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Korogocho is one of the largest slum neighborhoods in Nairobi. Korogocho means ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ in Kiswahili and it is home to 150,000-200,000 people, crammed onto an area 1km by 1.5km. About a third of residents have electricity, almost none have running water. Sanitation takes the form of pit latrines and effluent flows in the alleys between the corrugated iron and baked-mud houses. It borders the giant, 30-acre, Dandora mukuru, or dumping site, where hundreds of vultures and thousands of people scavenge for a living.
Gangs proliferate in Korogocho, HIV and TB rates are high. Life is hard and injustice makes it harder. It is not a place to wander unescorted. And yet children greet you with a smile, micro-businesses proliferate and while people struggle, they do call their 10ft by 10ft rooms ‘home’.
Behind the high fences of St John’s ‘Nursery & Informal School’ – a refuge from the rest of the slum – is an outbuilding that hosts the Korogocho Community Justice Center. The center is one of a number supported in Kenya by Namati’s network member Kituo cha Sheria.
Kituo was founded by a group of lawyers in 1973 to provide legal aid to the poor and marginalized. It has become one of the most respected justice NGOs on the continent, expanding into legal empowerment programs as well as taking on strategic litigation. It is supported by 600 lawyers who give free legal services and has trained dozens, perhaps hundreds, of community members as a front-line of volunteer paralegals.
Namati is working with paralegals like these across the globe on a variety of justice issues, but what they have in common is a deep knowledge of their communities and specialist training. Community paralegals are trained not just in the law, but also in advocacy, community organizing, and legal education. A community paralegal isn’t just a specialist delivering a service – although they are backed by lawyers – they work with their clients, making sure they are equipped to better solve their own problems the next time they arise.
At St John’s school, around 15 people sit in the shade of the outbuilding, by one of the school’s dusty football pitches, waiting to discuss their cases with the volunteer paralegals. The center’s coordinator Michael Odhiambo tells me they see around 30-40 cases a day. The first client I meet breaks my heart.
Felista Anyango is 46, a widow with six children who lives in one room and makes a living selling vegetables by the side of the road. As she talks to me she sits with her 13-year old son, Kelvin, on her lap. There is an unfocused, distant look in the boy’s eyes.
“My son was always suffering from learning problems,” she says. “But my neighbor had no sympathy for him. My neighbor found him in her yard playing with her corn and she beat his head so hard he has brain damage.” Felista wipes her eyes as she tells me her story. Her son is unaware he is being discussed. “He now has epilepsy and seizures. He is much worse than he was before.”
Felista took her case to the police but they were not interested because she couldn’t pay a bribe. So she has been coming to the Justice Center for advice. They helped her get a medical report and file a case in the courts. She has returned with a complication: the only witness to the beating has disappeared.
“The cases involving children are the hardest,” says Joyce Wairimu, a paralegal at the Justice Center for the last five years. “We hear about child sexual defilement cases – the mother brings the child here at first and then later tries to drop the case if the perpetrator gives her money. The mother may try to surrender the case but we have to putrsue it, take it to the police and stand up for the child’s rights. In many cases – about land a rent – we try to avoid court and use alternative dispute resolution, but not the child abuses cases.”
The center sees many cases of domestic violence, cases of people grabbing plots of land from each other – there is little in the way of legal title in Korogocho to what was once mostly government land. Resident usually pay rent to a local ‘chief’ or the person who built the structure they live in.
“If you pay a bribe to a chief he will give a notice to vacate to the person whose plot you want to grab,” says George Ollo, 60, a paralegal and chairman of the Justice Center. If we can help by referring cases to lawyers through Kituo cha Sheria we will use that route. Others we use ADR between landlords and tenants.”
The next case is one that has made local headlines. Kenneth Wasike is a tall, broad man in a white t-shirt who looks younger than his 50 years. He worked in a bottling plant owned by a big national brewery – part of a global conglomerate. He lives in one corrugated-iron room in the slum with his wife and seven children. He has no electricity and no water in the room.
“I was operating a machine packing bottles for 12 years when the company brought in a new contract,” says Kenneth. “They wanted to outsource to a cheaper company. We refused to sign the new terms and they laid off 57 workers in 2010. Until this time we have been unable to get our rightful severance payments from the company.” He shows me newspapers cuttings about the CEO of the brewery.
“I have come here with three colleagues because everyone knows this is where you come when you have problems. The Ministry of Labour is not able help us.”
The paralegals believe this is a case they can pass on to the pro bono lawyers that support Kituo’s work.
Simon Gatwire has a more forlorn claim. He is a dignified man, who has dressed in a jacket and colourful tie for his visit to the justice center. His home was torched by a mob during the violence that followed the disputed Kenyan election in December 2007. It was a four-room house he built in 1975 and was home to him, his wife, their ten children and assorted daughters-in-law and grandchildren. “I don’t know what to do,” he says with a tilt of the head. “I need someone to help because I want to be compensated.” When I ask how he can get compensation from a mob, he smiles sadly:
“The mob is gone, only god will give me compensation.”
We move on from Korogocho, away from the acrid stench of the Dandora dump that borders Korogocho, and through the traffic that strangles Nairobi day and night.
We come to the smaller informal settlement of Majengo, part of the district of Kamukunji. The Kamukunji Community Justice Center serves the residents of many slums in this part of eastern Nairobi and is run in partnership between Kituo and a local community organization called KCBONET. It is housed in an old classroom in the rather dilapidated and battered school buildings of the somewhat alarmingly-named Pumwani Child Survival School. At the edge of the football pitch there is a pile of refuse being picked through by children.
There is still a blackboard on the wall of the dimly-lit room where I meet Ezekiel N’Jenga, the coordinator. There is little time for pleasantries as the first case of the day is introduced to me. Mary Mutua is 40, had four sons and lives in a nearby housing estate called California. She was sent to the justice center by the police. Her story is shocking.
“My husband Stephen died on Monday, [four days earlier]. He had TB and I took him to the hospital when he started coughing blood. While we were waiting for an x-ray at the hospital he went to the bathroom. He took along time coming back. Eventually someone passing said a man had been vomiting blood in the bathroom and been taken to the emergency room, where he died.” Mary could not face the sight of her husband’s body or quite take-in his sudden death, so she called his brothers.
When she returned to the hospital with one of her sons to collect her husband’s body she discovered it had already been taken. Her in-laws had produced a woman who said she was Stephen’s wife.
“Stephen was always in dispute with his family, he said they were malicious people. And now they have taken him away to make the funeral arrangements at his ancestors’ place. My sons have not seen their father’s body, we are being kept in the dark about the arrangements.” Mary’s other fear is that the woman claiming to be Stephen’s wife is part of a ruse to stop her inheriting her family’s home in the housing estate.
The Justice Center is planning to go to court to get a temporary order to stop the family burying Stephen without his wife’s consent and involvement.
As the children outside finish their school day and some play on an slide, the next client enters the humid old classroom. Her problem exposes the reality behind Mary Mutua’s fears of being robbed of her inheritance.
Helen Mwangi is a widow in a bright shawl. She tells me she had a proper house built by the city council in the nearby Maringo Eastate – so she had water and electricity in her two rooms, which she shared with her three children. Her husband died in 2012 from pneumonia. “He had been married before and had a grown-up son from the first marriage. The house was registered in my husband’s name.
After my husband died my stepson managed to register it in his own name and tried to charge me 3,000KS ($32) a month to live there.
I was not working and could not pay, so my stepson had us evicted in November 2014. I had lived there from 2003. Now I live in a room made from iron sheets in the slum.”
“We see a lot of housing issues and land disputes,” says Ezekiel, who has been coordinator at the justice center for four years. “People have so little, and their rights are so fragile.” The Community Justice Center has taken up Helen Mwangi’s case and filed it with a special housing court. Helen doesn’t have to pay for the lawyer, just the court filing fees.
More cases come in, and more people tell me their stories. Stories of wages held back by employers, of old ladies forced from their pitch selling vegetables, of landlords using thugs to evict tenants and one man who warns me that child ‘defilement’ is rife. Part of me regrets not asking to hear only about the center’s success stories. But this is the reality of justice on the frontline, in a place where grinding poverty makes people take to desperate measures. In the heat, noise and smell of the slum, after a bombardment of awful tales, despair is a temptation.
A quotation from Primo Levi’s If this is a Man comes to mind: “Whoever waits for his neighbor to die in order to take his piece of bread is further from the model of thinking man than the most vicious sadist.”
But despair helps no one. On the contrary, the paralegals I have met live lives just as hard as anyone else in Korogocho and Kamukunji, yet they are so proud to be helping their communities. They volunteer to because they understand that justice is one of the ways to make life in the slums just little bit fairer, a little more bearable and less ridden with conflicts. They are an inspiration – since it was founded Kituo’s paralegals have helped countless thousands overcome injustice. Kituo’s work, and the paralegals themselves, are the embodiment of a much more hopeful quotation – the message the labor rights activist Joe Hill sent from his deathbed: “Don’t mourn. Organize.”