, NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 29 – They live within metres of each other; if you can call it living. I’d see them both every morning; she on a stone wall, a travelling bag next to her and he atop a mattress next to a stone wall.
“Buy him some khatt and he’ll tell you his life story,” a pair of gangly teenage boys tell me as they have their heads shaved.
In the interest of safety I’ve entered a barber shop to ask after the man on the mattress before I approach him.
“He’s harmless,” the barber tells me.
Milton Londolo Safari indeed doesn’t strike out at me. Instead he extends a hand. I hesitate but for a man living on the street I wouldn’t call him filthy. His feet are bare and cracked and there’s dirt trapped underneath his fingernails but the frayed polo shirt he wears and the khaki trousers he’s folded up to his calves look clean enough.
“To shower, I go to the mosque,” he says pointing at one down the road, “Sometimes they refuse. They chase me out of God’s house!” he says getting agitated. He goes on to make a blasphemous statement then shivers looking at the air around him as though an invisible force lurking there sent a jolt of electricity through him.
He’s a little unhinged. But who wouldn’t be after spending close to ten years on the side of the road?
“I was an electrical engineer,” he tells me.
I cannot ascertain the veracity of his claim but the mattress folded neatly behind him and the two suitcases piled on top of it are evidence he had a place to call home before now.
I ask about his family. He opens his mouth to answer revealing teeth that appear as though coated in caramel. His tongue is stained brown as well. From chewing khatt I imagine.
“You cannot stay with your father or mother. Who go stay with them?” he asks me rubbing at a salt and pepper beard. He then proceeds to run a hand across his receding hairline.
“I don’t know my father and my mother left,” Mercy tells me nervously rubbing a hand over her face. It looks like she has a skin condition but it might be dirt. I lean in for a closer look and she pulls the hood of her faded black jacket over her short hair to shield her face.
It rained last night. Some parts of the jacket are lighter than others. It obviously hasn’t completely dried out.
It’s hard to make sense of what Mercy says. Like Milton, she’s not all there. But from what I can piece together, she was born in Kitui and came to Nairobi as a maid. How she ended up on the street I don’t know but the Nairobi Town Clerk, Tom Odong’o, has a theory.
“You find about 300 families living on an acre of land in Mukuru. When these families expand, they spill on the streets. We don’t arrest them because that won’t solve the problem. We’ve converted social halls to rehabilitation centres but we’re overwhelmed. It’s not a problem, it’s a crisis! We need to develop a national policy to deal with the homeless.”
Article 43 of the Constitution states: “Every person has the right to accessible and adequate housing, and to reasonable standards of sanitation.”
A right Milton and Mercy and close to eight million other Kenyans who live in slums, camps or out in the open don’t enjoy.
“The Constitution has a Bill of Rights which is not just talking about police not beating people up but that everybody has the right to the basics of life,” Africa Regional Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, Charles Abugure says.
“Absence of housing is one of the areas where poverty is manifested,” the Executive Director of Pamoja Trust, Steve Ouma, says, “because urban poor people cannot access money for mortgage, they do not make enough to rent decent houses, they cannot save enough to start building their own houses, and in most occasions the urban poor people have no security of land tenure. So you have no where to squat.”
“In the 1980s and mid 1990s the government had no plan to accommodate the low income people in the urban areas. On most occasions they would move in and appropriate spaces that were left vacant; either government or private land that was not utilised. For some time the government tolerated these occupations. Then in the late 90s they went into a wave of demolitions. Remember Muotoro, remember Grogon, even places like Mathare and City Cotton (all slum areas where demolitions took place and thousands evicted).”