One woman’s fight to save Nairobi’s playgrounds and public spaces


IT’S hard to keep up with Renee Ngamau. 

From mentoring women entrepreneurs to campaigning against police brutality, the Kenyan lawyer, businesswomen, human rights activist – and former prime-time radio disc jockey – has taken up many social causes over the years.

But Ngamau’s latest crusade to protect Kenya’s urban playgrounds has perhaps hit home more than most as she finds herself fighting to save her own housing estate from losing its green spaces to illegal encroachment by private developers.

“I grew up here. I used to swing from the branches of that tree right over there. We used to play at that playground,” said Ngamau, 48, sitting under a large tree in the lush greenery surrounding Jamhuri Estate in Nairobi.

“This is my home, my community. But over the years, there has been an unhealthy interest in these communal spaces where people are using dubious means to acquire property and deprive children and infants from a space that is much needed.”

Children play in the green spaces that surround Jamhuri Estate in Nairobi on Oct 9, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla

Jamhuri Estate, a leafy planned residential area comprising 229 faded whitestone homes, was built in the late 1960s as a model of how urban citizens would live in a newly independent Kenya.

On its handful of manicured fields dotted with decades-old trees filled with monkeys, children play football and hide-and-seek in the late afternoons, while older residents indulge in aerobics classes on weekend mornings.

But like many of Africa’s towns and cities, Nairobi’s burgeoning population has led to increased demand for housing, office and business spaces and infrastructure such as roads, resulting in a rapid decline in public spaces.

A lack of transparency in acquiring land and issuing title deeds has also made the city fair game for unscrupulous developers and individuals to encroach on community lands.

Spaces seen as public, such as back alleys, neglected fields and courtyards, are increasingly being built upon, with little or no consultation with local communities.

Children play in the green spaces that surround Jamhuri Estate in Nairobi on Oct 9, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla


Ngamau, who chairs Amnesty International Kenya as well as her local residents’ association, said the encroachment in her estate is symbolic of what is happening across Kenyan towns and cities.

In the last six years, a block of flats has been built over a playing field, land reserved for a kindergarten taken for the construction of a church, and a number of bars and car washes have cropped in Jamhuri Estate, she said.

“Residents have faced so much stress from seeing their houses damaged and devalued due to the encroachments. If they try to protest against the developers, they are harassed and threatened,” said Ngamau, who has two children.

“They have lost their privacy, children are losing safe spaces to play and the unplanned constructions are putting a strain on utilities like water, sewage and electricity.”

The residents’ latest dispute with a developer who erected a water tower next to one of the estate’s playgrounds hit the headlines in September after Renee was arrested and falsely accused by the owner of removing the 20-feet (six-metre) tower. 

The charges against Ngamau were later dropped, with authorities saying there had been no basis for her arrest.

But Ngamau said the manner of her arrest – 11 police officers showed up at her home late and escorted her to the police station  – followed a pattern of intimidation. 

“It’s not unusual for people defending public lands to be threatened or harassed, even by the police as the private developers have more power, money and influence than residents,” she said

“This weaponisation of the police for private interests is common and Kenyans have seen this time and time again.”

Kenyan Police spokesman Charles Owino did not respond to phone calls and messages requesting comment on the allegation.

A resident at his balcony in Jamhuri Estate in Nairobi on Oct 9, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Nita Bhalla


Since her arrest, Ngamau said, she has been contacted by 44 residents associations in Nairobi and other countries facing similar challenges.

“They are saying to me, ‘How can we join your fight because our spaces are being grabbed as well? What is happening to you is happening to us,'” said Ngamau.

“There is a desperate need for Kenyans to reclaim our community spaces. These public spaces are protected under the constitution and authorities are holding them in trust for communities, not to allocate them at will.”

Earlier this month, Ngamau was awarded the United Succes Global Award titled “Women Moving Mountains” for her efforts to defend playgrounds and open spaces.

Organisers said the award recognised “her dedication to community and environment through her work with the Jamhuri Residents Association that took personal sacrifice this year.”

Drawing her inspiration from the late Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to save Kenya’s forests, Ngamau said she would continue her work – despite fears for her own safety.

Maathai, who won the Peace Prize in 2004, had to endure being whipped, tear-gassed and threatened with death for her devotion to Africa’s forests and her desire to end the corruption that often spells their destruction.

In 1989, Maathai’s protests forced then-president Daniel Arap Moi to abandon plans to erect an office tower in Uhuru Park, an oasis of green that flanks the main highway running through the centre of Nairobi.

Ngamau recalled how she had met Maathai at an event her mother had taken to when she was teenager, and said at first,  she was angered Maathai was risking her own safety for the sake of the environment.

“I said to her, ‘Why are doing this? You have a daughter like me to look after’.”

“She turned to me and said, ‘It is precisely because I have a daughter like you that I am doing this. I want to be able to provide a fitting reply when she asks, where were you when they tried to take Uhuru Park?” – Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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