At Gatwekera village in Kibra slums, Celine Adhiambo Otieno yesterday looked back at the house she has called her home since the 1970s for one final time.
A single-room mudhouse, her home sat along a stinking stream of sewage and plastic on one side, another sewer ditch right at her doorstep, and a long dark muddy corridor to lead her out into the streets.
With no grandchildren to chase around, she heads to Ugenya to her husband’s family, still standing tall, but beaten by life, which snatched all her children before they were born and finally snatched her husband in 1989. For the last time, she stepped on two flat stones in the middle of the ditch, friends in tow, waiting to see her off.
A widow with no job, she took to doing house chores for food, which she ate, sometimes in darkness, oblivious of the stench outside her house.
Unlike her neighbours’ houses along the ditch, which have a concrete barrier to keep off sewer floods, hers has no barricade, a testimony of the wetness that her house possibly endured, along with cold, mosquitoes and more stench. Now, two calendars hanging on the wall will be the only reminder that she lived in that house.
Upcountry appeals to her now. There, she will sleep in peace, have soft grass to walk on, fresh air to breathe, and loved ones to embrace. In her mind, she envisions being a businesswoman, selling kitchenware and cooking mandazis to sustain her in old age.
“I have land in Ugenya, the one that belonged to my husband. With the help of my facilitators and family, I will build a house and settle, never to come back here. I only pray that those who are stuck here to get opportunities to move back home,” said Celine.
Her brother-in-law, Julius Otieno, a short clean-shaven man in a striped shirt, had waited for this day for a long time. Actively gathering his sister-in-law’s jerry cans, the last of belongings to be loaded, he recalls receiving news of Celine’s return with excitement.
“I was very happy when I was told she wants to come back home. It’s the reason I am here, to take her home. She won’t have a hard time because my eldest brother had land, and we will build her a house. In the meantime, I will host her at my home. I always felt unhappy that she lived here alone, but she was undecided in the past when I brought up the idea of moving back. Now, we welcome her with open arms,” says Otieno.
“My brother had two wives, and the other wife passed on and left two children, now grown-up women. They have not been home, but with Celine’s homecoming, they will be back, for they will have a mother to come back to,” he added.
100 meters away, Peter Okumu, a 45-year-old father of seven, watched over his children as they moved their items into a jungle green lorry outside their home. Headed to Asembo, a smiling Okumu explained that he has been ready to move since the beginning of the week, but shares that his wife is more charged.
The decision to move upcountry, he discloses, is informed by the high cost of living, which has made it a challenge for him to provide for his children. Promising not to come back, he says that he has already tasked his mother with finding good schools that his children will join as soon as the first term begins.
“Here, I worked as a matatu driver, but the returns were not enough because there are days when we don’t work. At home, I will look for casual jobs as I slowly get into farming. I am travelling with all my children for now, but my firstborn will be back to continue with his secondary schooling. He will be sleeping in this same house but will be taking his meals at my cousin’s place nearby. When he finally finishes school, he will join us upcountry,” he explains.
For his part, Dennis Onyango Ondigo, who was also born in Nairobi expresses hope that at Alego, his ancestral home, he will get an opportunity to provide a better life for his three children and wife.
An only child to his mother, he schooled at Old Kibra Primary School, rising to pursue a diploma in electrical engineering at Kenya Industrial Training Institute. However, he did not find a stable job.
“My mother, a businesswoman, is currently home in Siaya where she has lived for 20 years post-divorce. However, life for her has been quite hard, and I intend to go and help her. Life here was better in the past when my retail business was up, but it collapsed, and I had to rent out my shop to help me cater for my family’s needs,” explains Ondigo.
“I know that nobody ever forgets their home, and since I haven’t been involved in family squabbles, I am free and ready to go back. I intend to build a home for my family. My younger two children are already home with my mother. However, I will leave my eldest son under my uncle’s care as he is still schooling,” said Ondigo.
While reminiscing the joyful moments he spent with his friends, he stated that he was glad to be getting away from bad company, who, he says, have previously tried to convince him to do drugs and be womanisers.
“Those bad friends would not understand why I wouldn’t do that. Having been born an only child, I had to protect my reputation as a diligent man, father and husband. If you can go home, please do, then settle. There are a lot of things you can do to provide for yourself. It shall be well. if I ever need to travel to Nairobi, it will only be for a few days to visit,” says Ondigo.
His wife, Maureen Akoth Anyango, explains that she is most excited about hosting her sisters and relatives, something she has been unable to do because of space constrictions in her single-roomed house.
“I am glad that I will finally have a decent home upcountry. I will finally allow my sisters to come and visit me. I would always turn down their requests to visit,” she says.
These three families are part of a total of 50 families repatriated to their ancestral homes as a means to decongest the slums and offer them better chances of living. Conducted by Natural Capital Trust, Kiska Repatriation Project aims to address the vicious cycle of poverty in urban slums.
Speaking about the project, Anthony Wachira, Mwangi, a Projects Officer at Natural Capital Trust explained that the repatriation project was preceded by a water and sanitation project that saw them realise that their challenges were driven by the high population.
“Our donors came and while discussing solutions, they raised an idea of sending residents back upcountry, just like they had done in Syria. As a pilot program, we wanted to learn from 50 families, considering factors such as the availability of land, houses, or both. What we know is that some people were born here, some migrated, and some don’t have jobs. Most came to look for jobs and stayed here because they didn’t know what to do and had needs to be met,” explains Wachira.
“We are taking vulnerable families on a voluntary basis from five villages in Kibera to Siaya, Kisumu and Vihiga. In 2022, we took 34 households, this time we are ferrying 16. For every family moving to the ground, we have a package that will allow them to build houses and start businesses to sustain themselves. We have trained them on starting businesses, and we will give them about a month for them to weigh the available opportunities there so that they thrive and don’t come back. We have actually signed an agreement with them that says that should they come back, they will have to reimburse us the money we used on them, because they have cost someone else an opportunity,” explains Wachira.
Dr Janet Mangera, the Executive Director of Natural Capital Trust explained that the organisation was formed in 2013 to give slum dwellers dignified lives. With the program being demand based, the organisation engaged village elders, opinion makers, religious leaders and field officers to select those who needed it the most.
She explains that the project aims to reduce poverty by reversing the migration pattern and sustainably settling people from urban areas back in their rural homes. Before the repatriation, she explains that her organisation held sensitisation meetings in religious places of worship, visited homes one by one and asked people who wished to move back to come forward.
“In one month, we received 400 requests, yet we were only looking for 50. To sieve the list, we conducted interviews and home visits, as well as visited their upcountry homes to see whether they would be welcome and to verify the information they gave, we only focused on Western because most of the interest came from that region. We had an expression of interest from people originally from Kitui, Kisii, Homa Bay and other parts of the country, but for easier handling logistics for one region was easier,” narrates Dr Mangera.
“Our theory of change is that people have varied skills and potential, and often, unleashing those skills is limited by environmental, technological, economic and social factors. Providing this opportunity is a way to reawaken their capacities. We assess their passions and experiences and develop their interests and skills into business ideas, then provide seed capital,” explains Dr Mangera.
“Some of them do not have houses in the rural areas, so we assist them to put up houses with sanitation so that they are able to settle in and integrate. We also encourage them to integrate with their communities by joining social groups, churches and self-help groups so that they get support in navigating their new environment,” she added.
Prior to the repatriation, she discloses that the families underwent psychological counselling to enable them to handle the challenges they will go through, as well as to make their reintegration easier. Besides, field officers will periodically visit the households to monitor their progress and provide the necessary support.
The program, she disclosed, is funded by the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, and is expected to last two years. Depending on the availability of funds, the program will be expanded to incorporate other urban informal settlements.