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Brave School Teacher Takes in Family after Nairobi Demolitions Leave Thousands Homeless

Teacher Stephen Mwangi at the ruins in Kariobangi North. Also visible are homeless families that were spending nights in the cold after their houses were destroyed.

Stephen Mwangi recalls a day in March when learners at Watoto Wetu Centre, a primary school run by the Catholic Church in Kariobangi North in Nairobi Kenya, were assembled and informed that the school was closing down following a government directive aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19.

The learners, hugely drawn from the poorest families in the informal settlement were devastated by the news. To most of them, school is a place of refuge that cushions them from the struggles of slum life where they would be forced to beg on the streets to chip into their families’ earnings. Others would go about the streets, collecting and selling recyclable scrap metal to ease the burden of their guardians in the harsh slum life.

“Mwalimu (teacher), are you allowing us to go out there and die?” one of the boys in lower class at the school asked Mwangi. The question would later give the English and Math teacher sleepless nights as he thought about his pupils who only enjoyed being children within the confines of the school.

And later, when huge bulldozers snailed their way into the slum on Monday, May 4, levelling every tiny ramshackle structure following a demolition directive by the Kenyan government, and leaving about 5,000 people homeless in its wake, Mwangi heard a familiar cry for help.

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As the 36-year-old teacher passed by the ruins later that day, he gaped at hundreds of homeless individuals who were bracing themselves for a long cold night that awaited them. Then he felt icy hands tap him from behind, followed by a muffled voice, “Mwalimu, if I was in school, I wouldn’t have seen all this. I wouldn’t have seen them destroy our house.”

It was Merick, a primary school candidate at Watoto Wetu Centre. Beside him, stood his two brothers, his mother and his grandmother. Every one of them quivered in the cold. Most of their possessions had been destroyed in the demolitions.

Whatever was salvaged had been snatched away by people who saw an opportunity to steal in the confusion that reigned in the slum that Monday morning.

“They drove the bulldozers into our homes very early in the morning. I hadn’t slept that night after I heard rumors during the day that our houses would be destroyed,” Phides Mukami, Merick’s grandmother tells ACI Africa in an interview on Thursday, May 7.

“We were not warned in good time. I only knew about the demolitions a day before and there was nothing I could do to prepare myself in a single day. I don’t have a family in Nairobi to take my belongings to and so I just sat in my bed and waited,” Mukami says.

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When the heavy machines screeched into motion the following morning, slowly flattening down the tiny houses, Mukami woke up her daughter and three grandsons and they took a few belongings. The family then joined other slum dwellers who watched the destruction from a distance.

The demolition of the structures was carried out to reclaim the land that belonged to the city’s sewerage company. It followed an alleged expiry of a notice to vacate the land. Some residents, however, denied, on local media, ever seeing the notice.

“The authorities served the notice to landlords who did not disclose the information to their tenants. Many residents in the slum didn’t know that their houses would be demolished,” says Mwangi, a member of St Francis of Assisi SCC at Holy Trinity Church Kariobangi, which occupies the area that was affected by the demolitions.

The teacher, who lives less than a kilometer from the ruins adds, “I don’t fault the government for demolishing the structures considering that they were built on stolen land. But their timing was very bad considering the fact that people are required to stay in their homes to avoid getting the coronavirus.”

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That day, Mwangi who is popularly known by Kariobangi North residents as Katope, jolted into motion, rallying for support on his social media platforms to aid those who had been victims of the demotions.  

When he spoke to ACI Africa on Thursday, May 7, Mwangi said that his colleagues and friends on social media had already taken in 13 children from families that had been rendered homeless.

Katope, he shares, is coined from a Swahili name for mud.

“They call me Katope,” he says, adding, “I have the darkest complexion in my family. I am also the shortest among all my siblings. Since I was a child, my family and friends called me Katope and joked that I was the nearest to the ground and I was as dark as mud.”

A university graduate with a degree in Mathematics, Mwangi could have easily landed a teaching job at a secondary school with a good salary. But raised in slums, he says the poor slum children need him most.

“I look around and I see deprived schools, which can’t afford to pay for the services of a university graduate. That’s why the schools mostly hire low-caliber staff. Anyone who is willing to take a humble salary while university graduates go to top schools,” he says, adding, “My mantra is ‘let the slum children read’ and that’s why I am here.”

Today, Mwangi has taken in Merrick and his family and the six are staying in the teacher’s two-roomed house where they are provided with food and a roof over their heads while the elderly woman combs nearby informal settlements for an affordable house.

“They came here with very few personal items since everything they salvaged had been stolen. I have had to buy a few blankets for the boys and their grandchildren. Merrick sleeps on my couch,” says Mwangi, referring to his guests.

“I try to make them as comfortable as they can and we share the little food I get. But for some reason, Merrick’s grandmother feels uneasy. I wish she could try to relax as we make plans to get her a house,” the teacher says, adding that he is also hunting for a house for the older woman and her family.

Fr. Andrew Wanjohi who is in charge of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Kariobangi north, a parish that serves the evictees said the demolition was “a nail on the coffin of a situation that was already desperate”.

“This is pain on top of the pain that people were going through because of coronavirus. Most had lost their jobs when the government imposed the dusk-to-dawn curfew. And now, they have been literally left in the cold,” said Fr. Andrew, a member of the Comboni Missionaries.

When we spoke to the Kenyan-born Comboni Missionary, he said leaders at the Kariobangi north parish had already met to discuss how to help people who had been rendered homeless following the May 4 demolitions.

“We haven’t done much in the meeting other than just embark on identifying people who have been adversely affected by the demolitions. Some of them have moved in with their families around the city but there are those who don’t have anywhere to go,” Fr. Andrew said, and called on parishioners at the church to reach out to those in their circles who had been affected.