Disability housing and sustainability - interview with Abraham Mariech pictured here with disabled children in an informal settlement.

Disability, housing and sustainability: Interview with Abraham Mariech

Grantham Scholar Abraham Mariech researches disability, housing and sustainability in Kenya, where he was born and grew up.

Abraham has just got back from fieldwork in informal housing settlements in Kenya. As we discuss in this interview, Abraham’s work shows that the social pillar of sustainability is vital for sustainable housing projects to succeed.

Especially important is the lived experiences of people with disabilities, who are currently not included in most discussions about housing.

Abraham’s fieldwork in informal settlements

What’s your research about?

I look at the lived realities of people living with disability in informal settlements in the Global South. Informal settlements are characterised by low income, very poor living conditions and very basic housing.

I have just got back from the field, and so it’s a great time to talk about my work.

What are informal settlements?

Informal settlements are houses that are built on illegal or untenured lands. People do not have the legal right to be there. Often informal housing is located near to job opportunities, like factories.

The reality is that cities are where the jobs are, so they tend to attract populations from smaller towns or rural places.

And informal housing comes about because demand for houses outstrips the provision of services like housing, transport, sewers and water use.

Do people stay in informal housing long term?

For some it is a stepping stone to move into more formal housing. They settle there for a while, and then get their economic situation together.

Others are there for the long term, they get used to that kind of life.

An aerial photo of one of Abraham’s research sites in Kenya. Photo by Abraham Mariech.

Are there connections between people in the informal settlements and the city?

Yes, the relationship the larger cities have with informal settlements is enmeshed in so many ways.

For instance, you’ll find many women who engage in informal labour activities in the city, like cleaning.

The connection is strong. Without these informal settlements the whole city loses a significant segment of itself.

Are there landlords in informal settlements?

As informal as those areas are, you still find ownership. There is a sort of informal rent system.

So, somebody comes and looks for a house in town, but they end up in an informal settlement, where they pay rent. And it’s the same with services, like sanitation, or security, there are systems that provide them. So people end up paying for an informal structure.

Social relationships are interconnected. People mingle. Those who own properties in informal set ups, some of them live in those neighbourhoods. They choose that informal lifestyle, even though they have properties elsewhere. So the interplay between property owners and their tenants is strong.

You just got back from fieldwork, how was it?

I found that my scope has widened with so many issues, especially political aspects. People with disabilities go through many lived experiences.

Where in Kenya was your fieldwork?

I work in Eldoret in Northern Kenya.

Eldoret is one of the fastest growing cities in Kenya and it is a unique research opportunity for that reason. The dynamic of Eldoret’s informality is different from a global city like Nairobi, the capital city in Kenya.

Arguably it is a research context that hasn’t been explored.

Why Kenya?

Firstly, Kenya possesses a lot of potential in terms of urbanisation trends. It’s in Eastern Africa and it has one of the fastest urbanisation trends there. It has classical examples of cities within the Global South: where urbanisation rates are high.

And secondly the growth of informal settlements in Kenya is typical of the urban south.

How do you go about doing fieldwork into disability, housing and sustainability?

I interviewed 35 people and visited their homes.

Mine was partial ethnography but I was able to go and get a feel for how people with disabilities encounter their daily lives.

My aim was to try and understand their challenges, such as accessing water and travelling to town.

How did you find the difference between the academic side of your work and fieldwork?

It was a challenge. And it was my first time doing something like this. Thankfully I have very supportive supervisors who were checking on me.

The main challenge was it being my first time doing ethnographic type study. There are theories written down in books and at the same time there are these real world challenges.

When doing ethnography you are working from the bottom-up, beginning with people’s experiences and generating more wider theoretical claims from this experience. It is a fascinating aspect of the whole venture.

How did you approach working with people with disabilities?

Specifically, forming a relationship with these specific groups, when I don’t have a disabled condition, was a challenge.

It is important to create a rapport where someone will tell you their lived experiences. To do this, I had to gain trust and find ways to explain myself.

At the same time, the leverage that I used was that I know some of the settlements. For instance Eldoret is a city I know well because I partially grew up there. Some of these communities I know.

Photo showing Abraham and a community leader in one of the research sites.

Informal housing and sustainability

Here we talk about disability, housing and sustainability. And Abraham explains why the social pillar of sustainability is vital to its success.

How does your work with housing and disability connect to sustainability?

A key challenge for various governments in the Global South is the growth and proliferation of informal settlements. Especially around upgrading the livelihoods of informal inhabitants. Which has to happen sustainably.

Here the 3 pillars of sustainability come into focus: economic, environmental, and social.

This is where I create a niche for my research, because the social pillar is not sufficiently being factored into policies or research about how to transform cities in the Global South. And a focus on people with disabilities is a good place to find the social impacts of housing and sustainability.

For instance, in Nairobi people in informal settlements constitute 60-70% of the 4 million people living there. You cannot ignore such a huge segment of the population.

Is there a tension between top down goals like the SDGs and the people they affect?

At the moment, yes, people at the top make decisions.

But as scholars and activists we need to keep emphasising strategies like co-production or working as co-researchers with research participants.

Coming in with all the theories and all the knowledge and putting it on a target group won’t work. We need to understand livelihoods in a way that we are producing this knowledge with them. In this way we can understand things from the bottom all the way up.

Can you explain more about the social pillar of sustainability?

Care for people with disabilities is a good example. It is something that most housing projects won’t consider: care as an issue that can influence housing. Yet it affects both those providing care and those receiving care.

Another example is relationships. For instance, low income neighbourhoods often have cooperatives that bring services together to serve all. This is about networks of people, about relationships. But again, they aren’t usually considered.

Finally, culture. The culture of a particular place isn’t normally considered in the sustainability agenda. Cultural sustainability entails the enhancement of cultural beliefs, identities and values such as art, building heritage, food or music that is unique to particular places and communities. As people strive to maintain their sense of self and place, decisions and actions relating to sustainability need to take into account a community’s cultural capital (culture).

Can we do more harm than good if we don’t pay attention to the social pillar?

I went to the field to look at structural issues about housing, but when I got there I saw there were so many other issues about housing.

So I went further to look at the social dynamics that support housing and the politics too.

We need nuanced conversations about politics. So many of the people I spoke to were decrying corruption. Social protection services like government stipends meant for the disabled in informal settlements were not reaching them due to corruption. The funds are channelled to benefit a few.

Abraham and a person with a physical disability next to his informal house.

Critical disability theory and intersectionality

Abraham’s work engages with 2 main theories: critical disability theory (CDT) and intersectionality. Here we talk about what these are, and how they show up in informal settlements. 

What is critical disability theory?

Critical disability theory shifts the focus on disability from the physical impairment of a person, the medical perspective.

Instead the focus is on socially disabling factors that tend to impede people with disabilities, factors such as stigma and ableism.

Overall, critical disability theory looks at those social predicaments that affect the disabled.

How are you using critical disability theory?

You find that critical disability theory is often applied in the Global South how it has been used in the north.

So the different dynamics in the Global South are not taken into account. For example, how cultural aspects like witchcraft and religion relate to disability.

So the focus of my research is about understanding the social and spatial dynamics within cities and informal settlements. And I then use theories, like CDT, to espouse the everyday lived experiences of people there.

Another theory you’re working with is intersectionality, can you explain how that relates to informal settlements?

Intersectionality is an idea whereby within any system you have diversity and inequalities that cut across different social identities.

These inequalities can be to do with race, religion, gender, ethnicity and nationality etc. Out there in the field I was able to see the interplay and their relations to each other.

For example, one of the people I worked with was a woman with disabilities. She might not be able to use the same sanitation facilities as a man with disabilities can. And the experiences of somebody who is from a different community or ethnic background and living with disability will be different again.

Why do you think humans treat each other so differently?

I think it’s basic to humanity, but the dynamics differ.

The UK situation is different to how Kenya is or how South Africa is. We need to explore those dynamics and look at them from below. I think that the fact is it is often inadvertent. Even with people knowing that they’re practising it, they can stop it. So it’s an issue that we cannot walk away from. We have to continue the conversation.

The best way is to understand those dynamics and to spearhead policy about inclusion. Because ultimately we’re working towards more inclusive societies and communities.

How does the Kenyan state see informal settlements?

It goes back to intersectionality. You find within a city that there are specific neighbourhoods for certain ethnic backgrounds or groups. Going there as an outsider, you’re treated differently by the property owners, landlords and even by your neighbours.

What matters in informal settlements is social lives. People depend on each other. So when you go somewhere and you’re seen as disconnected, you’re seen as an ‘other’.

For example, in Nairobi certain settlements – formal and informal – are classed by their background. And you’re treated differently if you don’t ‘belong’.

Is there a hierarchy in Kenya, with certain groups discriminated against?

Yes, and it is comparative to racism only it’s not racism. It’s a different form of social exclusion, you can call it tribalism. A particular tribe forms the majority of the people in a city.

For instance where I was doing my research, there is a majority tribe there and pockets of minority tribes. So each group’s experiences are different. For instance, in how they encounter issues to do with politics and representation, areas where those from the majority are favoured.

Exclusion comes into play in so many ways. You find that you have the majority who make choices for others, for the minority.

Abraham and a woman whose child is disabled outside her informal house.

Agency, disability and informal settlements

Here Abraham explains what he’s learnt about how people with disabilities navigate life in informal settlements. 

Can people with disabilities have more agency in informal settlement housing?

What I realised from interacting with my respondents who live with disabilities is there are what we might call good elements for them in informal settlements.

They may have stayed in social housing before and then moved out into informal settlements. Issues that affect them as people with disabilities aren’t any better in formal housing.

So sometimes informal settlements are better for people with disabilities?

There were people who could affect changes that suited them as people with disabilities within the informal setup, because of the flexibility in the housing structures. Unlike in a formal system, where you get a landlord with a row of houses all the same, both for people with disabilities and those without.

As a disabled tenant appropriating such houses to suit one’s disabled condition is usually impossible given the type of housing.

But of course problems are also there in informal settlements. Experiences differ.

What sense did you get from people who live in informal settlements about what they want?

I think that’s a critical question.

So many policy makers say that the best remedy to help a group is to eradicate the informal settlements. And then put up social housing and issue blocks to people from informal settlements. However, it has been tried and has been proved not to work in so many ways.

What were the sorts of things people want to happen?

In my experience with the people I interacted with, it’s not drastic measures they need. Instead they want basic issues to be sorted out. For instance, accessibility and roads. If somebody is going to empty their latrine and a track doesn’t reach a site it’s hard.

Also, there are vulnerable groups like the elderly or people with disabilities who are eligible for government stipends but don’t get them. We need the politics to be set aside and for policies to be implemented. There needs to be less corruption.

Overall, they aspire to basic changes from the government. And this is again where politics comes in – they need representation.

Disability housing and sustainability: this image shows a track in an informal settlement and a man on crutches walking down it.
A person with walking difficulties in an informal settlement in Kenya.

What next for Abraham Mariech

Abraham is currently writing up his thesis. Here he explains what he wants to do after he’s completed his PhD on disability, housing and sustainability.

Who should read your work?

I’d like my work to inform policy that affects transformation in cities in the Global South. Transformation to do with upgrading these informal settlements.

Because there are so many strategies that governments try to adopt. And groups such as a disabled are overlooked, for instance they rarely feature in things like censuses. The details about what kind of housing they occupy are not featured in national conversations.

My aim is to change policy so that there is an understanding that these low income neighbourhoods have various groups of people, who have different situations and experiences, and that these interconnect.

So you want to focus on the social pillar of sustainability?

There is an overemphasis on the environmental and economic pillars, a lot of talk about renewable energy or low carbon housing.

But hardly anyone is talking about the social aspects, which are fundamental for any sort of development.

If those factors aren’t considered then projects end up failing, no matter how well designed.

So what is your overall goal?

My overall goal is to advance the social agenda within the SDGs.

In the short term I will go back home. I work for the Kenyan government at the local level and I wish to rise to higher echelons to influence the national government about housing and inclusion.

I’m from a tiny town in Northern Kenya, it’s called Kapenguria. I’m – in quotes – from one of the minority communities. So I really aspire to make a contribution around informal settlement transformation and general city management. And especially that social sustainability aspect.

That’s what inspires me.

The main image is of Abraham and children with disabilities at a care facility within an informal settlement. Photo by Desmond Kibet.

Interview by Claire Moran.

If you want to find out more about housing and sustainability then you can read interviews with 2 other Grantham Scholars.

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