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Kenya’s Slum Justice Centers Give Voice to Victims


An informative session being led by a volunteer at Mathare Social Justice Center in Kenya. Justice centers are popping up in Kenya’s Informal settlements.

Residents in Kenya's informal settlements, also known as shantytowns or slums, are often wary of police and authorities because of their precarious legal status and past abuse. Local activists have started social justice centers as part of grass-roots efforts to give voice to victims. But justice for slum dwellers is often elusive.

Ruth Mumbi grew up in Mathare, one of Kenya’s informal settlements, commonly known as slums, where the poor and undocumented live, and where their legal status makes them vulnerable to abuse.

Aerial view of Mathare: Mathare is one of the oldest slums in Africa.
Aerial view of Mathare: Mathare is one of the oldest slums in Africa.

Mumbi’s brother-in-law, Stephen Gichuru, paid the ultimate price.

“Stephen Gichuru was a 17-year-old boy who was an acrobat, and before he was profiled by some police officers stationed at Huruma police station as a gangster who had been robbing the community. So one early morning - 17 May 2015 - he came across the two police officers and he was shot without them even wanting to know what he was doing in Kiamaiko because they had already warned him to leave the community,to go far away," said Mumbi.

Gichuru is one of hundreds of victims of alleged police violence in Kenya’s slums.

Rights activists say most police killings, as many as 800 in the past few years, have yet to see justice.

FILE - A relative wails on the floor of an alleyway near to the body of a man who had been shot in the head and who the crowd claimed had been shot by police, as the angry crowd shouts towards the police, in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 9, 2017.
FILE - A relative wails on the floor of an alleyway near to the body of a man who had been shot in the head and who the crowd claimed had been shot by police, as the angry crowd shouts towards the police, in the Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 9, 2017.

Kenya government spokesperson Eric Kiraithe questions such high figures, but acknowledges police killings have occurred.

“It is a fact that suspects have died while in contact with the police. But each individual case should be dealt with in its own merit. ... figures like 800 — I have not seen the individual cases they have listed and the grounds in which they list such. I would not want to dispute a figure that I have not been able to interrogate, but basically let every case of murder be dealt with in its own merit - that is our stand,” he said.

Social justice centers seek to fill the gap in data, said Gacheke Gachehe, a founder of Mathare Social Justice Center.

“We ask ourselves, if we do not do this, if we do not come here and station ourselves here, and put some poster there that says stop exclusion. What will happen? This will become permanent. If we do not do it, we will lose the whole generation, from Kayole, Mathare, Dandora, Kibera,” said Gachehe.

FILE - Mathare Social Justice Center in Kenya. (Photo: Rael Ombuor / VOA)
FILE - Mathare Social Justice Center in Kenya. (Photo: Rael Ombuor / VOA)

A 2017 Mathare Social Justice Center report indicates police killed 156 men between January 2013 and December 2016 in Mathare.

Kiraithe said it is dangerous for police in slums — where high unemployment, law-breaking, and violence are common.

“I can tell you as a police officer, the challenges of policing in such areas are very high. The unemployment rate, the lack of organized settlement, the environment itself exposes the youth to deviant behavior and what we train the police to do and ask them to do is however the challenges, police must remain professional,” said Kiraithe.

Mathare resident Sarah Wangari points to where her son lost his life. She said police gunned him down as he walked home with four friends on Nov. 18 of last year.
Mathare resident Sarah Wangari points to where her son lost his life. She said police gunned him down as he walked home with four friends on Nov. 18 of last year.

The more than 100 social justice centers in Kenyan slums pass along daily complains of harassment, abuse, and corruption.

Communication and outreach officer Denis Oketch of Kenya’s Independent Police Oversight Authority said they help investigations of police misconduct.

“What these groups also do, because they are at the grassroots level, when this complaint comes, because the people at the grassroots trust them they are able to direct witnesses to come and lodge their statements with us. They are able to report that this happened in our area of jurisdiction, but after we get that information from them we take up our investigations independent of any external factor,” he said.

But justice for Kenya's poor and undocumented is often elusive.

In the Stephen Gichuru case, the Oversight Authority identified police officers it believed were responsible, but the case has been stalled at the Office of Public Prosecution and-three years later no court date has been set, and the two officers remain on active duty.

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