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Sanitation and the Politics of Recognition in Kibera

TamlynMonson6 May 2015

To kick off their field trip to Kenya, students on the MSc Social Development Practice spent much of the day with representatives of Practical Action and Umande Trust, hearing about the ways in which these organisations have worked with local residents to promote productive and liveable settlements in Kenya’s slums.

Part of the day’s programme was a trip to Gatwekera in Kibera, Nairobi, where we visited two of the settlement’s 16 biocentres. The biocentres provide accessible toilets, where – in an awesome reframing – excreta becomes a ‘human investment’ that is collected in a biodigester to produce gas for cooking and slurry that can be put to agricultural use.

Street view from Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) network biocentre. Image credit:  Tamlyn Monson

Street view from Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) network biocentre. Image credit: Tamlyn Monson

Our objective was to understand whether and how these infrastructure projects could help us identify avenues through which such projects can be scaled up to more explicitly political claim making around citizenship. However, the reality of the interventions exposed some of our received assumptions about how such claim making should proceed.

For instance, we found that in advocating for the rights of informal settlement residents, NGOs may also face certain informal political dynamics at higher scales within the state, and therefore opt to advocate for change outside of the ‘direct’, formal channels.

According to Peter Murigi of Practical Action, completed infrastructural investments have the potential to legitimise the claims of informal residents to improved living conditions, this is because in permitting these interventions the state has indirectly recognized the need for change. Rather than explicitly lobbying through formal channels for change, advocates can use these achievements as precedents justifying claims for further practical improvements when opportunities to indirectly influence power holders arise.

Multi-level biocentre in a Kenyan informal settlement. Image credit: Umande Trust

Multi-level biocentre in a Kenyan informal settlement. Image credit: Umande Trust

Witnessing the significant achievements of the Gatwekera Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access (TOSHA) Network, both staff and students were struck by the limited role of the state in these achievements: the government’s contribution, according to the TOSHA chairperson Moses Ambasa, is merely to “allow us” to go ahead – with projects realized through donor funding and community labour only.

Ambasa was satisfied with this situation, in which slum dwellers are, so to speak, permitted to solve ‘their own’ problems. Participants felt a tension between the need to give due weight to this community voice, and the need to challenge the idea that residents of slums should shoulder such a disproportionate burden of cost and responsibility in securing basic living conditions.

In an afternoon debrief, students acknowledged various shifts of perception inspired by the visit to Kibera, which exposed many to the complexity and ambiguity of an informal settlement for the first time. This was an exciting and stimulating start to a field trip in which students will soon be entering an unfamiliar field in the secondary city of Kisumu. The reflexive trajectories opened up today will be a valuable asset as students soon begin a practical engagement with the Kisumu Informal Settlements Network (KISN). They will be entering the field well prepared to begin unpacking the various entanglements we always find there.


Tamlyn Monson is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU and a PhD candidate at the LSE. Staff and students on the MSc SDP programme engage in overseas research with Practical Action in Kenya each year – read about the collaboration on the DPU website.