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Criminalizing poverty: a case of police stereotyping and brutality in Mathare Slums of Nairobi, Kenya

What is it that rings in the minds of people when the word ‘slum’ is mentioned? Crime? Drugs? Poverty?

As we enter Mathare Social Justice Centre, we ask ourselves what it is that social justice means to these people, because right at the entrance to their main office are the words ‘Mathare Social Justice Centre’. And if they get it, how are they seeking to achieve it. Our answers lie within the confines of the hall and so, up the stairs we go.

Inside the hall, is what comes out at first as deafening noise. As we move closer, we realize that a young man is chanting the word ‘social’ while a seated audience shouts back ‘justice’. Afterwards, he says ‘Human’ and his audience who are very keen replies in a chorus with the word ‘rights’.

We then listen to rap music. In the songs they have composed, the lyrics are meant to tell others that they too are humans and deserve to be treated so; that they too have rights. They condemn extra judicial killings as well as stereotyping by cops that slum dwellers are thugs and abuse drugs and substances. The cops must be doing real bad things to them.

As Mobile Journalism Africa, we seek to tell human interest stories; stories that change lives and of people changing lives, so when we heard that at Mathare Social Justice Hall, the youth are using art to communicate, we headed straight there. In our company is Yusuf Omar, co-founder of Hashtag our Stories. Our main objective? To find out how they are using art to achieve social justice.

Our interviews with different young men and women there reveal a common thing: slums are assumed to be dens of poverty, drug and substance abuse and crime. Unfortunately, the police, too, think the same. And it is for this reason that they round up innocent citizens and even gun them down.

Different reports reveal different extents to which the police in Kenya conduct extra-judicial killings. According to Amnesty International Kenya, for instance, 200 men are killed each year in circumstances that fall short of the National Police Service Act. According to the reports published by Missing Voices, figures published are never true reflections of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances in Kenya. “The figures could be higher but there is no existing official database of police killings or enforced disappearances.” This therefore makes it difficult to even begin speaking of the number of people killed or forced to disappear by police, especially in the slums such as Mathare.

According to Juliet Wanjira, the co-founder of Mathare Social Justice Centre and Carine Umutoniwase, the Director-Footprints for Change, the police have criminalized poverty in the slums. The police have made it a habit to raid the slums and apprehend innocent citizens heaping on them charges ranging from being drunk and disorderly to planning felony. This they do with a dangerous assumption that if you live in the slums, you are either a criminal or on drugs.

The youth in Mathare, one of the largest slums in Nairobi want to disapprove the police as well as sensitize the public that really, not everyone who lives in the slums is a criminal and or drug addict. This they are doing using art.

How art is used to combat violence

There are killer cops in these areas who simply decide to execute, something that has upset the residents of Mathare slums. They cannot fathom how the cops are turning themselves into judges, going ahead to rule out execution as the proper punitive measure. Additionally, the cops go ahead to use ridiculous allegations as cover up.

“When you walk alone, you easily get yourself arrested; you are taken in as a criminal,” a young man who sought anonymity commented. “At times, they just gun you down.”

“On Tuesday, police arrested eight people whose arrests were not even accounted for,” he added.

“Two police lorries came yesterday and started terrorizing us,” said Juliet Wanjera.

When we asked if they had a footage of the happenings, she said, “we could not take a footage since everyone was running.” “A policeman took a tire and threw it to a house, starting a fire. They are waging wars on us instead of protecting us.”

Most of the things happening in the slums do not get the light of day. It is a remote possibility to just stand and point out these social injustices. But when this is done through art; music, painting, dance, spoken word, it becomes easier. No media house will take up their story, and even if the media are willing, no one will openly come out to speak on the behalf of others.

“The art is used to express the issues affecting us in our community since we do not have much choice on how to air them,”

These forums where they perform also help avert others who are highly likely to get engaged in drugs and substance abuse and crime.


Ochieng' Obunga, a Writer at large, is the founding Chief Editor of Mobile Journalism Africa.

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