As a rapidly growing town, Voi faces the same problems that contribute towards the growth of slums in bigger cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa.
Speaking of slums, few people know that there exists one right in the centre of Voi town adjacent to the central business district (CBD). Many Voi residents have never ventured there, scared by the slum’s notoriety. The slum, known as Maweni, is characterized by crime, illicit brews, drugs and other social vices. However, the area is slowly changing as the CBD slowly takes over space previously occupied by shanties.
Maweni is located at the lower end of Voi’s CBD behind Sechu Plaza Hotel (formerly known as La Paz) and Maghonyi Hotel. ‘Maghonyi’ is a Taita word for ‘Maweni’ which in turn means a rocky area. There are big rocks all over Maweni on which houses are built. The area is bordered on one side by the CBD while the old railway line forms the opposite boundary. The western side is bordered by Bondeni. This makes Maweni a rather constricted piece of land hence densely packed houses.
Herman Mwashighadi, a carpenter in the area, says Maweni began at around the time Kenya got independence. Back then, the land was unoccupied. As it lies adjacent to the Voi railway station, some retired railway workers opted to settle there rather than return to their rural homes. A report compiled by researchers from the University of Helsinki puts Maweni’s origins at 1965 when village elders begin illegally allocating plots to squatters. Interestingly, according to the report, the elders were allocating land for free. As Voi grew, Maweni increasingly attracted low income workers such as hawkers and matatu touts. Many other people made their living from farming along the nearby Voi River.
Despite the many years that Maweni has existed, living conditions in the slum are very difficult for the inhabitants. Houses are built of temporary or semi-temporary materials such as mud, wooden poles, cardboard and scrap metal. The main reason why there are no permanent homes at Maweni is the lack of land ownership documents. Residents therefore live in constant fear of eviction.
The lack of legal title hinders the development and maintenance of structures. Residents that can afford to improve their housing decide not to risk their money for fear of eviction. Landlords are unwilling to improve the structures because they don’t know for how much longer they will own them. Besides, Maweni’s location ensures there is high demand for cheap housing and the landlords make money with little investment in maintenance. Tenants are often indifferent, because the plot and the structure belong to somebody else.
Recent developments show that the CBD is slowly extending into Maweni with high rise buildings and parking lots now a feature of that part of Voi. This however creates a social dilemma because the conversion of the land into higher value commercial use displaces the poverty-stricken residents. For many of them, economic activity revolves around the CBD and they cannot afford to live far away. On the other hand, proponents of real estate development say change is a natural state of affairs and that nothing ever stays the same. Both arguments are valid.
Supporters of real estate development in Voi say the spread of modern commercial buildings into Maweni is a good thing because it will open up the area to roads, electricity and other forms of infrastructure. The quality of housing would improve and there would be more business activity that would create jobs. Furthermore, the development of Maweni would eliminate criminal activity so close to the CBD thus improving the overall quality of life in Voi town.
Only time will tell what Maweni will look like in future. At present, the residents of Maweni pray that time is on their side.
Photo courtesy: Eyesee studios.
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