How will Nyumba Kumi work in a capitalist society?

Monday December 16 2013

Kenya at Fifty looks bright. The nation has achieved quite a lot, and there is much more that can be done.

County medical staff, however, did not postpone their strike in honour of Kenya’s birthday. But then again, neither did the lone murderer who found it fit to plant a grenade in an Eastleigh route matatu.

The matatu tragedy – Kenya does not generally call is so when ‘only’ four people die – begs another look at the Nyumba Kumi concept, which has been suggested as ideal for stopping these unnecessary deaths.

It seems that the concept is borrowed from Tanzania, where ujamaa existence was organized into ‘Nyumbas’ with ten being the minimum number for a cluster.

Each cluster was represented by a mjumbe .The model was very socialist in nature, and the representative of Nyumba Kumi was not a paid employee.

Their reward was supposed to be in social integration, the success of their cluster, and maybe, the life to come. Their primary role was cohesion and within the cluster, and other community issues.


They took care of the mundane details of society that include ensuring children did not drop out of school and the village drunk did not disturb the peace.

The representative was a patriarch or matriarch for the constituent houses. They also acted as a conduit of social collection and redistribution, including discipline, knowledge, wisdom, sometimes food and other economic items. Sounds rosy doesn’t it?

So why all the protest when Kenya has decided not to reinvent the wheel, but simply adopt a model that looks like it has worked from a neighbour? I am sure that in any academic exercise, a whole list of reasons would be generated, including but not limited to the following:

Kenya is a capitalist, not socialist, country. Should the Nyumba Kumi have any sort of representative, (which they must) the next stop would be at Sarah Serem’s door, demanding an income higher than that of a Member of Parliament.

This, after all, is the guy sorting out grassroots problems, while MPs sit on smart leather chairs in Bunge, finding new ways to make life hard for Kenyans.

However, it is not clear exactly what part of the Tanzania model has been borrowed and how it will be administered, especially in an urban environment.

Economists like to think that people move to urban areas in search of jobs, economic empowerment and a better life. Sociologists, however, may argue that in the African setting, people move to experience ‘cultural escape’, as part of a better life.

When one is tired of knowing whose children are starving, who beats their wife, who has died and how they will be buried, and so on, they move to the city, where the social requirements are mere politeness and a hello.

In rural environments everyone is related to everyone else, and boundaries on social responsibilities are seamless.

Is the Chief dead? Long live the Chief! We are told that the provincial administration is alive and well.

What roles will the chief play in the new set up, and how different is it from his current role, which seems not to be making a useful contribution anymore?

The wheel of life is still turning!