Monday, February 2, 2009

The fire next time: Slum courts doom

An aerial view of Viwandani slum in Kayaba, Nairobi, on Monday. Residents have built makeshift structures on top of the KPC lane, oblivious of the potential disaster. Photo/CHRIS OJOW 

By JAMI MAKAN and JOHN NGIRACHU

When Pastor Caleb Basweti preaches that “God is fire,” that fire is never too far for the 100 members of his Rivers of Joy Ministry.

This is because the church, in the Mukuru Sinai slums near Industrial Area, sits right on top of an oil pipeline.

A few metres from the entrance, small concrete markers with the letters KPC protrude from the ground.

Petrol tanker

“The Bible says that God is fire,” the 45-year-old pastor says. “Well, my church is right on top of the pipeline, and I am always aware of the possibility of a fire outbreak.”

Pastor Basweti and other residents of this informal settlement say they know the dangers of living in the area. But even after the deadly Nakumatt inferno in Nairobi and the petrol tanker explosion in Molo, they continue living here, seemingly oblivious of the country’s latest tragedies.

The squatters have been told that a 15-metre wide swathe of land has to be left vacant on each side of the pipeline.

But this has largely been ignored and they rarely think about the threats posed by their environment, including the high voltage lines overhead or the fuel below.

“I don’t think there will ever be a fire, but you never know,” says 22-year-old Sally Ouko, who has defied eviction threats by the Kenya Pipeline Company.

“It is dangerous, but we cannot move unless the Government allocates us land,” says 41-year-old Romanus Otieno. Nearby are small kiosks, hotels, churches and schools, including the Humble Hearts School with its 300 pupils.

The estimated 100,000 residents were served with eviction notices in May last year.

But several months later, they are still there and there are few signs that they will be evicted anytime soon.

“I am ready to move out anytime but I don’t know where to go,” said Fatuma Hassan, a 35-year-old mother of five.

Mr Kasuja Onyonyi, a communications officer at KPC said the matter was being dealt with by the Ministry of Energy.

An inter-ministerial committee is said to have been set up after learners marched to the Education ministry headquarters at Jogoo House.

Education assistant minister Ayiecho Olweny assured them that they would not miss out on national exams.

Source funds

When the Nation contacted Energy PS Patrick Nyoike, he said the provincial commissioner was compiling a list of the residents and KPC and his ministry would try and source funds to relocate or compensate them.

KPC conducts regular patrols to ensure that no holes are dug in the area, an elder, Mr Zebedeo Mairura said.

He said KPC also holds annual barazas to educate residents about the dangers of their environment.

“However, there is always the possibility that a leak can happen.”

Until that happens, residents will continue with their lives, despite the fact that they are walking on what could be the source of their deaths.

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