“Beyond patrolling, beyond the police, beyond anti-terror police activities which come from a global war on terror, what are people doing every day and what have they been doing every day to keep themselves safe?”
In this episode, Wangui Kimari talks to Patience Adzande about the unfolding safety and security domain research in Nairobi, how she hopes it will contribute to decolonising ideas and practices for security in the city, and the importance of cross-domain coordination for achieving urban transformation.

Wangui Kimari is a  junior research fellow at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town, participatory action research coordinator for the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and co-lead for ACRC’s safety and security domain research in Nairobi.

Patience Adzande is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Cities Research Consortium, working in the safety and security domain.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Patience Adzande Welcome to the ACRC podcast. My name is Patience Adzande, the ACRC postdoc for the Safety and Security domain. And with me today, I’ll be talking with Wangari Kimari from the Nairobi team. So welcome. 

Wangui Kimari Thank you, Patience. 

Patience Adzande  Please, can you tell me a little bit about yourself? 

Wangui Kimari So my name is Wangui Kimari. I’m Kenyan. My formal affiliation is with the Institute for Humanities in Africa at the University of Cape Town. I’m an anthropologist, and I’m currently engaged as the safety and security co-lead for the African Cities Research Consortium, in that work. So I’m doing that work also with a colleague of mine called Zoltan Gluck. 

Patience Adzande That’s great. So how does your previous research connect with the ongoing ACRC research? 

Wangui Kimari Over the last… I would say perhaps since 2007, I’ve been curious about certain dynamics in Nairobi and in particular how certain spaces – and you can cut this, but I’m trying not to sound like such an academic because it’s so boring – but also, over the last few years, I’ve been doing research around different political, ecological, social and economic dynamics that congregate or come together in poor urban settlements. And a lot of those dynamics, whether it’s historical exclusion or the criminalisation of poverty, lend themselves to understandings of safety and security. So that’s how I think, that’s what I bring to the programme, although I’m still a learner like everyone here. We are learning and we’re excited for what the next few months, perhaps years, will allow us to learn deeper about our city, but above all, the potential to co-create potential policy outcomes and potential coalition outcomes and potential safety and security outcomes. 

Patience Adzande Well, that’s great. So what is the focus of the safety and security domain in Nairobi? 

Wangui Kimari For us, we’re oriented around six main, I would say, guiding questions or perhaps themes. And I hope I can remember them all. But the first one is, we’re interested in defining security from a situated lens. So we’re not interested in so much to have normative descriptions or definitions of what security is, or insecurity. We know it differs from context to context and also depending on your class, on your gender, on your race, on your ability. And so we’re interested in using these situated insights to think about how people define security and safety for them. So that’s defining security. 

The second one is looking at the different people who co-produce security. Often we think about security in terms of patrolling or surveillance, but security is always co-produced and by, we like to think, an assemblage of actors – whether it’s a community health volunteer who responds to an injury or a mother who warns someone’s child not to get into, perhaps, criminal activity. So it’s always been co-produced. So we are interested in defining co-production. 

We are also interested in how different structural issues shape security concerns in the city, whether it’s historical economic exclusion, whether it’s religious bias. All of these things build into state institutions, how they come together and create structural violence, or structural causes of insecurity. 

We’re interested also in – we use this fancy word, but I think we’re going to take it back – we say “conjunctural analysis” of security, meaning how do different dynamics come together, not just political, economic or social, but how do they all come together and accrete over time to create concerns or security concerns? 

We’re interested – I’m so happy I remembered them all, I’m going to give myself a pat on the back – but we’re also interested in how certain events exacerbate safety issues, for example, and a cross-section of events, whether it’s elections or evictions or flooding or these different type of events. So that’s events. So, so far, it’s definition, co-production, structural dynamics, conjunctural concerns, events. 

But finally, we are really interested in thinking about and building on the work people are doing around alternatives to punitive security. So that’s our focus. And we’re embarking now on the actual on-the-ground work, which consists of interviews and focus groups and hopefully also participant diaries, where we’ll get people to write maybe for a month, people from different neighbourhoods, writing about security instances in their communities. 

Patience Adzande Okay, great. So can I ask you to please expand or explain more on the alternative punitive measures? Because from our previous conversations, I understand it’s a personal bias. 

Wangui Kimari Definitely a personal bias. 

Patience Adzande I think people would like to know more about that. 

Wangui Kimari It’s overwhelmingly a personal bias, but I think it’s also building on the work that many activists have been doing in this city to call attention to the fact that Nairobi’s often, for example, thought of a place with lots of crime. But crime in itself does not happen in a vacuum, but it’s caused by many structural factors. So our focus in that emphasis on alternatives to punitive security is highlighting these structural causes, whether on multiple scales, whether it’s global, meso, local. But also thinking about the work that people are doing to maybe question, or pushing for police reform and saying, instead of maybe putting people in prisons that were built in the colonial period and are 200% above capacity, leading to no rehabilitation, why don’t community groups take on rehabilitation? Or are there alternative dispute resolution mechanisms that people are using that are… Actually now, our judiciary has been talking about lots that are working, that then are working a lot more than just detaining, imprisoning or, in many cases of CVE, which is countering violent extremism, in these discourses, it also involves torture. So what alternatives are there? And we really would like to emphasise that. And thinking through that lens I think could be useful for our uptake colleagues to hopefully push forward. 

Patience Adzande Okay. Interesting. So how has the research been unfolding? What’s the progress you’ve made so far? 

Wangui Kimari We are lucky because we, Zoltan and I, come to this having thought about security, although through different entry points, for a few years. And so most of the work so far has been talking with each other, but also right now, having submitted our mapping note, that was a crucial moment to think about how we move forward and defining our next steps. So we are at the point of defining our next steps, and that will at the moment look like augmenting interviews – because, collectively, we have a lot of interviews from past work, but now augmenting interviews, thinking maybe about using the forthcoming elections as a case study. Thinking about where, which neighbourhoods are viable locations for focus groups. So that’s where we are. We’re really in there. Many people would say it’s not the most romantic place to be, I think maybe people like analysis after they’ve done all of this fieldwork, but I think it’s a great place and we are interested in where it will take us. So we will be carried with… we have these plans, but you know, fieldwork is fieldwork – it will take you in new directions. So we are excited for where it will take us. 

Patience Adzande Okay. So I’m glad you said you’re excited because the next question I was going to ask is, are you excited about doing this work? And what’s the most exciting thing for you about being involved in the ACRC research? 

Wangui Kimari You know, to be sure, and I’m not just saying this to get brownie points, but I think this convening has made it more exciting because it’s also anchored it more. I think initially we were just lots of Zoom meetings, trying to figure out where we are, but this meeting has grounded it a bit more and the potential to work with different domains, tackling the same issues, ultimately same structural issues, but the different entry points, is great. And this project has not been  very rigid in asking where we can go. So we are excited. That’s why we have this bias in seeing how we can also emphasise all these different security practices that are not often highlighted and a lot of it is grassroots community work, a lot of it is… It can be working by community health volunteers, but just highlighting that also as viable security practices and trying to find ways to support them, but also emphasising security work that is not punitive, that is not a martial response to socioeconomic issues. 

Patience Adzande Right. So what’s the challenging thing about working with the ACRC research? 

Wangui Kimari In the ACRC Research Consortium? Not so much, but I would say that for safety and security, you have to talk to organs who no one wants to talk to a researcher. The police don’t want to talk to a researcher so much. Finding connections through these different organs is not going to be easy, that’s what I’m least looking forward to, knocking on doors for interviews, especially with certain government institutions, is going to be a lot of work. But I think there’s a lot of support in the ACRC process. There’s also going to be a lot of cross-domain support. And so maybe we will build on that to try and overcome these challenges. 

Patience Adzande Okay, that’s great. So as you go into the next phase of your research, I’m going to try to test your knowledge on the focus of the ACRC research. So this question has two parts. So first, how do you understand the different components of the ACRC research: political settlements, city of systems, domains? And, the second part, how will you apply that understanding of the intersections of these different components to the safety and security issues in Nairobi? 

Wangui Kimari So city of systems, actually, I’m really glad that’s a crosscutting – is that the word, a crosscutting domain? Because security, how it’s manifested in people’s lives is sometimes often quite infrastructural. So in terms of water, in terms of who controls water has power, who controls garbage or solid waste management has power, who controls electricity, it’s power. And to be able to enact that power, it means you have both the potential to enact safety and security or to disrupt safety and security. And so it’s definitely very related. And certainly political settlements is relevant because in the security work, it’s conducted by multiple actors. So it’s not just the government, the police, askaris or security guards. It’s multiple actors and I think political settlement is quite relevant to an analysis of a sector with multiple actors who have salience at different times and also in different spaces. And so I hope I’ve passed the trick question, but that’s that’s how I see it. Although to be sure, I can’t lie, I’m still trying to wrap my head around political settlements. But I think with further engagements with that team, it will become clearer. 

Patience Adzande Okay, that’s great. Again, I will test your understanding of priority complex problems. So what are the PCPs that you envisage will emerge from the Nairobi city study? 

Wangui Kimari I really wish I had my mapping note in front of me. To be honest, I think my preference would be that we come to an agreement of PCPs with the whole Nairobi team, rather than domain specific, because I think that will lend more mobilisation around a particular PCP and more support. I’m sure other cities are complex. We all think our cities are complex, but I think if we can develop a PCP that attends to the different concerns of the four domains here, that for me would be my preference, because ultimately we need to transform. Transformation is structural, so it requires effort by all domains. 

Patience Adzande Okay, that’s great. So, do you have any previous experience working on such large-scale projects, or is this your first time? 

Wangui Kimari This one, I think, not just myself, but most people, it’s probably the largest. So there’s no comparison to ACRC. But it’s also, for as large as it is, I think it’s really doing a lot to be relevant to all of the different cities. So sometimes you can just, even some small projects, just swim in the air, because they’re not trying to be relevant. But this one, as large as it is, it’s really trying to ensure relevance in all the different cities. 

Patience Adzande Okay. So in Maiduguri, I’m trying to now see if we can find any forms of comparisons at the end of the day from the findings of the research across the cities. In Maiduguri, we have some non-formal groups that are involved in the provision of security. For instance, the Civilian Joint Task Force, which is made up of young, predominantly male adults, who are engaged in informal policing, surveillance and all of that. Do you have that kind of scenario in Nairobi and how does it work out? 

Wangui Kimari Often the best protection is afforded to rich communities. So if you’re a community on the margins, you have to piece together what security you have. And so here we have, for example, Nyumba Kumi, which is actually a government-sanctioned operation where ten households – ‘Nyumba’ means house and ‘Kumi’ means ten – ten households come together to be a security committee. That’s a form of community policing. But there’s also, for example, as I was talking about young groups or youth groups or youthful missions who collect solid waste, may actually say, since we have mapped out this geography, this is our community, we know all the households, we can also be a security group. So there’s groups like that as well. So there’s really multiple groups and they’re certainly context specific. Although in more prosperous parts of Nairobi, often the services are either the police or private security guard and maybe a residents’ association who has a WhatsApp group notifying people about different things. But more of these actors, who are often called informal, although they’re formalised in the contexts, operate in, for example, places like Mukuru, where you went to on Monday, or Mathare. 

Patience Adzande Okay. So from this we begin to see the intersections between the youth capability and development domain and the safety and security domain. So with the cross-domain interactions that we had yesterday, what really stood out for you and how do you intend to incorporate some of the things that you you learnt yesterday about the intersections between the domain into your Nairobi research? 

Wangui Kimari Honestly, it was a really helpful process to talk to all of the domains, because the domains were initially like, why? Well, I know I love the people in, for example, health, wellbeing and nutrition, but I have no idea where we are going together. And once you sit down with people, you see how security affects food and nutrition in different ways. And so I was really grateful for that learning and those insights. And so immediately that also affords us the recognition that there are different actors we should also be speaking with, whether it’s food vendors, who will be facing security risks if they don’t have the infrastructure or lighting at night. Or whether it’s the household microenterprises, who are the focus of the neighbourhood and district economic development group, because if they operate in a certain area, they may have to pay a bribe. So that’s also a security risk. And so the ability to have this complexity around security actors, security processes was really quite insightful. And we will take that forward in who we select, but also in our future analysis. 

Patience Adzande Okay, that’s great. There was a discussion yesterday on decolonisation. Now sometimes I’ve had the feeling that the whole decolonisation debate is too academic. So how in your opinion do you think we can make it more practical, in ways that … So for instance, one of my arguments yesterday was that we talk about decolonisation, decolonisation and decolonisation. If some of this research led by African scholars and the findings are handed over to the government, most of the African governments would not implement them. But when the findings come from Western scholars or they are led by Western institutions and organisations, they tend to be respected more. So how do we practicalise this decolonisation debate and take it beyond academic discourse?

Wangui Kimari You know, for us, that’s part of our emphasis on redefining security beyond what’s taken as a normative, to understand what does it mean to Africans living every day in Nairobi. And so those are part of… that decolonisation impetus is what drives these needs to expand definitions, looking at how security is co-produced, but also looking at security practices beyond those that were established by colonial authority in Kenya. So beyond patrolling, beyond the police, beyond anti-terror police activities which come from a global war on terror, what are people doing every day and what have they been doing every day to keep themselves safe? But also, to your point that maybe these recognitions are not going to be received with open arms by the government, that’s definitely something we should consider. But, ultimately, part of highlighting these practices is to offer just a humble and a small contribution to mobilising them and to validating them, which is also important. It’s just a humble contribution towards validating these really powerful grassroots processes that are already there and that are seeking to decolonise many things. So that is what I would say. Now, I hope we are not just armchair academics who write. But I really hope that by highlighting all of these different things – whether it’s different appreciations or recognitions of what security is, how it’s co-produced by many actors – I hope that can be a small contribution to decolonising ideas and practices for security. 

Patience Adzande Okay, thank you. So as we’re trying to round up, one question I would ask you is what do you think the ACRC should do differently? Or, if you don’t have anything to say on that, what do you think that the ACRC needs to project more? 

Wangui Kimari I think it’s too early for me to say. But what I appreciate so far, and I’m not just saying this so that Diana can be my best friend, although Diana, I hope you’ll be my best friend, but I really appreciate, and this meeting has really demonstrated for me, the amount of amazing people in this project. And I really appreciate the co-learning that’s going with that, that goes along with that in a very humble way. And so I think if we can continue with that and that can be foregrounded, a consistent co-learning and appreciation of the different experiences that people bring, that would be that would be great. So far, in just three days, it’s been really powerful. We’ve been confined to our safety and security cocoon, as you know, that’s trying to operate against very disparate time zones. So that wasn’t always this collective power that the people have in this process was not that evident until I came. And I hope ACRC can continue fostering that and that we as part of this collective can foster that. 

Patience Adzande Okay. So finally, and without attempting to pre-empt the findings of the study, what kind of urban security reform would you like to see in Nairobi? 

Wangui Kimari And I would give you a very broad response right now. I hope you can forgive me for that. But one that’s more people-centred and not so top-down and is invested in building generations rather than jailing generations, which is a lot of security in Kenya. So really, one that’s more people-centred, that is is shaped by a diversity of voices and is less top-down. 

Patience Adzande Okay. Great. So thank you very much for your time. Thank you for sharing your insights. It’s been great talking to you. 

Wangui Kimari Thank you. Thank you.

Patience Adzande I appreciate it.

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Header photo credit: SimplyCreativePhotography / iStock. Mathare informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.

Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.

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