Toi Market in the Kibra slum in Nairobi has been razed by a fire. Property worth millions of shillings was lost.
The market was where residents of Kibra would sell whatever merchandise they could in order to feed their children and pay rent for the tin and mud shacks they live, or rather, survive in.
A journalist, on a visit to the burnt-down market, reported that the alleys between the market stalls were so narrow that a fire starting in one shack was sure to jump to the next. That’s how the fire was able to spread so rapidly across the entire market.
A heartbroken resident of Kibra and a trader at the market narrated to the journalist how he desperately called the Nairobi fire brigade… to no avail. As usual after a tragedy largely due to the negligence of authorities, high-powered vehicles arrived at the scene and disgorged corpulent city and central government officials who condoled with residents for their loss.
And as usual, no one will be held responsible for this latest destruction of lives and livelihoods.
These types of disasters have become permanent features of our social landscape. Houses built with substandard materials and contrary to building codes kill tens of people every year.
Rescue crews cannot get to the sites because there are no access roads. Fires, like the one in Kibra, destroy lives and livelihoods because authorities turn a blind eye to contravention of by-laws.
The most mindboggling instance of this being the fire that consumed a whole village built on top of an oil pipeline.
Authorities must have been aware of this danger but no action was ever taken until lives had been reduced to ashes and charred bones. There was also the case of the collision between a train and a matatu because stalls had been built along the railway line blocking visibility for car drivers.
See no evil, hear no evil
Even lay people, leave alone the “educated” tumbo-crats at Kenya Railways, could see that such an accident was waiting to happen. If the current arraignment in court of Kenya Railways’ officials on corruption charges is anything to go by, we can infer that the tumbo-crats could not see the lurking danger because they were more “gainfully” engaged.
A few years back, a fire broke out in a high storey building in the Nairobi CBD. Nairobi fire trucks arrived late and without adequate water. There were no water hydrants nearby. Should it not be part of city planning to locate water hydrants in strategic places around the city and in residential areas? That was also when we learnt that the ladders of the fire trucks were not long enough.
Can we today be sure that if a fire broke out in the 28th floor of a building, the city would have ladders to reach it?
In Kenya, trying to get the person responsible for such acts of commission and omission that lead to the deaths of people is akin to the experience of the character named K. in Frantz Kafka’s novel The Castle, who dies while still trying to get an answer from the bureaucracy in the castle.
Yes, we are capable of learning from past mistakes. For instance, the reaction to the terror attack at dusitD2 in Nairobi showed that we had learnt from the shameful responses to the attacks at Westgate, Mpeketoni and Garissa. But the overwhelming instances, proved by the fire at Toi Market and the famine that looms in Turkana, indicate that we never learn from past mistakes.
Billions of shillings are stolen every couple of months. When we ask questions, we are scolded like errant children and reminded that this-government-is-better-than-previous-governments-in-fighting-corruption or, like in a recent case, we are told arrogantly that the amount alleged to have been lost is “only seven billion.”
Well, sir, the paltry seven billion can ensure better disaster preparedness in our cities; it can feed people in food insecure areas or pay for modern farming methods. If that small change is put into low-cost housing every year for five years, it could go a long way in reducing the size and number of slums in our cities.
The moral and logic of this argument is that if we do not learn from our mistakes, things will not fall into place naturally. All successful nations in history have this one understating in common. Likewise, all failing countries have one thing in common – they never learn from their mistakes.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.