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Where Women Are

Nanjala Nyabola
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

“During Elections They Do Not Refuse That We Exist!” Urban Borana Women, Structural Violence and the 2017 Kenyan Elections

Wangui Kimari


Often silenced within the broad category of ‘woman’ are other dynamics such as class and ethnicity. In this paper, I examine how Borana women who live in Kiamaiko ward in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s most marginalized constituencies, participate in electoral politics. As part of an ethnic community who have to struggle even to get national identity cards, I am interested in tracking their ideas about and practices for the 2017 elections. Three main questions guide this work: What do Borana women in Kiamaiko think about elections and mainstream political processes? What spaces do they use to intervene in both constituency-based and national politics, if at all? How do situated experiences of poverty, patriarchy and ethnicity impact their political practices? The answers to these questions can inform future scholarly and policy work directed towards enhancing inclusive electoral practice and representation. This chapter brings to the fore voices of a demographic often made invisible by categories such as ‘woman’ and ‘North Eastern, ’ in order to convey their political agency within and beyond normative electoral spaces, and the impact this has in their marginalized urban communities.

Texte intégral

Urban Borana Women

1I am sitting with Mama Amina and Rahma in the latter’s house in the far end of Mathare constituency, close to where Outer Ring road is being developed to become another of Nairobi’s superhighway arteries. Both are key members of the Borana community in Kiamaiko ward, and I am lucky to have found them available and amenable to my inquiries. This is my second visit in a few days, and I arrived knowing that I would be drinking cups of kahawa (coffee) as surely as the neighbours who would drop in to socialize, gossip, share resources or just deliver a friendly hello. To come here I have navigated the goat slaughterhouses and markets owned by Mathare’s Borana community. This is the place, it is rumoured, where the best and cheapest goat meat in Nairobi can be found; an enterprise that bridges numerous businesses, histories and kinships along the dusty road that runs from Moyale to Nairobi.

  • 1 Territorial stigmatization is discussed as “action through collective representation fastened on pl (...)

2Situated at the far eastern corner of Mathare constituency, for over forty years Kiamaiko has been home for the Borana women I am interviewing. The dearth of academic and journalistic literature on the Borana genealogies in this location has rendered invisible generations of this community who have carved a space for themselves in this part of Nairobi for decades. From a brief internet search (since an academic survey is not productive), the two most frequent references to Kiamaiko are meat and crime: “Nairobi’s gun supermarket” and its importance as the city’s foremost goat abattoir. Certainly, a “gun supermarket” indicates the territorial stigmatization1 of poor urban neighbourhoods in and beyond the city of Nairobi (Wacquant et al, 2014). These negative references, fastened onto place, work to spatially lock in particular life chances primarily for the young men of this urban locale, and this has bearing in their lives on both public and intimate scales. While the women I met experience the wide reaching penalties of these negative framings of their children, an impact that extends from, for example, being prevented from accessing national identification cards to police harassment for supposedly being ‘Al Shabaab, ’ they also know how the hard work and industry of their community is masked by these popularized pronouncements about the deleterious character of Kiamaiko.

3In the ten years I have worked in Mathare constituency I have come to appreciate the unique din of this particular quarter: the traditional Borana music filtering out of shops and homes, incense and coffee perched on or close to small charcoal stoves, the iridescent green of the ever present muguka (a stimulant similar to khat) leaves, and the bustle of a language from ‘North Eastern’— a signifier of pastoralism and an arid landscape, but mostly of distance from the cultures long associated with Nairobi’s urbanity. Since then, I have made friends with many of its women, children and men. They pierce the lazy blanket social category of ‘Muslim’ applied so easily to some communities in the East of this capital city – an ‘ethnic’ grouping taken to brush over a variety of different origins – and live a life shaped by long-standing urban tenure, traditions and the structural violence widespread in this part of Nairobi (see Wario, 2007).

4The women that I have come to meet are the backbone of the Borana community in Kiamaiko, and I am here to find out their ideas and political practices for the elections we are not being allowed to forget. Never mind the doctor’s strike, the paralyzed universities or famine in the now habitual locations; our national fervour, it appears, can only be for elections.

5In a seminal article, Wario (2007) states that much work needs to be done to document the comprehensive histories of urban Borana in Nairobi and beyond. As I revisit and add to my experiences in Kiamaiko ward since 2007, I am keen to heed his injunction. The task I take up, however, is more gendered, and my work is guided by the following questions: What do Borana women in Mathare think about elections and mainstream political processes? What spaces do they use to intervene in both constituency-based and national politics, if at all? How do their situated and connected experiences of poverty, patriarchy and ethnicity impact their political practices?

6This chapter is organised into three main sections. I begin with a brief history of the Borana in Nairobi, informed by interviews conducted, participant observation and the scant journalistic reportage that attends to this community in the city. Thereafter I look at the elections, those of both August and October 2017, and discuss what they meant for the Borana women leaders of Kiamaiko, and how they engaged with electoral politics against the backdrop of structural violence intersected with both ethnic and national patriarchy. I conclude by summarizing my main findings and by suggesting directions for further research in this area.

Borana in Nairobi

7When asked when they got here, the older of the two women leaders I am meeting with states that she arrived in 1964. The goal was to escape the famine in Moyale with her two children, and so she came to Nairobi with nothing but her offspring. She knew, however, that she would find kinsfolk in what is now Kamukunji constituency, and particularly in the areas of Majengo and California. For that reason, on arrival she went immediately to this part of Eastlands where, as she expected, she found many Borana who welcomed her and helped her settle in the city.

  • 2 The Shifta War refers to the Kenyan government’s military action against Kenyan Somalis in the Nort (...)

8Mama Amina’s arrival in Nairobi corroborates the historical narrative set-up in a recent newspaper article that traces Borana residence in Nairobi to the violent dislocations propelled by the 1963 Shifta War,2 but her description of the community she found in Nairobi reflects much longer histories – perhaps since before independence – of this ethnic community in Eastlands. Emphasizing her long tenure in Nairobi, Mama Amina recalls how she was in town shopping with her husband when Tom Mboya was shot—they both were only a few metres away from him when he was assassinated on the street that now bears his name. As a consequence, she describes how Nairobi has been their ushago (rural home) for a long time: they ate the first fruits of independence when life was cheap and you could buy unpackaged butter and milk from the shops, but now she is “crying” because she feels that she doesn’t live in the “prosperous” Kenya she once knew.

  • 3 This population estimate is given by Rahma.

9In contrast, Rahma, the younger of the two women, was born in Kiamaiko a few years after independence. Her father lived here from 1964 until his death in 2017, and came to escape the violence of the Shifta war. Her mother, however, had been in Nairobi since 1962. Now, together with her siblings, their families and even great grandchildren, the descendants of this pioneer couple constitute a crucial part of the 3400 Borana living in Kiamaiko ward.3

10In their navigations in this part of Nairobi throughout the years, this urban Borana population has managed to establish a goat slaughtering industry that is the economic hallmark of this area. Some residents say that this business, which is the heart of this ward, has transformed Kiamaiko and improved an image long associated with crime, since its profits have led to more jobs for young people and the development of better residential, transport and business infrastructure. At the same time, there are also complaints by non-Borana about the high rents in Kiamaiko, seen as a consequence of the profitability of the goat abattoirs, and these grievances are documented to have enabled increasingly tense inter-ethnic relations.

11What do these layered geographical relationships that extend from the borders of Ethiopia to poor urban settlements in Nairobi — encompassing particular experiences of ethnicity and economic enterprise— mean for the politics of urban Borana women in Mathare?


12During our meeting, when asked to talk about the impending national vote on 8 August 2017, Mama Amina looks resigned and declares that talking about the elections gives her [high-blood]pressure.” From the time she arrived in Nairobi in 1964, and as a founder of one of the most influential Borana traditional dance groups in the city, she has individually and in a performance troupe campaigned for numerous politicians locally and nationally -- much more than she would like to remember. “[Charles] Rubia, Andrew Kimani Gumba, Maina wa Nguku, Maina Wanjigi” and other successful and not so successful aspirants for Member of Parliament have all drawn upon her largesse in Eastlands to get them elected. Despite these efforts, “the next day they just pour shit on you… I am tired” she said unimpressed. But even before they can think about voting, Rahma, the younger of the two women, says that they first need to access IDs.

13Historical neglect and stigmatization of the North-Eastern region, as well as poor urban settlements and their residents, makes getting identity cards an arduous, if not impossible, feat particularly for young people. National identity cards are important since they are the most important document needed to affirm citizenship and belonging to Kenya, opening the door to both voting rights as well as the few public goods that exist. Lochery (2012) attends to these “graduated citizenship” struggles in an article discussing the historical uncertainties and violence governing the citizenship rights of Somalis in Kenya. Here she argues that:

Due to the way the Kenyan nation state has been constructed and negotiated since colonial times, some groups have more rights and protection than others. Somalis, other ethnic groups in northern Kenya, and groups like the Nubians in Nairobi are lower down the ‘citizenship ladder’ and more vulnerable to persecution and neglect (Lochery, 2012: 617).

14Certainly, due to historical and ongoing “patterns of marginalization and alienation” (Lochery, 2012: 618) in Northern Kenya, the Borana remain low on the “citizenship ladder.” This is a situation that also coheres in the lives of those rendered invisible— in both public discourse and academic literature—non-Kenyan populations that have been creating diasporic communities in the East of Nairobi for a number of years. Examples of these diasporas are the Buganda migrants in Mathare, urban refugees from Somalia in Eastleigh, as well the small, but growing, population of Nigerians and Congolese refugees in Kayole. What’s more, the situation is compounded by the prevailing context of ‘Al-Shabaab’ and ‘counter violent extremism’ interventions, which exacerbate the precarious conditions for Borana, especially young males, who are “thrown together with Somalis” and so have to be “vetted” before they are allowed to apply for documents such as passports and national identification cards. For Rahma, these identity document struggles have much greater meaning; they symbolize the generational gradations of Kenyan citizenship. Highlighting this she asks: “Does it mean that we are outcasts from Kenya or that we are something new in Kenya or that we have come to Kenya illegally? I want to know the meaning of this vetting!

15It was these very pronouncements that got the younger of the two women, Rahma, kicked out of the Chief’s office: the basic assertion that their Borana children are Kenyan even if “Kenya has not agreed,” is not willing to consider them citizens. In the past these women would perform traditional dances for state house guests (until this assignment was withdrawn without explanation in 1984) and felt that they had some audience with the government then—some political opportunities. Though they continued to be engaged in local Eastlands elections in the subsequent years, both as performers and as community contacts, these women say they have never seen any benefit from all of this hard work.

16As such, although they are undoubtedly the demographic and economic majority in this ward, the Borana population has never had any of their own elected as a political representative of Kiamaiko ward. They have tried but, as Mama Amina explained, “entering the system is hard.” What’s more, the increased poverty, insecurity and uncertainty that envelopes their neighbourhood makes them wonder whether any of their previous politico-cultural contributions to local electoral processes was even worth it.

17When I met them in March 2017, the two women declared that this year they would do something different. Though they were being looked for “like money” (and everyone it seems is zealously looking for money) by every possible aspirant— Member of Parliament (MP), Member of County Assembly (MCA) and even Women Representative candidates— they did not seem too interested in participating in the campaign machinations of these ambitious contenders. Instead, they had the more radical intention to call a meeting for all Borana women in Kiamaiko to discuss whether they were actually going to vote.

18The relevant people had been notified. And they even told the male community chairman that he needed to give them the space to decide what they want for themselves. Adamant, Rahma stated:

If any aspirant wants to come to us then we need to draw a collective strategy and they need to say what they are going to do for the Borana women and community. Since 1964, and our mothers have been voting from that day until now, they have not gotten anything done for them.

19Though I am certainly biased, I am inclined to think she is right: since my arrival in Mathare over a decade ago I personally have witnessed the struggles that Borana engage in to try and receive many basic services, and the sinister ways in which a radicalization narrative is tightening its grip around their children. Moreover, because of violent contentions over land, influenced by an autochthony narrative, many Borana have been displaced from Ruai, Kasarani and Njiru in Eastlands. For these reasons, against the backdrop of the looming elections, their fears of possible eviction from Mathare were more pronounced.

20In March 2017, these experiences were being discussed in their many collectives and were high on the agenda of the meetings of Borana women in Kiamaiko. They had also declared that until they had a conclusive decision as a community, neither Mama Amina or Rahma would be organizing or performing traditional dances for any aspirants: they would not be endorsing anyone nor taking their phone calls.

21During elections they do not refuse that we exist” Mama Amina exhorted. Without a doubt this was a loaded statement, an indication that though at other moments their political existence was on unsteady ground, during elections they were affirmed as citizens, urban residents and a voting bloc worthy of courtship by politicians. Away from the ballot period, they remained poor Mathare residents with what were regarded as tenuous claimants to the city despite their long tenure here, while also embodying the phenotype of what we have normalized as dangerous foreigners. The intersection of both of these phenomena— precarious urban and citizenship rights—had a huge bearing on their thoughts for and practices of politics. And as these women leaders and their community were inevitably remembered by political candidates for the first time since the previous election period, they were keen to show that though they are still around, this time – mirroring the absenteeism of the political representatives they had voted in during the previous election but who they had not seen since – it is their votes which may refuse to exist.

August and October Elections

22Reflecting on the historic voting patterns of Kenyans in North Eastern, Carrier and Kochore, (2014: 137) argued that: “elections could therefore be said to be one national ritual in which the residents of Kenya fully participate.” Interestingly, during both the August and October elections, the Borana residents of Kiamaiko both confirmed and disproved this assertion.

23Since the two women leaders had boycotted doing all the campaigning that they had habitually done for candidates – the dancing and mobilizing on their behalf – I had assumed that they and large segments of their community would also shun the election. They did in large numbers, but just in Kiamaiko. The August elections, instead, saw the whole community, save a hundred or so people, taken in “buses and buses” from their bases in Nairobi to go and make sure that they elected a Borana governor in Marsabit County. Referring to this spectacular exodus, a non-Borana interlocutor told me: “it is true! They started leaving a week before elections!

24When we met again in November 2017, I asked Rahma about the motivations behind this community electoral strategy, why roughly only a hundred Borana remained to vote in Kiamaiko, while the rest went in bus loads to Marsabit County. Though born in Nairobi, she shared unreservedly that they had decided to vote in Marsabit because they felt that they should go “home” and elect one of their own who could hopefully “do something” for them since in Nairobi they were barely recognized. Notwithstanding the spiritual, social and economic bonds they had with Marsabit that would motivate their investments in who was to take up political leadership in that County, what is also important to note is that in Nairobi they remained neglected, with memories of votes of one of their own stolen in both 2007 and 2013. For these reasons, Marsabit was an opportunity, however ephemeral, to change their political fates, especially with the multiscale promises conferred by devolution.

25In an analysis of the 2013 elections in Northern Kenya, Carrier and Kochore (2014), speak of the importance of ethnic allegiance as well as how:

In the multiparty era, candidates have gone to great lengths to ensure that the numbers from their own ethnic groups or clans were maximized, often by transporting large numbers of their fellows from other regions to their constituency to register, ultimately promoting an instrumental “ethnic strategizing” (2014: 138).

26I would add that in the case of the Borana in Kiamaiko, what also impacted their voting (or non-voting) decisions in August 2017 was the structural neglect they encounter in their everyday lives in the city and nation at large. For mothers such as Rahma, this is evident in the absence of political representation, since political parties do not support urban Borana in party primaries and are understood as “stealing” elections, but is more acutely felt in the distribution of services, including the “CDF [community development fund] and [school fees] bursaries,” where this community is not recognized. Though, the Gabra vs Borana duel that was evident in the Marsabit gubernatorial contest may have further emphasized the importance of ethnic allegiances, I would suggest that the urban precarity they face and the constant reminders that Nairobi (and, indeed, Kenya) is not their home, played into the apathy they channelled towards the elections as a whole. These combined violences are formalized through what Lochery (2012: 615) refers to as the “way specific social relations are embedded within the structures of the state [which] affects the distribution of rights and resources within different groups of citizens.”

27Their failure to get, for example, national identity cards, political voice, and unthreatened tenure security in Nairobi, exacerbated by increased surveillance by security forces during this era of terror, evidences the institutionalized discrimination that impacts their willingness to engage in formal political processes. Against conditions of increasing precarity in Kiamaiko, these women leaders and their Borana community are “tired” of the seemingly vacuous nature of electoral contests. So much so that when asked what she did during the 26 October presidential re-run contest, Rahma shared that she and her neighbours “just stayed at home.


  • 4 Lochery explains how this plays out in the case of Somalis since 1989.

28The dearth of both academic and journalistic literature that examines the long tenure of urban Borana in Nairobi is noteworthy. Certainly it must also speak to the essentialized correlations between territory and lineage in Kenya: the problematic understanding that people from North Eastern Kenya cannot be urban or have longstanding tenure in Nairobi (see Lochery, 2012).4 Much of what has been written about this ethnic community, in both Kenya and Ethiopia has portrayed them overwhelmingly as pastoralists, a framing that does not recognize their presence and various industries in urban neighbourhoods such as Kiamaiko and Kayole.

29Furthermore, there is an inordinate focus on men and their activities, and these women remain in the shadows of broader categories such as Borana and North Eastern. What’s more, even when the political experiences of women in Nairobi are foregrounded in a variety of discourses, they remain largely unaccounted for in this gender grouping, a phenomenon which also, perhaps, inadvertently gestures towards the marginalization of Muslim voices in local academic work, as well as in mainstream women’s formations in Kenya in general.

30This brief ethnographic paper has attempted to shed light on the political ideas and practices of urban Borana women in Mathare constituency, and specifically in Kiamaiko ward. It tracks the dynamics that impact their political choices: historical neglect and ethnic allegiances that are engaged with in a variety of gendered ways. Though recognizing that some of the political decisions women make may not be different from that of male members of their community, due to the scaffoldings of local and national patriarchy that still shape their decisions, this chapter makes apparent the crucial enterprise of urban Borana women who are approached by candidates to influence electoral outcomes in this ‘swing vote’ location. The cultural work they do through music and dance groups, and that is coupled with situated political mobilizing, evidences their role as leaders who steer their communities in ways that negotiate institutionalized state violence, patriarchy and the inequalities that layer Nairobi.

  • 5 See Kenya National Commission for Human Rights reports (2017a; 2017b) for more on the police violen (...)

31Since the election period of 2017, these Borana women from Kiamaiko have been involved in a number of grassroots initiatives. These are efforts for community advocacy and justice that take place in both Mathare and in Marsabit County. Future research can attend to how these leaders suture gendered cultural and human rights objectives in their work within and for alternative political spaces in Kiamaiko, Marsabit and elsewhere. Although constantly struggling with structural conditions that reproduce their vulnerability, and still reeling from and trying to forget the state violence that they saw and heard in Mathare during both of the voting periods,5 these women defiantly work to increase the spaces for political redress and practice beyond any election. In these activities, they recognize and chip away at the marginalization facing Borana and Mathare as a whole, an incredible feat for urban women rarely taken to exist.



Achuka V. 2013. Kiamaiko’s fall from vibrant goat market to hub of illegal guns. Daily Nation, (Retrieved December 8, 2017).

Carrier N., Kochore H. 2014. Navigating Ethnicity and Electoral Politics in Northern Kenya: The Case of the 2013 election. Journal of Eastern African Studies 8 (1): 135-152.

Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR). 2017a. Press Statement 12th August 2017 Status Update on Developing Post Election Human Rights Violations. KNCHR, 2017 % 20.pdf?ver=2017-08-12-202548-347 (Retrieved September 2, 2017).xs

Kenya National Commission for Human Rights (KNCHR). 2017b. Still a Mirage: A Human Rights Account of the Fresh Presidential Poll for the Period September and November 2017 Wednesday, 20th December 2017. KNCHR, December 8, 2017).

Lochery E. 2012. Rendering difference visible: The Kenyan state and its Somali citizens. African Affairs 111 (445): 615-639.

The Nairobian. 2017. Did you know how Kiamaiko, Eastlands, became city’s meat capital? The Nairobian, (Retrived June 7, 2017).

Thomas Reuters Foundation. 2017. Goat slaughterhouse driving Kiamaiko slum economy. The Star, (Retrived December 8, 2017).

Wacquant L., Slater T., Virgilio B.P. 2014. Territorial Stigmatization in Action. Environment and Planning A 46 (6): 1270–1280.

Wario Arero H. 2007. Coming to Kenya: Imagining and perceiving a nation among the Borana of Kenya. Journal of Eastern African Studies 1 (2): 292-304.


1 Territorial stigmatization is discussed as “action through collective representation fastened on place” (Wacquant, Slater and Pereira, 2014: 1278).

2 The Shifta War refers to the Kenyan government’s military action against Kenyan Somalis in the North Eastern Region of Kenya between 1963 – 1967. This war was started because Kenyan Somalis had threatened to secede from Kenya and join Somalia. Other ethnic groups in this region were impacted severely by the violent measures the government used, including enclosing communities into forced villages, to put down this secessionist threat. A recent newspaper article suggests that the dislocations catalyzed by this war could have motivated Borana to move to Nairobi and settle in Kiamaiko, although there is no explanation given for why Kiamaiko was the neighbourhood of choice for these Borana migrants. See more here: The Nairobian. “Did you know how Kiamaiko, Eastlands, became city’s meat capital?” The Nairobian, 2017. [archive].

3 This population estimate is given by Rahma.

4 Lochery explains how this plays out in the case of Somalis since 1989.

5 See Kenya National Commission for Human Rights reports (2017a; 2017b) for more on the police violence that occurred in Mathare during and after the ballot processes of August and October 2017.


Is an urban anthropologist affiliated with the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Her research work historicizes the connections between urban planning, violence, subjectivity and ecology in Nairobi.

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