Kenya: Chance to Avert Disaster in Urban Slums


The Covid-19 crisis will move our problems from a health pandemic to class warfare.

For most of my life, I lived in Kibra -- before a series of chance encounters brought me to attain my university education in the United States.

My life in Kibra was shared, intimate, inextricable. At home in my 10-by-10 shanty room, sounds of daily life filtered easily through the iron-sheet walls, patched with cardboard to cover the holes.

A strung-up bedsheet separated the "bedroom" from the "living room" and "kitchen". I shared the house with my seven siblings.

There was no concept of "personal space" or "alone time". Just outside our door, neighbours washed clothes, cooked dinner, exchanged stories of struggle and survival. We shared a toilet with over 50 households.

How does a community like Kibra practise social-distancing? How can we afford to stock supplies and cordon our families off in rooms that hardly contain us?

What about the many that struggle hand-to-mouth and are losing work through lockdown measures and economic contractions?


The pandemic exposes seismic fractures in our social order, widening class disparities, and praying upon the most vulnerable.

My community members silently make our city run. They are the Uber drivers, the waiters, the housekeepers, the factory workers.

They have no option to work from home and no rights to claim pay or benefits if they miss work because they are sick.

The fate of urban slums will determine the course of the virus on a national scale. If it reaches communities like Kibra, it will spread easily, ruthlessly.

In New York City, cases are multiplying almost twice as fast as the growth rate in other cities. Imagine such a rate of spread in a slum.

If there are gaps in access to and experience of healthcare, this will only stoke the fires and flames of anger over inequity that spans beyond the every day but to a time of life and death.

The virus could easily spread from the slums to the rest of our country. Combined with deep economic hardships -- this is kindling for a fire.

The most disenfranchised and vulnerable people will recognise that they are fighting for survival, with very little to lose. They will riot, or worse.


There is another, more hopeful path. Together, we could plot a different path that protects these communities, addresses their health and economic fragility, and saves lives.

This hopeful path requires that collective investments be made in these communities now, and a strategy implemented with government and private sector that fully integrates knowledge of day to day realities in our urban slums.

I have seen this beginning to happen already. When a community comes together and takes matters into their own hands, even in the most fearful times, there is hope.

In Kibra, and other slums across our major cities, the community is taking matters into their own hands.

Community leaders are mobilising through Shofco, an organisation I founded as a 15-year-old boy who believed in the potential for communities to change their destiny.

Today, it is the nation's largest organisation working in informal settlements in Kenya. It works in 11 urban slums.


These community leaders have set-up hand-washing stations at every entry point to the slum and are running door to door outreach campaigns to raise awareness and distribute critical materials like bleach, homemade soap, and hand sanitiser.

They are combating rumours and misinformation. They are screening over 5,000 people for symptoms and referring potential cases.

But this is not enough. We need to feel the presence of the government, and the private sector, on the ground, working hand in hand with us to combat this crisis. We can and must work together.

In these early days of Covid-19, slum communities are working around the clock, scrapping together resources to do everything they can to keep the virus out.

Reinforcements are needed, and we are building a framework for government and partners to join hands on and enhance.


Slums are a human design failure, and a reflection of deep systemic injustice.

And the fallout from a pandemic like Covid-19 will make these injustices painfully clear. It shouldn't take an outbreak like this to realise that living conditions in the slums are untenable.

This is not just about Kibra but the rapidly growing problem posed by unequal urbanisation around the world.

Should we fail to address it collectively, we will move from a health crisis to class warfare. This doesn't have to be the case.

Mr Odede, founder and CEO of Shofco, is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and UBS Global Visionary and a 'New York Times' best-selling author.

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