These were the words of Rashid, Chair of Muungano Wa Wanavijiji, at the opening session of a week-long international exchange in Nairobi between Muungano and Community Savers leaders from Manchester and Sheffield.

Rashid was sharing on the power of exchanges in the SDI tradition – a tradition that has been nurtured, tested, and adapted over more than thirty years, in 32 countries across the Global South.

November 2022 was a special month as Community Savers leaders were able to welcome activists from Nairobi here in the UK, share knowledge and learning on their adaptation of SDI/Muungano methodologies with postgraduate students in Manchester, and then travel to Nairobi to experience these approaches first hand; visiting settlements and exchanging learning with their sister federation.

Here we try to capture some highlights from a rich month of learning and inspiration…

“We Kenyans, and you from the UK, we are the same.”

Anastasia Wairimu is Chair of Akiba Mashinani Trust one of three organisations that make up the Muungano Alliance. After her second trip to the UK in November 2022 exchanging learning with Community Savers, she recognised that despite very different histories, low-income communities in the UK experience the same dynamics of exploitation and discrimination as informal settlement communities in Kenya.

Tina Cribbin is Chair of Aquarius Community Savers in Hulme, Manchester: these exchanges have enabled Tina and Anastasia to develop a strong relationship of trust and mutual respect, and Tina agreed with Anas’s observations. In particular, Tina noted the similarities in negative attitudes among those holding power and purse strings who judge low-income communities as criminal, as lazy, as a problem that needs fixing.

Anastasia Wairimu and Tina Cribbin in dialogue in Manchester in 2019

During her latest visit to the UK, Anastasia was shocked to see how older people are treated after visiting Hopton Court tower block in Hulme where 75% of tenants are aged Over-50 and many have long-term conditions, disabilities and mobility constraints. During their visit, the lifts were out of order again (a regular occurrence over the previous five years) and elderly people had been left with no way of getting out of the block or bringing food shopping up to their flats. Tenants shared how throughout the pandemic they had nowhere to meet with their neighbours due to the absence of a communal area at the block; and how elderly people are falling through the gaps between housing, health and social care services in ways which leave them unable to pay for food, heating or sometimes without appropriate end of life care.

During the Nairobi visit, Ellie and Sue from Miles Platting shared experiences of top-down regeneration and gentrification which resonated strongly with Muungano anti-eviction activists. Leaders reflected that although the extremity of the circumstances are very different the principle of top-down attempts to push lower-income groups away from the inner-city is the same.

Ellie and Sue (Miles Platting) share experiences of gentrification with the team in Kambi Moto

During November, leaders from Miles Platting gave urban inequality students a tour of their neighbourhood. They explained to them how the Private Finance Initiative that was supposed to regenerate the area for the existing community has resulted in a net loss of approximately 500 social rental homes and the inflation of house prices and private rents far beyond a threshold that local working families can afford. This is leading to the breaking up of families and people on lower incomes being pushed out to other boroughs of Greater Manchester. Existing residents had agreed to the PFI (including compulsory purchase orders and demolitions) on the basis that a suite of community facilities would be built, including a joint services centre and leisure and retail facilities. In the end, none of this was delivered. The community are now calling on Manchester City Council to protect the public land that these community facilities were supposed to be constructed on for community benefit.

Sheila Davis & Anne Worthington teaching University of Manchester students about Miles Platting PFI

At our final reflection, Jonte shared how an elderly woman housing activist in Kambi Moto who has been involved in their community-led housing movement for over 30 years was amazed to learn that she can sit together with people from the UK, this developed country, and find that they are struggling against the same social issues and can learn from how communities have organised over land and housing in Nairobi.

“Saving is an act of resistance”

Community Savers have been holding learning exchanges with Muungano activists since 2017 and during November’s exchange in Nairobi, Tina explained to Anas that:

“What changed for me was about the savings: I used to feel like I don’t want to save, I want to spend. But you told me that every time you save it is an act of resistance and that has really changed it for me.”

Savings groups are the building blocks of a united and powerful community-led movement for poverty reduction and the transformation of urban social power relations. Tina’s group are now beginning to see the fruits of building power through savings as on return to the UK they had a meeting with the housing provider at Hopton Court (above). The provider issued an official apology for the experiences of older people at the block and announced that they will be replacing the lifts to ensure elderly people are never put in a situation of being trapped in the building again.

Older tenants sharing their priorities for Ageing Well in Place at Hopton Court in Hulme, Manchester.

Aquarius Community Savers have also been able to build a new coalition of groups in their social housing estate who are coming together to form a new Aquarius Neighbourhood Forum including members of Hulme Tenants Union; Epping Park Warriors; Aquarius Tenants and Residents Association and Age-Friendly Hulme and Moss Side. They have worked closely with their local ward councillors to oppose a private development that would block the sunlight from Hopton Court gardens and put even more pressure on overburdened local services. They are now working with their councillors to request the rezoning of the Aquarius estate out of the city centre planning area and into the Inner South zone in support of a community-led plan for their thriving local community.

“Unity is our strength, Information is our power”

Muungano begin their meetings with call outs to their members “Unity? Is our strength! Information? Is our power!” During the final reflection at Muungano House on 25 November, Anastasia explained that:

“There are 43 tribes in Kenya, but at Muungano we know only two tribes: the haves and the have-nots”

Unity is critical to addressing this inequality.

We reflected on the importance of collective solutions and collective thinking. We discussed how in the UK people have become individual clients of government and service providers. Although it is good to have a social welfare system, it is provided in a way that has made people become passive. Tina observed that “it is given but it is never what you would have asked for. Now we are learning to ask for what we need.”

We reflected on the power of community data and also the value of university partnerships even though universities generally represent the “Haves”. Nicerah from Kibera shared how after she joined Muungano and began collecting data in her settlement, officials were asking her “How can you know how to make these survey questions on your own? What university did you go to?” Nicerah was able to tell them “My University is Muungano”.

Emily, a national leader from Mathare, explained how at the same time, Muungano has developed partnerships with university departments and their students. Students can help them to collect data and write up reports. This is not because the community cannot do it without their help, but it is about recognising that these students may be the next Planning Officer or Water and Sanitation official in the future: “If we teach them now, they may come back to us in the future”.

Validation is a critical step in the process: presenting the data collected back to the community through public meetings to enable them to correct inaccuracies and build a sense of ownership over the information and the change that the information makes possible.

Earlier in the week, as we began our learning exchange, Nancy explained that data collection underpins everything for Muungano: “we have to know ourselves” and this is the principle underpinning Know Your City TV…

Know Your City TV: “We can change the story”

One of the most inspiring engagements for UK activists during their week in Nairobi was with the Youth Federation leaders involved in data collection, advocacy, and Know Your City TV.

Through KYCTV young people are engaged in community action by creating opportunities for them to learn skills they are interested in like film-making and photography while leaders also engage youth through art, music and sports.

The UK team took home the principle of “Just One” – you only need one engaged young person to start a youth movement. That one person will be able to engage other young people.

UK delegates were inspired by their inclusive approach involving arts and sports and participatory approaches and tools for engagement and planning – especially the Tree of Transformation which enabled young people in Mukuru to come together for visioning of the changes they wanted to see and the conditions that they needed to foster to achieve those changes.

The Tree of Transformation on a wall in Mukuru where Muungano has successfully facilitated a bottom up planning process for 100,000 households in partnership with Nairobi County government.

Georgie from Arbourthorne asked the youth leaders what made them engage with Muungano and KYCTV as it can be hard to engage young people in the UK who say “nothing ever changes”. They explained that they grew up in the settlements and they saw politicians come and go with promises that they never delivered on. They recognised Muungano’s message that we have the solutions and we know our community best. We were tired of all the negative representations in the media and decided that with the training they were offering we can change the story.

Younger youths were inspired and motivated by older youth mentors who they looked up to. The older leaders explained that they put their trust in the young people to carry out data gathering and document Federation processes; and importantly they show them love and nurture them. The leaders focus on what the young people themselves are interested in and what they want to learn and: “Give them a chance to be who they are”.

They advised the UK team: “try to spot the ones with ambitions, start with them, find the youth that want change, show them the opportunities, show them a better way of life”.

Exchanges such as these between grassroots communities across different international contexts are critical for enabling communities to recognise their expertise and the commonalities of their experiences, struggles and strength within global and urban systems which act to exploit and oppress them. Yet they resist, they organise, and they grow stronger, smarter, and more effective through global solidarity networks: when they know each other, they build each other.