Samburu women haunt the empire of charity

The Samburu of northern Kenya are pastoralists, and they are under attack. According to Survival International, the Nature Conservancy and the Africa Wildlife Foundation, two US-based `charities’, bought land, lots of it, from Daniel arap Moi. How’d he get the land? Good question.

The Samburu, who had been forced out of nomadic pastoralism by the encroachment of fenced off ranches, had settled there twenty years earlier. For twenty years they used this piece of land for grazing and access to water. They made land decisions on communal interests, with no one having the right to permanently dispose of the land. While the decision making process was dominated by male elders, women, especially married women, were involved in decisions concerning land use and allocation.

Until Daniel arap Moi bought the land, no questions asked. Then he sold it … to `charities’.

Since the sale, the Samburu have been harassed, beaten, raped. The lucky ones have `simply’ been evicted and had to fend for themselves in makeshift lean-tos. The Samburu have gone to court to retain their land … and to get some justice. Africa Wildlife Foundation has `gifted’ the land to Kenya, for `conservation’.

It’s a familiar enough story. “Native people”, “Africans” are caught, or not, in the crosshairs of conservation, charity, and gift economies bestowed upon them by the good people of the Global North.

But there’s more. Women. The Guardian featured Samburu women prominently … in pictures. There “Samburu women sing a song” and “the women wear colorful beaded necklaces.”

Samburu women do more than sing songs and wear colorful beaded necklaces.

It’s not the first time that foreigners have visited sexual violence on Samburu women … in the name of progress and civilization. For the past fifty years the Kenyan government has leased land in Samburu District to the British military. It’s a training ground. Over 600 complaints of rape have been filed against the British military. Women like Miliyan LeKanta, Lydia Juma and Nigaripen Lesiamito have testified, in public, to the rapes. Testimony that resulted in their isolation and even expulsion from their own communities. The British `internal’ investigation found the military not guilty. Then the Kenyan government `lost’ the evidence. As the women’s lawyer explained, “There is no glory in reporting rape.” That struggle is ongoing … and it’s more than colorful beads and the singing of songs.

Locally, the Samburu Women for Education & Environment Development Organization has been key in documenting the devastation of the evictions and abuse on the Samburu. In their report, which Survival International sent to the United Nations, they have shown the ways in which women as herders and farmers have been rendered helpless by the violence of police. They have reported as well on women who have had to watch as their husbands have been beaten, sometimes to death, by police or by paramilitaries, and then left for dead in the fields. Houses are burned, villages ransacked, women raped. It’s the price of charity.

And who pays the price?

The bitter irony of conservation here is that the Samburu women are actually at the heart of the indigenous preservation of wildlife, in particular of elephants. The Samburu claim a kind of kinship between elephants and Samburu women, a kinship of everyday village labor. This kinship results in cultures of respect and honor. But those kinds of ties mean nothing to an important not-for-profit multinational charitable organization. After all, those ties involve Samburu women, singing and wearing fantastic bead necklaces.

 

(Video Credit: Vimeo / Cultures of Resistance)

The field of tension of informal settlements in the new millennium


Over the past decade, South Africa witnessed an upsurge in negative labelling of informal settlements in policies and programmes, the removal of informal settlements from strategic positions in the city, and legislative amendments to facilitate such ‘eradication’.

Why were South African politicians and different parts of the state so confident that their negative statements about ‘slums’ and their drives to evict and eradicate were legitimate and beyond question?

Why did they find it appropriate to resort to repealed apartheid era legislation, criminalising the formation of informal settlements and making it easier for municipalities to evict?

Informal settlements occupy a contradictory position in urban policy.

On the one hand, there is articulated concern about urban poverty, and acknowledgement of the need to increase access to water and sanitation and improve the lives of ‘slum’ dwellers. These concerns are captured in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

On the other hand, there is the encouragement to country governments for cities to strive for global economic competitiveness in order to better function as engines of economic growth.

One source of this encouragement has been the UN’s Human Settlements Programme, UN-Habitat, in particular through its involvement in Cities Alliance’s ‘Cities Without Slums’ initiative. UN-Habitat uncritically internalised ‘Cities Without Slums’ as a slogan. The UN attached this slogan to MDG 7 Target 11 ‘to significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020’.

The presence of unsightly ‘slums’, of visible poverty and squalor in strategic locations, frustrates states in their efforts to portray an investor-friendly image to the world. This dynamic differentiates MDG 7 Target 11 from the other MDG targets.

MDG 11 contains an un-resolvable contradiction. Improving the lives of ‘slum’ dwellers (rather than removing them from strategic locations in the city) sits at odds with efforts to make the city more investor friendly.

City authorities, in their attempts to attract and hold on to investors, encourage and protect stakes in the urban land market. The adoption of this approach is not to be questioned. It is not submitted to public and political debate.

In South Africa, preparation for the 2010 Fifa World Cup brought this into stark relief. The urgent expenditure of massive public funds remained unchallenged. They resulted in soccer precincts and the acceleration of world class transport improvements, all enhancing economic stakes in the urban land market.

Spin-offs were promised to all, unconvincingly also to informal settlement dwellers. The provision of water, sanitation and housing to a fraction of informal settlements in turn received much public political attention.

The N2 Gateway pilot project in Cape Town, South Africa’s flagship ‘slum’ redevelopment exercise from 2004 to 2010, symbolised a tendency to override policy and legislation, as did numerous cases in South Africa’s six largest cities to evict informal settlement residents from strategic locations without court order and without provision of alternative accommodation.

All these interventions amounted to attempts at exclusion of the poor from South African cities.

In the light of those attempts, urban informality needs to be reinterpreted. It can no longer be viewed merely as the extra-legal, nor as a continuum with blurred edges, as defying measurement, or an organising logic or idiom of planning. Informality needs to be recognised as a field of tension.

While households living in informal settlements often choose an urban life and many find themselves with no alternative, they are confronted with more than just the physical inadequacies and hardships of informality – the lack of basic services, the unregulated and often overcrowded conditions, the inadequacy and insecurity of the shelter.

Recognising the reality of informal settlements as a field of tension forces us to look beyond mere physical symptoms. It forces us to grapple with the underlying causes of informality and the underlying causes of non-improvement of people’s lives, such as top-down interventions.

It also forces us to depart from a normative framework that labels informal settlements as ‘slums’ and condemns every aspect of these residential setups.

It forces us to recognise the tension between creativity and adversity which shapes and often defines ingenious solutions, models of human co-existence that are largely lost in the formal city. Opportunities for such forms of urban living and survival are closed down through tightened anti-land invasion measures and ‘slum’ eradication drives.

City authorities often repressively dismiss demands from economically weak households for space within the city. Their assumption is that such demands stem from poor migrants entering the city in large numbers.

However, the population of many cities in Africa is growing more slowly than is generally assumed. Urban poverty is largely generated by shrinking formal employment. In many instances migration has remained circular, binding rural with urban livelihoods on an ongoing basis.

Poor people’s responses, alternatives and innovations have been homogenised and problematised. Global usage of the term ‘slum’ since 2000 forms part of this homogenisation and problematisation. `Slum’ justifies blanket eradication of poor people’s footholds in the city.

In 2010, something different began to happen. South Africa experienced an about-turn with a new target to improve the lives of 400 000 households by 2014 through in situ upgrading of informal settlements.

Now the government faces the difficult task of chiselling away at the deeply entrenched problematisation and homogenisation, which has long informed largely flawed re-housing programmes. This prejudice has also blocked any investigation of the feasibility of in situ upgrading rather eviction and eradication. Perhaps it’s time to respect rather than remove those who live in informal settlements.

 

(This article is based on the author’s book Cities with “Slums”: From informal settlement eradication to a right to the city in Africa, University of Cape Town Press, Cape Town, 2011)

Women haunt land grabs and mass evictions

Oxfam came out with a major report this week on land grabs in five countries, Uganda, Indonesia, Guatemala, Honduras, and South Sudan. In Uganda, over 20,000 people were evicted from land they had farmed for decades, evicted so that a British corporation, New Forests Company, could come in, create tree plantations, earn carbon credits, sell timber.

The residents were never consulted. Quite to the contrary, tales of violence abound. For example, Olivia Mukamperezida, whose house was burned to the ground. Her eldest son, Friday, was at home because he was sick. He was killed in the fire. She buried Friday, and now is not sure if he’s even in his grave. “They are planting trees,” she says.

Christine was forced off her land as well: “We lost everything we had .… I was threatened – they told me they were going to beat me if we didn’t leave.”

Christine lost more than everything she had. She lost the future. Before she and her family lived in a six-room house, farmed six hectares, sold produce, sent their kids to school. They had been doing so for twenty years. Now, they live in two rooms, eke subsistence living out of a small plot, eat once a day, and the children no longer attend school.

The Oxfam report highlights the particular vulnerabilities of women, and the specific impact of eviction on women around the world. They note that in Africa, the situation is particularly dire: “Women’s land rights are less secure and more easily targeted. They also depend more on secondary uses of land, which tend to be ignored in large-scale acquisitions. Furthermore, although women comprise the majority of farmers, men effectively control the land and the income derived from it, even if it is the fruit of women’s labour. In practice, a new commercial opportunity often means that men assume control of the land at the expense of women’s access. Thus, new sources of income from the land are likely to burden women and benefit men. The new competition for land between biofuels and food crops, leading to less availability of food and higher prices, is also likely to affect women more than men, as women tend to take responsibility for feeding the family.”

From direct physical and verbal assaults to the processes to the consequences, the entire land grabbing machinery is violence against women.

None of this is new. Previous researchers have issued reports on that describe the gendered impacts of commercial pressures on land, that wonder if land grabs aren’t simply, and intentionally, another bigger, badder yoke on women’s land rights. Activists, such as Esther Obaikol, Executive Director of the Uganda Land Alliance, have also been organizing with women farmers … for decades.

When it comes to land grabs in Uganda, as elsewhere, women farmers have been pushed harder, deeper, further. They are the first and final targets of land grabbing. Mass evictions attack women. Women haunt land grabs and mass evictions … everywhere.

 

(Photo Credit: Sven Torfinn for The New York Times)