It is your constitutional duty to protect votes and lives this period

Published first in the Sunday Standard, August 6, 2017

The helicopters have stopped flying. The music has stopped blaring at us and the rallies are no more. The time has come for us to be still, reflect and prepare to vote for the leaders we want to serve us for the next five years.

Against the clock and under difficult circumstances, political candidates, civic educators and journalists have crisscrossed all 47 counties looking for votes, informed voters and election stories. Some came to serve themselves, others to serve the public.

Their campaign trails have thrown up a dust of uncertainty and fear behind them. Anecdotal reports of working class voters leaving their homes for Western, Eastern and Mount Kenya counties and the middle class buying up the supermarkets do not reflect a confident people ready to elect their leaders.

The brazen night raid on NASA’s election coordination center on Friday contradicts the public assurance by the Interior Ministry and the IEBC that our public service and law enforcement machinery will not be used in the interests of Jubilee.

The seeds of a violently contested election result are sown in moments like these. They are also sown in the moment we discovered Chris Msando and Carol Nyandu had been killed.

Tragically, the IEBC ICT Director will not get to see our votes captured by the Kenya Integrated Elections Management Systems technology. As we head to the polls, their families and the families of others that have died in this election remain bereaved. May they have the courage to come out and vote on Tuesday. We on the other hand, must come out and vote in honor of all those that have died. The violence, bribery and rigging requires our personal response as fellow voters.

It is often said, without the darkness of night, we would never see the beauty of the stars. It is true with society also. The darker and bleaker it is, the more heroes and sheroes come into our view.

Last week, I interacted with forty young and old citizens under the #ResponseAble campaign. They spent five days in matatus across the hotspot counties of Kajiado and Nairobi talking to voters. Like other voter educators, their efforts are under-resourced and come late in the day.

93 % of 3,000 people they met are registered to vote suggesting we could see a high turnout on Tuesday. Many were not ready to vote effectively. Questions on whether the County Women’s Representative is the same as the National Assembly Women’s Representative (they are), how to fold the ballot paper to ensure no smudging, whether we need our voters card (only the ID or passport you are registered with is needed) and how to check their status (SMS 70000) were asked repeatedly.

There was outrage also at the death of Chris Msando and predictability of no closure on who and why he was killed (valid). Fear of violence (57%) and rigging (34%) tops their concerns. 96% found the matatu mjadalas (dialogues) useful and committed to come out and vote.

They further committed to act non-violently and report any election offences by both the state or communities. This type of civic education is a critical pre-condition for active citizenship, credible and peaceful elections.

The next few days are critical to credible and peaceful elections. In remains to be seen whether Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta will jointly attend the same Sunday mass service today.

The National Police Service must build liaison bridges and rules of engagement with community and party leaders, deploy women police officers as requested by women’s rights organisations and exercise reasonable restraint. No amount of military hardware can match civic-police trust and open relations.

The IEBC must assert its authority over this election and side-step any attempts of undue influence and intimidation. Community leaders and mediators must ready themselves to interrupt the outbreak of the senseless violence we saw in 2008.

We did it in 2013, we can do it again.

For those households writing evacuation or emergency shopping lists right now, my advice to you is, write another list as well. Write the list of the six candidates you will vote in. It is your constitutional obligation and the only practical way you will get the leaders and the future you deserve. For those of you who can do more, help others to vote and have their votes count.

Protect all our votes and lives over the coming week. See you at the polling station.

Irũngũ Houghton writes in a personal capacity. You can engage him on @irunguhoughton


The joys of active citizenship

First published Sunday Standard, January 22, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group 

Something phenomenal and transformative is happening in the country. In the last few weeks, a school management board, members of parliament and county government executives have found themselves on the receiving end of effective public civic action.

The primary school management board willingly approved the offer of a church to level their parking area without informing or involving the local community. In the process of leveling the parking area, a tree fell, blocking an adjacent road, cutting power lines and plunging fifty neighbors into darkness. Furious neighbors were forced to remove the debris and have their electricity reconnected by themselves.  Then it got more interesting. Tweets, face-book posts and then media articles alleged the public school was being grabbed by the church. As their concerns went unanswered, storm grew. Mobilized by genuinely concerned neighboring residents, lawyers, Officials from County of Nairobi, Ministry of Education and Office of the President were demanding answers from the school management board.

Faced with the persistence of noisy clubs in residential areas, forty neighbors entered a club, persuaded patrons to leave, closed the club and took the club’s business license. Within 24 hours, the Association demonstrated Nairobi County procedures had been flouted. The business license was revoked. The Association returned the picture frame to the Club with the revocation notice now in it. The club remains closed while the owners walk court corridors.

Not far away, community members confronted the Kiambu County Forest Officer and demanded that a wealthy businessman’s attempt to hive off forest land for a car showroom be reversed. Beacons were uprooted, trees replanted and area leaders compelled to support the continued public use of the forest.

Four years ago, I found myself exploring the challenge of active citizenship our constitution generated. How would Kenyan citizens be distinguished in these early years of Wanjiku’s katiba? Would they be remembered for their persistent complaints and passive engagement? Or for their dismissiveness and ability to cause crises? It would seem the answers to these questions are becoming clearer.

Across the country, residents, tax-payers, students, women and doctors are organizing themselves into civic organisations. Their voice and power is growing daily. Armed with the Constitution, laws and twitter hashtags like #ICantSleep and #SchoolsAtRisk, the right to public participation, collective expression and action is being exercised. It is testing public officials fundamentally.

Public participation and information is not yet institutionalized in the day to day routines of our Government offices. If we looked closer, we might find that it is not embedded in our companies and NGO offices either. Too many of our Government offices are still not designed to be open and inclusive. The more senior the State Official, the thicker the padding on their office walls and the more body-guards, administrative secretaries and electric doors we have to go through to reach them.

This is less about interior decoration and more about how we can cultivate access, trust and responsiveness in the way they interact with the public. There are four principles for this. Embrace independent issue-based leadership, look for and address the commitment behind their concerns, follow up decisively, repeat.

Today, government offices are no longer the sole source of information or news to the public. Citizens out there are no longer waiting for us to explain what we are doing. They watch, speak and act. And they may just want that explained in 140 characters on social media. Even blogger spinning doesn’t work. They only irritate a public that is hungry for credible news.

A former Tunisian Planning Minister when challenged on how the 2011 revolution could have happened when all the political and economic data indicated the economy was growing had this to say; “Perhaps they didn’t read our annual Economy Survey reports”. We all have to adapt.

The School Management Board, the Forest officer and County Executive could be excused for feeling besieged by the public. To do so, would be to miss the bigger lesson. The board now have neighbors who will stand with them against grabbers. The officer has a community who cares for public forests. The County Official has allies to enforce environmental laws.

Look carefully. Something is changing around us. For those that seek to serve us, ignore it at your peril. This week’s Obama’s farewell letter speaks powerfully of the joys of “daily acts of citizenship”.

Cultivate this, our maturing democracy depends on it.

Irũngũ Houghton writes in a personal capacity. He is Society for International Development Associate Director. You can engage him at or @irunguhoughton

Is it time to change tack over the public health crisis?

By Irũngũ Houghton

First published Sunday Standard, January 15, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group 

This past week, the public health crisis just took an even dangerous turn. Judge Hellen Wasilwa’s emotionally delivered judgement this week effectively criminalized the national executive of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentist Union for representing the 5,000 strong membership. Regrettably describing the leadership as “having hands that are stained with blood, dirt and stinking of sewage,” the Employment and Labor Relations Court Judge sentenced them to one-month suspended jail time if the strike was not concluded in two weeks.

The tragedy was not lost on some of us. Call any leadership weak and effectual and then ask them to go back and negotiate with their members usually produces either of two results. One, fearing their judgement may be clouded by the prospects of jail, the membership replaces them or two, the current leadership becomes even more defiant and intransigent. Both doesn’t serve the stated intention to bring an end to the strike. I hope the Doctors look for a third alternative.

Coupled with the very real and present danger for the tens of millions that have been unable to access life-saving medical services, the forty-one day’s crisis deepens. While the real cost is yet to be counted, out-patient and special clinics attendance have dropped to an all-time low. Safe deliveries, inpatient and emergency care denial and numerous deaths have been recorded. While major referral hospitals, including Kenyatta National Hospital are operating below capacity for the first time in decades. Many of you reading this column, will have seen your savings depleted to keep loved ones alive while some of you will have buried others. This strike has hit us hard.

This acute crisis like the many before it has left some Kenyans publicly debating. Did the National and County Governments have to wait for KMPDU strike notice before returning to the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed in 2013? Should the right to association be limited for public workers in essential services? Should public health be privatised? While valid questions given the crisis, we need to look elsewhere for raising the level of leadership on all sides.

Kenya’s case is not unique. Doctors and nurses from Burkina Faso, South Africa, England and the North America went on strike for better working conditions and salaries over 2016. What distinguishes Kenya from these others is the fact that public health procurement theft has framed our crisis. Until we as citizens and State Officers act to restore integrity, transparency and demand accountability in the health procurement system, public health will continue to be dysfunctional.

There are seeds of ideas we could introduce into the dialogue on the way forward.

Minimal service agreements with County Governments could enshrine agreements on industrial action that ring-fence and protect emergency services. It would be important to ensure that this does not tie the hands of right to association and labor in the case of a non-responsive state.

Parliamentary oversight and mediation has been missing from this strike. Perhaps the agreement reached between the health-workers, National and County Governments should be subjected to annual parliamentary budgetary and policy oversight as they do in the United Kingdom and North America.

Finally, more effective standing mechanisms would allow for continuous policy dialogue between all the stakeholders in the health sector. Organized health-workers and patient associations must increase their vigilance and public action on wastage and corruption in future. To ignore the pillage in our sector is to undermine the future capacity of the state to pay health-workers decent and competitive salaries and the very public health sector itself.

The clocks in all our public health centers and the Labor Court are ticking. The President seemed to have rebuilt confidence in the negotiations. These negotiations should resume immediately in the presence of the Council of Governors. The secrecy shrouding the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the negotiations to date should also be lifted to allow for more public scrutiny. Keeping the negotiations in the public eye ensures public accountability and as my neighbor would say, reduces possibility for “funny business”.

For those harboring unconstitutional thoughts of a future without unions and a purely private health system, it is worth considering that the current pain and suffering would be the new future. The only difference is, it would be big business and the new normal. That is a future no-one should not wish for.

Irũngũ Houghton writes in a personal capacity. He is the Society for International Development Associate Director. You can engage him at or @irunguhoughton

Post-script: Following this post, Senators Mutula Kilonzo and Omar Hassan strategically offered to mediate between KMPDU and the state.



Politics too important to leave to politicians

First published Sunday Standard, January 8, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

In the last few hours of 2016 a colleague argued passionately, “In 2017, NGOs, social movements and civic associations must give up their neutrality and vote out the ruling Jubilee Alliance Party. Inequality, corruption, impunity and discrimination is out of control.” Having spent the best part of 2016 actively challenging all four, it may sound strange, but I disagree.

What my colleague and I can agree on, is that eight months to the General Elections, Kenya is once again at a point of danger. We all need to recognize the problem this causes before it becomes an emergency. Early partisan interference with the IEBC composition and elections management and youth and women voter education NGO programmes are not good signs. Party based nomination and electoral violence and bribery do not bode well. Hard-line posturing and brinkmanship by politicians from across the spectrum is frankly, driving the country in the wrong direction.

Two narratives are already shaping the election actors; peace and credibility. Taken together they offer clarity. Distinguished as counter narratives, they will predictably lead to violent state actions that curb freedoms of expression, association and assembly on one hand and on the other, street based public actions that end in violence. The factors present in 2008 combine with razor-edge new county splinters ready to tear the national fabric once again.

We ignore at our peril, important lessons from the last four years. Government indebtedness, public finance theft, ethnic discrimination and intolerance affects us all regardless of our ethnicity, gender and class. The cost of inequalities and corruption leave the youth particularly jobless, hopeless and neglected by essential services. Take a walk in Kibera or Mathare and speak to those now locked out by corruption from the National Youth Service projects. Take a moment and speak to any one of the three thousand young men and women who ran unsuccessfully in the 2013 General Elections. If you do, as I have, you will hear a growing impatience in the failure to channel this very powerful source of democratic energy.

As we lean into this season, we do have choices. For some of you, this will be about 5 minutes alone in a ballot box in August. While limited, 5-minute vote-casting is still a powerful expression of patriotism and being an active citizen. For others who have a listening for the political class “as all the same”, you may be more comfortable tuning out politics for the year. While this may seem easier, it is the equivalent of sitting in a mental health asylum with “Nil by Mouth” taped across your mouth and thinking your environment will change. There is a third way however.

The progressive Kenyan way offers more powerful choices. You could mobilize everyone in your neighborhood and village to turn out for voter registration in January. This would reverse the apathy we saw in 2016. You could help your aspirants and parties frame their policy agenda. Perhaps then we would have some real policy choices. How about taking out a party membership in January and voting in the party primaries in March? Given party strongholds over key constituencies, this might have more influence than even voting in the elections. Alternatively, why don’t you de-campaign all aspirants that fall short of Chapter 6 on Integrity. Block those you feel should not be anywhere close to having the authority to incur expenditure or legislate bad laws. If all this seems too small a contribution given our huge challenges, then run for public office.

Politics is simply too important to leave to politicians in 2017. Governing is too critical to leave to our kinsmen and women. No ethnic community, party, class, generation or gender can claim to have been left clean of corruption, misuse of public office or discrimination. The worst choice would be to fall asleep and wake up disillusioned in August.

So go into the political parties and shape them. Stay out and shape them. BUT leave NGOs, professional and religious associations, social movements, independent and civic. Don’t drag them into the shadows of political parties. They have another purpose in this moment. They must protect and promote constitutional values and articulate issues of public interest with all the political actors.

So over to you, citizens, go out and get political. I wish you all an Active New Year.

Irũngũ Houghton writes this weekly column in a personal capacity. He is the Society for International Development Associate Director. He welcomes dialogue at or @irunguhoughton

Kilimanjaro: A place to shine


Eight weeks back, a dear neighbor Dorothy confided that hiking Mt Kilimanjaro was on a bucket list of things to do before she turned 50. Never one to pass up a challenge, my family agreed to join her family. Last weekend, seven of us left the comfort of our Nairobi sofa sets and hiked the length of the Machame route to the Summit. In doing so, we smashed all pre-conceptions of our capabilities and learnt a little about the beauty and promise of our East African region.

Team Kili Kili, we called ourselves. The first Kili was for Kilimani, the Nairobi neighborhood we live in. The second was for the rooftop of Africa. We were mostly Kenyan, adults and children ranging from 15 to 50 years old at various levels of physical fitness. Over the next 60 hours of hiking, we were to see few other East Africans and no families.


Each of us had people or causes we were making the climb for. They ranged from the freedom for Palestinians and peace in Syria to our mothers and ourselves. I walked for my late father who had attempted to climb the mountain in the eighties. He, my mother and sister had to turn back after a bout of mountain sickness. As the climb got tough, having reasons bigger than ourselves became important. If the reason was only oneself, it was increasingly easier to give up. For me, it would be giving up on completing the journey my father started. There is a broader life lesson here.


The challenge of the mountain started in Nairobi. What clothes and equipment did we need? Done properly, the investment per person could easily be Kshs 40,000 (US$400) for materials you may never use again. Could we rent the equipment and buy the clothes cheaply. Nairobi has a few outdoor shops but by far the most popular and economically friendly is Toi Market off Ngong road. Here, our neighbor Joy, was able to get all they needed at a third of the costs in the Malls. Friends quickly came to the rescue. Great, but my question still remains, why can’t Kenyans rent most of the stuff? Moshi does have a few rental shops but it seems there is a business opportunity for a rental shop in Kenya. Until then, Tanzania will still dictate access and the ease of domestic tourists from the region.

The five day climb to the 5,895 meter summit was easily the most physically demanding exercise we have ever done. 60 hours of hiking over 52 kilometers across four ecological zones mostly upward but also down into beautiful valleys. We climbed between 8 and 15 kilometers each day and slept in four tented camps. Each of the camps had 200 to 500 hikers from all over the world. Their size and organization reminded me of some of the refugee camps elsewhere in the region. Yet unlike refugees, we had chosen to be there. Unlike them, wrapped very carefully in plastic ziploc bags were our national identity documents that allowed us to go back to our homes if it got too difficult.

Mentally, I found myself preparing for team meltdowns and personal tantrums. How could I manage them? How could I bring out the best in the group? Each of us grasped for oxygen that dwindled with every step from Barafu camp to the Summit. Mark risked hypothermia every time he lay down on a rock. Nyambura struggled to overcome mountain sickness. Robyn kept muttering, “Exactly why are we here?” My 16 year old son Cuba demonstrated the reason for his name by displaying a personal resilience and purpose that still inspires me to this moment.

_DSC4927.NEF _DSC4928.NEF

With every step, I knew the team meltdowns and personal tantrums grew near, but they never happened. In the process I stumbled across an unexpected but important insight. Pre-judgements about others capacities have no reality outside the corners of our heads. While I spent time assessing and weighing each of us, each of them just got on with what was needed at every stage. No drama, just actions inside of their intention to summit, and then, all seven of us summited.

2015 Kilimanijaro

Kilimanjaro is epic in many kinds of ways. The myth of Kaiser Wilhelm demanding Kilimanjaro from Queen Victoria. The call by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere to light a torch on Kilimanjaro to signal hope for the total freedom of Africa from colonial rule. The fact that 25,000 people from seven continents attempt to climb it each year but only 66% ascend to the Summit. The fact that it is the highest point in Africa. All this, informs its majesty.


Foreign and domestic tourists also earn Tanzania upwards of US$50 million annually. Personally, the first time the porters sung the song “Jambo bwana, habari gani, karibu Kilimanjaro” I cringed inwardly. I cringed not because I have a problem with the tourism industry that has spawned this, but that hospitality falls short of the understanding and friendship that is possible on Kilimanjaro.

Rather than serving those of us that climb this mountain, the thousands of guides and porters own this mountain. Whether they have come from Nairobi, Singida, Arusha or Moshi like our guides Dickson, Nuru and Albert, Kilimanjaro belongs to them. As their temporary guests, we owe it to them to mobilise leaders and citizens to act and stem global warming. Should we succeed, our children and theirs in turn, will have the opportunity to also stand on the snow rooftop of Africa and see one of the wonders of the world.


For those of you yet to climb the mountain the local Wachagga people call Kibo (snow) and in Swahili “ngara” (to shine), we went literally from the couch to the mountain. Not for the fainthearted perhaps, but then again I don’t know what you are capable of. Do you?

2015 Kilimanijaro-001

Thanks to The East African for carrying the story in full on 14th September

Kili EA article


Five Challenges facing the PBO sector in Kenya

By Irungu Houghton[1]

As the issue of shrinking CSO space inevitably will come up again during the US Kenya talks this week, it is worth republishing this article that I wrote a few months back that summarises the major tensions between the Kenyan state and its Public Benefits Organisations. It was published by The Star Newspaper. The original paper was written in response to Dr. Alex Awiti’s February 24th article “Has Civil Society outlived its Use”

Dr Alex Awiti makes an important call for Public Benefits Organisations to reinvent themselves. Two years ago, the passing of the Public Benefits Organisations Act of 2013 by the National Assembly and its assent by H.E. Mwai Kibaki attempted to do just that.

The Act emerged from a consensus between the state and PBO sector on the need for a strengthened and revitalized sector. It also brought NGO law in line with the new Constitution and developments within the sector. Twenty four months later, it is yet to be operationalized with the Devolution Cabinet Secretary declining to commence the Act citing the need for amendments.

This week sees a crucial moment in the future of the sector. After ten regional consultations, the PBO Taskforce is set to conclude its public consultations on amendments to the PBO Act (2013). How it packages its findings and what eventually ends up in the National Assembly will place Kenya either on the path of trust and collaboration or the path of mistrust and confrontation between National Government, PBOs and County Governments.

Over 2013-2014, the National Government made five attempts to amend the PBO Act of 2013. They included two separate sets of amendments under Miscellaneous Amendments Bills (November 2013 and June 2014) and a Memorandum containing 54 amendments (October 2014). In November, the Ministry of Devolution and Planning gazetted a PBO Taskforce under the leadership of former Member of Parliament Sophia Abdi Noor and successfully amended the PBO Act through amendments to Security Act Amendment Bill (November 2014).

The five interventions have four similarities. They were brought to Parliament without prior public notice or consultation with the majority of Public Benefits Organisations. They have sought to increase executive power over the registration, regulation and funding of the sector. All with the exception of the Ministry of Devolution/Hon Moses Kuria memorandum of October 2014 have attempted to pass substantive amendments within Miscellaneous Amendments Bills. Lastly, all have revolved around five policy questions.

Strengthening the public accountability clauses within the Act is probably the issue that PBOs and the National Government can agree on. Like the Government, inefficiency, corruption and funding diversion is a curse to the sector. The PBO Act (2013) introduced a number of important new requirements. They include prohibiting governance boards from being paid and having to sign conflict of interest registers. Publishing audited accounts and making them available for citizens to see on request is another important step towards public accountability.

The issue that has caused most domestic and international controversy has been the proposal to cap foreign funding to 15% and channel all funding through the yet to be set up Government PBO Authority. It was probably singularly responsible for the rejection of the November 2013 amendments by the National Assembly. Notwithstanding this and the consultations over 2014, this proposal re-emerged in October 2014 coupled with the proposal that those organisations that receive more than 15% could be classified as foreign PBOs. There have been many arguments against this amendment ranging from the negative impact on development, poverty eradication and foreign exchange to the destruction of a 40 year sector. It may not be necessary to rehash them here.

The third policy issue relates to the treatment of domestic philanthropy and tax incentives for companies and citizens who may wish to contribute to development. The overreliance on overseas development assistance has been an active source of concern to the PBO sector. As far back as 1992, a consortium of NGOs had begun organizing the biannual East African Fundraising Conference that worked on diversifying income for NGOs through direct mail appeals, events and corporate social responsibility giving. These efforts intensified supported by the emergence of community foundations in the 1990s and then corporate foundations in the 2000s.

Prior to the PBO Act, there had been close to a decade of efforts to reform tax and fiscal law to create incentives for collaboration between the Government, private sector and the not for profit sector. The Act sought to enshrine and expand this option. With this in mind it was dismaying to see that the October 2014 Memorandum proposing to delete the entire schedule within the PBO Act that promoted corporate and citizens social responsibility. Taken with the proposals to cut foreign funding, the impact would be to starve the sector of both domestic and foreign resources.

The fourth tension revolves around executive regulation and self-regulation. In its current form, the PBO Act embraces both approaches to accountability. It proposes a Regulatory Authority, similar to the current NGO Coordination Board and a PBO Federation to replace the NGO Council. The Authority is largely appointed by the Cabinet Secretary while the Federation is the sector association. The Federation will have representation on the Authority.

The spirit of the amendments since the Act has been to weaken the principle and mechanisms of self-regulation and strengthen executive regulation. These amendments are backed by arguments that self-regulation has failed to hold the sector accountable to the common norms and standards in the NGO Code of Conduct. The problem with this argument is that it fundamentally shifts ownership and responsibility away from the sector to the Government. Rather than creating agreement on a set of common values and normative standards, the sector would inevitably come to be governed by rules and the regulatory capacity of Government. The size and the complexity of the sector does not lend to easy regulation by an external party, even one the size of the Government of Kenya. Successive autocratic Governments under former President Moi have tried and failed.

The Act seeks to bring more than 350,000 non-profit agencies acting in the public interest and providing benefits to the public under one legal umbrella. The Act contains various incentives for agencies currently registered under Trusts Act, Companies Act and the Societies Act among others, to voluntarily migrate to the new Act.

New amendments have sought to make migration to the PBO Act compulsory arguing that only compulsory migration will ensure accountability for handling funding in the public interest. While migration to the PBO Act is desirable, making this compulsory could have an negative impact. Trusts and Foundations have pointed out to potential huge capital losses as they transfer fixed assets and real estate to new legal regimes. Secondly, the lumping together of very diverse and historically distinctly different organisational types will not necessarily generate a more unified sector.

All five of these issues have dominated the various hearings. The failure to reach consensus in the amendments and the inordinate delay in commencement of the Act has also led to a consistent call in all the recent hearings for the immediate commencement of the PBO Act cited the two year delay. The treatment of these five issues and whether the country has to wait another two years for commencement will ultimately shape the future of the PBO sector and its relationship with citizens, the national Government and the 47 County Governments among others. Of the two paths; mutual trust and cooperation or mistrust and confrontation, as a long standing servant of this sector, I pray it is the former.

1,230 words

[1] Irungu Houghton is currently the Associate Director for the Society for International Development having worked in the PBO sector for over 20 years. Email, Twitter @irunguhoughton

Some thoughts on place-based organizing in Kilimani, Kenya

The KILIMANI Project Foundation Logo Low

Some thoughts on place-based organizing in Kilimani, Kenya

By Irũngũ Houghton, Chairperson, Kilimani Project Foundation[1]

Assets, Capacities, Trust: Community Philanthropy Matters, Revised Presentation to the Council on Foundations

“100 years of Community Foundations” Conference, Cleveland, October 2014

“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 in a wider context

Africa is not overpopulated or overcrowded, just over-concentrated. 15/20 of the fastest growing cities in the world are in Africa. 50% of the one billion people live in just seven countries. Africa has the highest urban population growth rate in the world. By 2050, 37 countries will double the number of urban residents. With urbanization comes, opportunities for innovation, industrialization, large internal consumer markets and the economic lift off seen in other industrialised countries. It also brings pressure from rising congestion, physical squalor, low-cost housing, inadequate services and huge class and spatial inequalities.[2]

Kenya and Nairobi reflects these continental trends. 60% of Nairobians live in on only 10% of the land. Many of them live in extreme poverty, are under-employed, lack essential services and are vulnerable to acts of violence and crime. Rape and assault is common. The neighbourhoods and villages of Kibra (Kibera), a low income high density area bordering Kilimani, is one of the more well known of these areas. Here, at least 150,000 live, work and do business.[3]

Kilimani by contrast, is a middle income neighbourhood. It has a population of 43,000. It is one of the very few Nairobi neighbourhoods in which residents can live, work, school, shop and be entertained. Very few neighbourhoods have this. Neither higher end Karen, Runda or Loresho can boast this. Kilimani also has a very wide selection of restaurants. Lenana road offers one of the best rows 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, 3mice, University of Nairobi, Daystar University and several other places of innovation and learning 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 and Rafique among others compose and create from here.

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, liveability and community empowerment.

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 but 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 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 and largely middle income, Kilimani reflects a predictable urban future for Kenya. A future where rapid private investment remains unmatched by public investment. High rise families live 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 serviced or integrated in future planning.[4] 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.

Transforming Kilimani therefore, offers an opportunity to model a different kind of neighbourhood and place-based organising before the pattern of exclusive cities we see elsewhere in the world takes too firm a root.

An alternative vision for Kilimani and elsewhere

We continue to be inspired by a commUnity where;

‘Karibu Kilimani’ greets people passing through and those who work or live here; There is 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 neighbourliness; People find affordable, accessible and adequate housing and business diversity thrives in Kilimani. The area rarely experiences violence, crime or a sense of isolation. It is, simply, the community of choice.

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 their primary identity as residents of Nairobi.[5] 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 retirement pensions in upcountry homes and farms among people of the same ethnic community.

Tragically for democracy, Nairobi politicians understand this game. They pay residents Kshs 300 (roughly $30) from neighbouring 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 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. Yet, 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 wide mixture of Kenyans, expatriates and refugee communities. From francophone West Africans, Somalis, South Sudanese, Ethiopians to the latest and growing Chinese population, Kilimani is home to many 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 and discussing 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 Master-Plan, Solid Waste Management, public safety and community policing. A new relatedness, new friendships and contacts demonstrate the power of appreciative enquiry.[6]

Lesson 3: Trust and solidarity is an online and face to face conversation: Like other urban Kenyans, most individual 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 (OCPD), Member of County Assembly, local business leaders from Chandarana Supermarkets, Dawda Group of companies, Black Butterfly and Willart Productions 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 that 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 within 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. On one hand, it facilitates civic agency to own and take up the challenge of making communities work. On the other, it releases the 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 a “user pays” system contracted out to private companies. Lastly, it feeds a perception that personal choices rather than public policy choices matter most.[7]

Foundations and associations can only be complimentary to local Government. Foundations and associations could work smarter with local Government 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 together we can raise the national statistical bar of only 5.7% who currently participate 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 needs doing 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 neighbourhood 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 like in Europe or North America that exclude each other. It is this that reinforces an 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 neighbourhoods don’t need a community foundation so the argument goes. This is a dangerous argument. 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”.[8] 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 local agencies and residents 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 rooted in the Kilimani, capable of providing community grants and nationally influential, what could we do next? Learning from the Google business model, we would focus 70% on our core business, 20% on programmes adjacent to core and the remaining 10% on radical new ideas.

We could identify 1-2 programmes that have the possibility of an iconic victory in an area that matters to the community. Some of these could come from the Master Planning exercise earlier in the year[9] or the strategic thinking last month. Possible options could 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, supporting neighbours to reclaim the streets outside their homes.

We need to expand and strengthen the collective action of the Board, staff and volunteers to lead self-discovery, confidence and action within the community. We need to create pathways for large and small individual and corporate members and sponsors to give regularly to our programmes. 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 for the Foundation and the community.

If we are successful in these four steps paraphrasing Kenya writer Binyavanga Wainaina, “One Day, We Could Even Own This Place.”[10]

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. For more information see Website: | Twitter @kilimanispeaks | Facebook Kilimani Project

[1] Irũngũ Houghton can be reached by email and Twitter @irunguhoughton. This paper has been updated based on comments and conversations at #CF100. He thanks all that commented on an earlier paper.

[2] See Mo Ibrahim Foundation Facts and Figures

[3] See excellent overview on this by the Muungano wa Wanavijiji among others

[4] 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 contributions to the wider society.

[5] Many residents still behave as temporal migrants

[7] See Joseph S. Nye on a gated world by 2050

[8] In English, this crudely translates to a “photo voice” exercise

[9] See some of the issues generated

[10] Binyavanga Wainaina “One Day I will Write About This Place”