Slums – bidonvilles in French or informal settlements as they are known in South Africa – have been mushrooming in Africa everywhere and every day, as the world’s highest-urbanised continent continues to face extreme poverty and lack of service delivery in rural communities, and state corruption, but mostly a wave of uncontrolled population growth.
From Dakar to Cape Town, from Johannesburg to Nairobi and from Kinshasa to Cairo, the situation is the same: make-shift and overcrowded ‘houses’ lining the streets of big cities, with dirty, naked, malnourished and big bellied kids playing in the dust, being by watched over by their unemployed and visibly-stressed parents basking in the morning sun.
The housing crisis is Africa, generated by rural exodus towards the so-called prosperous and developed cities, is massive and horrible.
And it is not going to go away soon, experts say.
There are currently over 200 000 slums, and over one billion slum dwellers in the world, according to the UN.
Most city dwellers in the world, at least one-third, live in slums.
What is a slum?
Definitions of a slum vary from one school of thought to another.
But David A Smith, of the Affordable Housing Institute, defines slum in 12 modes, three of which will be given today and the rest gradually in our next editions, God willing.
Here are the three:
- Not the formal world’s mental image
The developed-world conception of slums is of previously formal housing, often built or operated by the government, which has become a vertical rabbit warren of the underclass.
Emerging-world slums are completely different: never formal, usually self-built, organised not by formal society but by informal residents themselves.
- Highly dense, low-rise, substandard and unhealthy
Emerging-world slums pack an enormous number of people into a very small land area. Nairobi’s Kibera vies with now-demolished Kowloon Walled City and New York’s 1895 Lower East Side for the highest density habitation ever experienced on earth.
Because they are largely self-constructed with lowcost local building materials, slums are low-rise: initially ground floor, eventually building up to two or three stories at the absolute maximum.
All these poor people crammed into incredible proximity (in Kibera, the average person lives in 10 square-meters, 100 square-feet) make living conditions substandard and unhealthy.
For slum dwellers, hygiene is an enormous challenge – the simple things we take for granted are daily struggles.
Gastrointestinal, respiratory, and water-borne diseases are common throughout, touching all ages and genders.
- A dangerous place to live
Slums are dangerous places to live and work. Unpaved roads and open sewers invite or cause accidents. Injuries are common and often go untreated, because to be injured is to be unable to earn even a meager living.
Women in slums, often the principal family breadwinners, face dangers every day. Domestic violence is common, especially when the family suffers a financial reverse or medical emergency.
If a home lacks a toilet, as many do, women are at risk of robbery or rape when they venture out at night.
Then too, slums can be havens of crime, much of it (drug dealing, prostitution, and gambling) tolerated, even desired, by elements of the formal city.
*Photo by Charles Squatters Settlement. A slum or favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil