Florence Musola, a business woman living in Mathare, the second-largest slum in Kenya after Kibera, and her four children were among the latest victims of an arson attack that destroyed their one-room shack.
The attack is suspected to have been carried out by Mungiki sect members, many of whom are believed to live in the slum. At least 11 houses were burnt in the attack on 30 May.
The slum dwellers, who lack basic amenities such as safe drinking water, latrines, waste disposal and other social services, pay a protection fee of 50 shillings [US 70 cents] per month to the gangs.
"They [the gangs] say they are protecting us," she said, "If you fail to pay, you risk having your house burnt down. But we have lost a lot of property in such incidents; this is the second time [in May] that the gangs have burnt houses here.
"We have now been reduced to beggars relying on the goodwill of neighbours as we consider our next move," she added.
Before her house burnt down, Musola used to cook mandazi (a type of doughnut) and bhajias (potato snacks) to sell - like most slum dwellers working in the informal sector as street vendors, casual labourers or house-helps and guards.
"At least with this money I was able to pay my rent of 1,200 shillings [$17]," she said. "Now, life has become very difficult. Finding food is hard and even our clothes were burnt."
Because of threats from the gangs, many people are contemplating leaving Mathare, in the capital, Nairobi. "I understand their feelings; would you stay and then end up losing your life or your property?" Musola explained. "But I am not thinking of leaving. I have three children to take care of and this is the place I have called home for over 30 years."
Musola came to Mathare in 1972. "There were no thugs and nobody interfered with your business activities," she said. "Now people can no longer conduct their businesses normally due to the tension. We are scared because the arsonists threatened to return."
In the slums, the gangs also man public toilets demanding a monthly fee that is often unaffordable to most residents.
Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
|Mathare residents sprawl on the ground during a police swoop to root out members of the outlawed Mungiki sect in Mathare|
Last year, three days of fighting between the Mungiki and another gang calling itself The Taliban displaced at least 9,000 people. A few others lost their lives and property in a row over control of a lucrative illicit brew market in the sprawling slum.
"I do not know where these gangs came from, they were not here before," Musola said. "Nowadays, the slums have become scary even for the slum residents. People are being killed anyhow."
The root cause of the conflict is the lack of permanent housing and inadequate or no access to basic services in the slums, which increases residents' vulnerability, according to reports.
Mungiki sect members have targeted slum residents, burning their houses over non-payment of protection fees or as revenge for the killing of their members. In 2000, sect members torched 11 houses in the Kian'gombe slums in Thika town, north of Nairobi.
In central Kenya, the gangs have equally terrorised civilians. "If you are found walking in the streets at night nowadays you can easily be arrested; we have now been forced to adjust our lives," said Tom Njenga, a resident of Nyahururu. "This is because it has become hard for the police to identify members of the Mungiki sect."
The Mungiki, a name that loosely refers to ‘a united people’, are an outlawed, quasi-political/religious sect with roots in the Central Province.
The sect has come increasingly into the limelight due to its alleged involvement in several grisly murders in the province, prompting a police crackdown on the group.
Although the sect's activities are concentrated in Central Province, neighbouring areas, especially Nairobi and, in particular the slums, have also been affected.
In the slums, the Mungiki started off as a vigilante group formed of unemployed young men who kept the peace and provided security. Initially, they were seen as a positive force, providing security and illegal electricity connections.
However, with time, the group started taxing people and charging for the use of basic amenities such as toilets and water, and collecting a second rent.
According to the deputy police commander at Kiambu Police Station, Jay Felix Munyambu, the Mungiki "take advantage of the suffering of people". Kiambu, also in Central Province, was the scene of some of the murders alleged to have been committed by the Mungiki.
Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
|One of Africa’s biggest slums, Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya|
"They use this tactic especially in the slums where the dwellers are already in a vulnerable situation, lacking access to water, electricity and latrines, among others services," Munyambu said. "If you want to access a service, you pay them."
Other than the slums, the Mungiki's other target of operation has been the matatu [public transport] business from which they demand daily protection fees. Matatu crews and owners who fail to comply often suffer fatal consequences.
Rites and rituals
The origins of the sect remain a mystery. According to slum residents, the group may have originated from an underground movement in Laikipia District, neighbouring Central Province, intent on recovering property lost during the Mau Mau era.
The Mau Mau was a movement of Kenyan freedom fighters, mainly belonging to the Kikuyu ethnic group, involved in Kenya's independence struggle.
Initially, the Mungiki emerged as a spiritual/traditionalist sect emphasising Kikuyu traditions, including female genital mutilation. With time, and perhaps because the group was losing its appeal by targeting women and due to an increasing need for financing, it became more of a business, taxing slum-dwellers and matatu owners.
Initiates into the sect are said to undergo rites including drinking human urine and oaths. The sect, which is shrouded in secrecy, forces its members to pray, worship and undergo rituals.
Recruitment is usually voluntary but sometimes the Mungiki force people in Mathare to join. Increasing poverty and lack of employment opportunities have also left many youths idle and susceptible to such pressure.
"The police are not doing enough, especially those who take bribes," said Muyambu. "They know who the Mungiki are but are not doing enough to stop them."
To evade arrest, sect members operate a system of informers, and keep changing their appearance, making it harder to identify them. Initially, they were dreadlocked and used snuff, say the police. Today they are smartly dressed.