thing. I think I’ve been struck by how certain commentators think about–or at least write about so-called slumdwellers. It’s a very curious thing to see humans being de-humanized and abjected at the very same time they are being offered sympathy. As always, I am interested in how we conceive of each other and how those conceptions allow us to live with one another. Sinai does not inspire optimism.

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