A Parlous Cascade

From election violence to hunger in the slums of Nairobi

“I can tell you there are many people here who sleep on porridge only,” said an older man from a Nairobi slum.

“You find that they drank porridge in the morning, never had anything at lunch time and then in the evening they make the same porridge.”

Eating the same food over and over – not because of choice, but because there are few other good options – is food insecurity. A food insecure household has food, but it is of low quality, or there is little variety of it, or it is unhealthily disagreeable. As a result of food insecurity, people living there will change their eating habits: they eat less food than what is recommended, or they eat intermittently, or too often they choose unhealthy options.  

Who is food insecure, and why?

In 2010, public health specialist Dr. Elizabeth W. Kimani-Murage led a group of researchers to investigate who is food insecure and why in the cities of Kenya, Africa. Kenya is home to the mighty Mount Kenya, to a mangrove coast on the Indian Ocean, and to a variety of inland climates that oscillate between heavy rainfalls and no rainfalls. Most Kenyans work in agriculture. In 2008, as the stock market was crashing in America and Europe, Kenya was suffering from an historic drought. That drought followed five consecutive years of smaller-scale droughts.  

To cause food insecurity, Dr. Kimani-Murage and her colleagues reasoned that adverse geography matters. And those most gravely impacted by adverse geography are the urban poor.  

To find Kenya’s urban poor, the researchers went to Nairobi. Downtown Nairobi is home to multinational businesses and the Nairobi Stock Exchange. Seeking to study the most food insecure, the researchers focused on the slums and shanties at the city’s outskirts. About 10 kilometers from downtown lay two such: Korogocho and Viwandani.

Slums and Shanties

All slums are in or near cities, but they can differ in the particulars. A slum can have houses that don’t protect against the weather. That house could have more than three people sharing a room. It can be unsanitary, meaning an unreasonable number of people who share the same toilet. It can have no access to clean and affordable drinking water. Its residents can be under constant threat of eviction. A slum can have just one of those problems, or it can have all of them.

Slums and shanties are related. A shanty is an illegal construction built from blueprints and materials unsanctioned by the city government. In a shanty, people looking to live near the city – to access the jobs and services that cities have in abundance – built what they could from what they could afford. A slum is not necessarily a shantytown, but it could be.

In the slums of Nairobi, most folks are day laborers. The men work on constructions jobs. The women are domestic workers, cleaning homes and offices, or they do nanny work. In slums and shantytowns, there is high unemployment, an immoderate level of physical danger, and many folks in poor health.

The Survey Says

Dr. Kimani-Murage and colleagues surveyed the slum residents. They asked about their food situation, such as:

“In the past 4 weeks, did you or any household member go a whole day and night without eating anything because there was NOT enough food?”

They also asked about how many people live in the house, how many dependents they have, and the sources of their income. They asked about “shocks:” “fire, floods, mugging/stabbing, burglary, eviction, property destruction, rape/ sodomy within the last 4 weeks of the interview.”

The survey says that both slums suffer. The slums were starkly insecure but differ slightly in magnitude: a third of the households of one slum and two-thirds of the other report severe food insecurity. One out of every five households report that the people living there had either one or no meals the previous day.  Formal employment is rare. Most depend on casual labor, self-employment, or remittances. About eight percent of all households say that, in the last month, they had been mugged or otherwise robbed.

Bad Things Snowball

Surveys are helpful, but to get a deeper story, the researchers also interviewed and convened focus groups with slum residents. Some of what the researchers found was terrible, but not graphic. They found that the food insecure overly depended on maize and kale. They considered meat a luxury. Street food was common, cheap, and unhealthful.  

Other stories were terribly graphic and point to how one existential threat leads to another. One such story starts with the violence that erupted after the 2007 election. In 2007, Kenya went to the polls to elect a president. A winner was announced, but the challenger said that the election was a fraud. Many of the post-election protests were non-violent, but some were very violent. In this time, over eleven-hundred people died. In 2008, UN President Kofi Annan brokered an uneasy peace and power-sharing deal between the two presidential candidates.

Bad things snowballed.

The result of the violence, and, in 2008, the historic drought, disrupted road access to villages and towns. No access meant people in those towns could not get to their jobs. It meant that food and other needed resources could not get to the slums. People got frustrated and blamed each other. They attacked other people.

The violence mushroomed.

Traders couldn’t open their stalls for lack of foodstuffs and fear of the violence, and of the looting, and of the arson. The violence disrupted transports of maize and other food staples. Slum residents struggled to find fresh vegetables. The food that did arrive was expensive. And since slum residents were poor day laborers, most did not have a store of foodstuffs in their homes.

The result was rampant food insecurity.

“We experienced severe hunger because maybe you have money in your pocket but you could not buy food…” an older man said. “There was too much hunger such that people would attack a cow; there were some men who used to rear cows here, they would attack a cow and cut it into pieces alive (even without slaughtering it). Even the pigs; there was no chance of slaughtering; just cutting them and running away with the meat… If you had money in the bank, the banks were closed.”

“That was hunger,” he added.

In the slums of Nairobi, droughts and floods and violence are not only existential threats—they are of a parlous cascade that leads relentlessly to further grim and unpalatable options.



This was written by Josh Dubrow based on the article by Elizabeth W. Kimani-Murage, Lilly Schofield, Frederick Wekesah, Shah Mohamed, Blessing Mberu, Remare Ettarh, Thaddaeus Egondi, Catherine Kyobutungi, and A. Ezeh. “Vulnerability to food insecurity in urban slums: experiences from Nairobi, Kenya,” published in 2014 in the Journal of Urban Health (91, no. 6): 1098-1113. To understand what food insecurity means, I consulted the above article by Elizabeth W. Kimani-Murage and colleagues (p. 1110) and the USDA’s Definitions of Food Security. For definitions of slums and shanties, I consulted the UN’s “Slums: Some Definitions” and “The Challenge of Slums.” For Kenya’s post-election crisis, I consulted Karuti Kanyinga and James D. Long’s “The political economy of reforms in Kenya: the post-2007 election violence and a new constitution,” published in 2012 in African Studies Review.

“I can tell you…”p. 1106.

Nairobi is Kenya’s largest city. It has a population of about four and a half million.

The researchers conducted a large, multi-year research project. The focus groups and other interviews were in 2010. The survey was conducted 2011 and 2012 in three rounds with a total of over 3000 respondents.

 “In the past 4 weeks…” p. 1111. This survey question is from the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale (HFIAS) administered by the research team.

“shocks…” p. 1102.

The survey says…  p. 1103. 

The result of the violence… p. 1107.

“Eleven hundred people died…” p. 32, from Karuti Kanyinga and James D. Long. “The political economy of reforms in Kenya: the post-2007 election violence and a new constitution.” African Studies Review (2012): 31-51.

“We experienced severe hunger…” p. 1107.

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