Friday, April 19, 2024

These Streets: Our Slum Dwellers Demand the Key to the City


By Emeka Ugwu

  • Title: True Citizen
  • Author: Oduor Jagero
  • Publisher: KoaMedia
  • Number of pages: 248
  • Year of publication: 2014
  • Category: Fiction

‘The street hadn’t changed. And I was raised on these streets, on kindness and loot’. – Roots in the Sky, Akin Adesokan.

‘A slum is not a chaotic collection of structures; it is a dynamic collection of individuals who have figured out how to survive in the most adverse of circumstances’. – Rediscovering Dharavi, Kalpana Sharma.

Nairobi, popularly known as ‘Green City in the Sun’, is both the largest city in and capital of Kenya. Nairobi is also home to the headquarters of UN-Habitat as well as an estimated two hundred slums and squatter settlements. It seems the perfect setting for Oduor Jagero’s pulsating, satirical thriller, True Citizen. In this fast-paced narrative, befitting a big city story, the author takes his reader on a very bumpy ride, in and around contemporary Kenya, navigating the streets from the slums of Kawangware to the Central Business District on a ‘pimped-up’ matatu driven by Maina, the protagonist, who is accompanied by his makanga (conductor), Kama. This particular matatu sports an imposing graffiti of a lofty building and a bold inscription which reads, ‘Mwenyenchi’, owner of the country. The matatu is owned by Mr Macharia.

True Citizen opens with a prologue then proceeds to tell a riveting story about Maina, a child of the slums and an ex-robber, who at a very young, undisclosed age kills his abusive father. The father, Kamau, is battering Maina’s mother, Nyambura, and is right on the verge of killing her when Maina, in a fit of rage, seizes a knife and plunges it deep into his spine. Maina’s mother is twenty-three years old at the time and seven months pregnant. This tragedy occurs in the ‘80s, deep within the slums of Kibera. By the end of the first chapter, we have learnt that Maina’s mother died during the 2007 post-election violence that rocked Kenya, and that Maina believes the Luos killed her. Very well, the post-election clashes between Mwai Kibaki’s supporters and those of Raila Odinga was characterized by ethnically targeted killings.

The plot and structure of this fascinating story is evocative of Wole Soyinka’s The Swamp Dwellers, and the writer employs deft technique to narrate the story such that we gather sufficient information about almost every new character. The plot is simple and straightforward: we are treated to a chronicle of the lives of two working-class slum dwellers, Maina and Kama, who strive to eke out an honest living as informal players in Nairobi’s matatu industry, and the challenges they encounter. The author introduces every new character by sharing vital information about their lived experiences and those introductions never for a moment detract from the story. In so doing, he successfully brings the collective experiences of individual characters into a story with a good beginning, middle and end. Jagero skillfully avoids any sort of interruption in a thoroughly smooth and captivating story.

That said, it is the theme of the story that is its biggest upside. Judging by the setting, it is a story that could easily have slipped into the category of poverty porn but no, Jagero masterfully abstains from treading that path and shows how, as Akin Adesokan puts it, ‘It is the story a writer is trying to tell that determines how to tell it’. True Citizen is a story about ‘our streets’, much in the mould of Akin Adesokan’s Roots in the Sky and just as well. It is bold, ambitious and awe-inspiring. Jagero is a starry-eyed dreamer who seems to be saying that with the combination of a few conmen, non-conformists, touts and misfits – all of them visionary youths – we can beat Africa back into shape, and that now, more than ever, is the time when African youths must act as change agents. This is a writer in touch with modern Africa, and he is not afraid to point the direction for the have-nots who already have their roots in the sky.

True Citizen insists that the question of what kind of city slum dwellers want should never be divorced from that of what social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values they invariably desire. The story in True Citizen is also an invigorating human story which, much more than tell their plight, shows us that the right of slum dwellers to any city must be placed above individual liberty to access urban resources. It shows also that it is the right of slum dwellers to change themselves by changing the city they live and work in. Above all, it is a tale – told by appealing to our collective conscience – about how much of the task ahead is a common rather than an individual one since the transformation of our cities will inevitably depend upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the process of urbanisation. A well-informed reading of the book should remind the consummate reader of the eternal words of the urban sociologist, Robert Park, who says the city is: ‘[Man’s] most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself’.

Contextualising the socio-political and economic significance of the story, which is captured in Robert Park’s observation, would mean coming to terms with Henri Lefebvre’s vision for Paris, which he espoused in his seminal essay The Right to the City, which is distinct from Jean-Luc Godard’s philosophical take, depicted in his film Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle of the same year as Lefebvre’s essay. The former asserts, as David Harvey puts it, that the right to the city is both a cry and a demand: the cry as a reaction to the existential pain of the severe crisis of everyday life in the city, whereas the demand is to stare that crisis in the eye and ‘create an alternative urban life’ that is less estranged, ‘more meaningful and playful’, ‘conflictual and dialectical, open to becoming’ and open to ‘encounters’. The latter, in a kind of ‘razzing’, pensive way opines, as David Harvey again puts it, that ‘nothing at the centre of either self or society can possibly hold’. Jagero, like Lefebvre, is interested in ‘kicking arse’.

Without a shred of doubt, it is this very exciting theme that informs the characterization of the story’s most vivid and avant-garde characters, namely Kama the conductor and Roger the hacker. Kama, as the reader learns, is a young rascal from a rich family. His father, a strict professor, and his mother, an executive at a blue-chip company, run, in addition to their day jobs, a private consulting group they hope their only son will one day head. But Kama is a deep-dyed radical who would have none of that lifestyle. He instead takes to graffiti art and hanging out with touts, and for that reason he gets kicked out of their lush Runda home by his old man, one night after a heated argument. The next morning, he ‘trashes’ his SIM card, gets a new line and rents a tiny 10 x 10 room deep in the slums of Kawangware. Eighteen and half at the time, his parents never see or hear from him again. Kama always kept his ears to the streets.

Roger the idealist is an outlaw. He has studied the dark art of hacking. He is some sort of modern-day Robin Hood who hacks into companies to hurt them. This young man, we are told, has three billion shillings spread across ten banks, which he amassed from his ‘hacktivities’ as he likes to call them. He possesses the skills required to hack into ten Kenyan banks, targeting only corporate company accounts to steal from, but Roger never steals from individuals as he believes them to be hardworking. This is the source of his wealth. He drives a sleek Ford Mustang and owns three houses in Lavington, Karen and Muthaiga. He was born into a dysfunctional family. Shortly after his birth, his father, a shrewd lawyer, divorces his mother who is a fierce diva and founder of an NGO that is one of the lead organisations at a convention in Geneva. Soon after her return from Geneva, she tells Roger’s father to cook pasta for himself and that leads to the divorce.

True Citizen gets right into gear when the trio of Maina, Kama and Roger link up as a direct consequence of Maina and Kama losing their source of livelihood because of corrupt Kenyan traffic police, in a crackdown spurred by the avarice of the Minister for Transport and Nairobi’s Traffic Commandant. The Kenyan traffic police do not just take bribes. They extort them. They are a torn in the flesh of matatu drivers. Once, Maina was made to part with six thousand shillings in one day, on the basis of trumped up charges of playing loud music and ignoring a traffic police officer. The straw which eventually breaks the camel’s back comes from an ‘operation’ carried out on the orders of the Traffic Commandant, in order to service the collusive demand for a bribe by the Minister of Transport, who requests the sum of twenty million shillings just for ‘pocket change’.

Conflict ensues because a very minute fraction of the Minister’s pocket change, and the operation designed to extract it, requires a bribe which costs Mr Macharia thirty thousand shillings and in turn affects Maina and Kama’s means of livelihood because the matatu gets impounded. The duo gets fired. The drama which unfolds when the formidable trio decides to right the wrongs of society and expose the level of corruption within the ranks of Nairobi’s traffic police is what reveals True Citizen to be a story that springs from a place of very deep questioning and soul searching about post-independence African societies. The book challenges the African youth to re-imagine the problems that bedevil the dispossessed in our cities. The story forces us to ask: why have these streets not changed? It saddles us with the responsibility to do something about inequality and social justice.

It is in thinking really hard about these questions that we must pay attention to Akin Adesokan’s observation in Roots in the Sky, which is deployed here as the first epigraph, to serve as a lamppost that may well illuminate discourse, being the remark made by the protagonist of Adesokan’s novel, Nyaze, while thinking about his own plight as one of the dispossessed in the city of Lagos during the early ‘90s, who themselves lived from hand to mouth and in slums. The quote implores us to listen to the cry and demand of the dispossessed amongst us as well as respond innovatively in ways that answer the challenge posed by Henri Lefebvre’s vision of a city, such that we create an alternative, more inclusive urban life that is open to becoming and encounters.

All things being equal, the second epigraph, another observation, by Kalpana Sharma, serving as a second lamppost, offers us support as we take on the enormous task of remaking the world we live in and alter ourselves by making our cities modern. In Rediscovering Dharavi, Kalpana Sharma’s book about Dharavi slum in Mumbai, Asia’s largest, we are charged to understand the need to protect slums as a communities, given that they: ‘[C]ontribute to the city in several ways. They act like the backstage of the theatre called city. They provide the only affordable living to the urban poor in the city, being a home to these low-income groups; they keep the economic wheel of the city turning in many ways’.

All these help us make sense of the UN-Habitat 2003 report that ‘emphasises the need to support the livelihoods of the urban poor by improving their economic assets, by linking low-cost housing development to income generation’. True Citizen, much in the spirit of Akin Adesokan’s observation and Kalpana Sharma’s appeal, is a story that draws attention to new ways of thinking about slum dwellers, all seventy-eight percent of them that form the urban population in the least developed countries of the world, as they begin to demand the key to the city.

Photograph: Nairobi Love’ by Meena Kadri

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Emeka Ugwu
Emeka Ugwu
Emeka Ugwu is a Data Analyst who lives in Lagos.

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