Compared to other parts of the city, Nairobi’s informal settlement areas (like Kibera, Eastleigh, Kayole, Kangemi, etc.) have higher crime, violence, and poverty rates. One critical reason for these statistics is the lack of formal employment opportunities, particularly for youth. Higher poverty often correlates with increased involvement in criminal activities, leading to heightened insecurity in poorer neighbourhoods. Currently, in Kenya, the cost of living is at an all-time high, resulting from increasing prices for daily needs, such as different types of flour (Unga that makes ugali, a staple food in Kenya), fuel, and education. According to one community-based organisation’s (CBO) youth lead, the lack of available and stable jobs further increases the pressures from the cost-of-living increases that are leading some to participate in illegal activity to simply put food on the table and send their children to school. These dynamics in Nairobi’s informal settlements are critical to Kenya’s peace and security. Not just in Nairobi but across the country, youth in informal settlement areas are regularly recruited to participate in activities that destabilise, create conflict, and can lead to violence. For example, young people are recruited into violent gangs such as Mungiki, Kosovo Boys, and others through the promise of the ‘good life’. Young individuals often get mobilised in political protests and riots, contributing to a narrative among communities and security personnel that portrays youths as inherently prone to violence.
However, it is wrong to lump all young people into this category or to think that youth in Kenya’s informal settlements are passive victims. Youth actively engage in efforts against insecurity through dialogues, advocacy, and nonviolent public participation. Youth-led CBOs spearhead initiatives to promote peace, collaborating with international non-governmental organisations such as the Life & Peace Institute (LPI). An example is the "Kijana Jihusishe" project that focused on enhancing the involvement of youth in fostering peaceful elections in Kenya. Understanding the importance of youth to Kenya’s peace and security dynamics, LPI was approached by the Independent Panel of Advisors mandated to review Kenya’s Peacebuilding Architecture to bring youth leaders from Nairobi’s informal settlement areas in a consultation feeding into the Panel’s review and recommendations. The Independent Panel of Advisors was mandated by the Kenyan government and is supported by the United Nations to assess and provide strategic direction and advice on advancing peacebuilding in Kenya. The review's outcome will be a report and recommendations delivered directly to the President of Kenya.
When approached by the Panel of Advisors to engage youth in this review process, we wanted to ensure that the process was not simply a ‘check box’ exercise. Past consultations have engaged youth leaders in tokenistic ways that feel more about showing inclusion than practising genuine engagement. It was important to find ways that youth leaders from different communities could share their expertise and engage with the panel meaningfully. Creating a space for meaningful engagement between community leaders and policy actors requires awareness and responsiveness to the power dynamics. Our approach was to ensure that the youth leaders in the room were the experts.
We do not know anyone more versed in the ‘ins and outs’ of Nairobi’s informal settlement areas than the youth leaders around the table with the Independent Panel of Advisors. To centre their expertise, we built the consultations around a participatory mapping exercise. Through this method, participants collaboratively developed a map of their community and showed each other where they 'saw' themselves within the community. They linked activities and emotions to specific places, revealing where they ventured, with whom, and why. Participatory Mapping became a storyteller, shedding light on how different groups in a community utilise, experience, and value places uniquely.
Understanding how broader concepts of peace and security weave into the daily fabric of community existence was at the forefront. In each settlement, people have specific locations that resonate. Either they feel safe there or avoid it. Through the exercise, youth leaders could paint vivid pictures of their communities that clarified an abstraction of movement, places, people, activities, and connections. The exercise offered a unique window into how perceptions, emotions, and experiences breathe life into locations and shape interactions.
For example, in all nine areas represented in the workshop, there were common sanctuaries of safety. These included religious institutions, community halls, parks, schools, CBOs, and sporting grounds. Education, police stations and health facilities stood as cornerstones of security for these communities. These shared amenities hold immense significance for youths and the community. They serve as venues of safety, community, and interaction. Some participants highlighted that during strikes, like 'maandamano', people seek refuge in religious institutions or social halls. Despite being considered sanctuaries, some of these places are not always the first choice for everyone. A male participant from Mathare shared concerns about the perceived lack of safety for youth in police stations during strikes. He emphasised the strained relationship between the youth and security forces, expressing fear of wrongful arrests as they feel oppressed by the police. Female participants emphasised the significance of hospitals, highlighting that inadequate supplies and capacity could profoundly affect the community.
However, nearby were areas considered highly insecure. High-traffic zones with boda-boda and matatu stages, riverbanks, dams, drainage areas, bridges, underpasses, quarries, and police station vicinities were often deemed less secure. With Nairobi constantly growing and ‘under construction’, the discussion gravitated towards new infrastructure that has reshaped Nairobi over the past decade. High-traffic regions intersected with new infrastructure, such as bypasses, bridges, and roads, often becoming areas to avoid due to the youth using them as drug dens or hiding spots. Areas such as riverbanks, dams, and drainage areas are notable for their role in mitigating urban environmental disasters resulting from climate change but were consistently referenced for their vulnerability to insecurity. Community leaders from Kayole expressed the persistent challenges of water distribution. The scarcity does not stem from a lack of water but rather from corruption. Community members are aware of corrupt practices within water distribution channels and companies. Cartels now control the system, favouring those who pay extra for water. This situation, as reported by Citizen, has led residents to vacate from Kayole. Such discussions underscored the need for security-oriented urban planning and community consultations as Nairobi's rapid growth continues.
The interaction between young people and the police was a sensitive topic. The 'Nyumba Kumi' initiatives, a form of community policing, frequently surfaced as a symbol of peace, although with comments regarding its focus on older adults without youth representatives in leadership positions. One community leader explained an instance in Mathare where they said, “Mathare is one of the most insecure settlements, sometimes even more than you think. There was a time a police officer was robbed of his phone and belongings right outside the police station!” While some communities expressed hope and positivity about new police stations, others voiced concerns about police stations being known for being perpetrators of insecurity. A community leader in Kangemi stated,” In our area, our chief does not do anything due to the drug peddlers and crooked cops constantly overpowering him.” A recurrent theme throughout the workshop was the pervasive drug trade. Communities from across Nairobi shared their struggles with drug dealers, cartels, and youth gangs. A significant concern was the proximity of drug trade areas to police stations, which raised questions about law enforcement's involvement.
Regardless of the situation in each community, we posed a question asking everyone: What is one thing that you are most proud of in your community? Referencing the conversation around security actors, Kayole CBO leaders said they were proud of how youth are uniting and pushing for new security actors to be appointed if the current one is incapable. Other youth leaders were proud of the progress in climate advocacy. They cited initiatives such as a CBO called Komb Green that transformed a dumpsite into a park – Korogocho People’s Park. Each community had diverse cultures they were proud of, from unveiling new matatus, a cause for celebration in Kayole, to some of the areas known for being the epitome of business, such as Eastleigh. Participatory mapping brought these elements out and created a sense of pride in their community even when they all indicated that they experience many forms of insecurity. Despite this adversity, these youth leaders still advocate for their community as they know that their community could grow to be a fruitful one.
This workshop was more than just a gathering – it was an opportunity to give voice to the tapestry of Nairobi's informal settlements. As we delved into young people’s narratives, we gained insights into these communities' strengths, struggles, and aspirations. The Independent Panel of Advisors gathered valuable input from youth leaders for inclusion in a comprehensive report submitted to the Office of the President as part of the Peace Building Architecture Review. This workshop wasn't the end – it was the beginning of a journey towards a more inclusive and secure Kenya where every voice matters.