Megaslums are a symptom of a hopelessly sick society

Sunday January 17 2010


MANY ANALYSTS AND researchers have blamed politicians for the carnage and violence that took place in Nairobi’s slums during the post-election violence.

Indeed, a common perception is that the violence in slums and in “hot spots” like the Rift Valley could not have continued for so long had it not been sponsored by politicians or the state.

While there is no doubt that politicians incited (and paid) youths to take up arms in various parts of the country, what is often left out of the analysis is why so many of them were willing to take up arms against each other in the first place.

The international media dismissed the horrific events of 2007/8 as old tribal hatreds and primitive rage. Some local politicians viewed them as politically-instigated ethnic cleansing. No one asked whether the rapes and the killings were the dramatic and sad culmination of years of daily violence experienced by the poor in Kenya.

Nairobi’s slums are among the most physically and psychologically violent places on earth.

Not only is crime and violence a feature of everyday life, but slum-dwellers are emotionally assaulted daily — by greedy politicians who don’t care about their living conditions, by opportunistic landlords who think nothing of charging rent for a mud hovel with no toilet, by employers who pay them a pittance, and by a government that spends millions on politicians and then claims to have no money for public service provision.

What does lack of privacy — even to go to the toilet — do to the psyche of the average slum-dweller? What kinds of cities are we creating when a tiny minority lives in gated opulence, while the majority lives in overcrowded hovels without water, sanitation or electricity?

Are cities such as Nairobi turning into “megaslums” — shantytowns that merge in continuous belts of informal housing and poverty?

For most slum residents, especially in Nairobi, the daily grind of getting through the day is fraught with hazards. Adam Parsons, a British writer, spent many days living with slum children in Kibera, and was daunted and revolted at the level of suffering and depravity he found there.

“My mind is left wild,” he scrawled in his journal, as he heard stories of impoverished mothers dousing their children with alcohol to get them to stop pleading for food.

PARSONS’S FIELD RESEARCH IN Kibera, which he describes as “a sort of travel writing with a sociological import”, resulted in a book called Megaslumming, to be launched in Nairobi this week.

On a trip to the slum, Parsons visited a school that was funded entirely by a philanthropic secretary who lived in the suburbs. If it wasn’t for her, he was told, the paltry wages of the three benevolent teachers would never be paid.

During one visit to the infants’ class, he noted: “The tiny children were handed out plastic beakers of runny chocolate porridge at break time, many of them staring at me with such wide and dumbfounded eyes that I wanted to reassure them that I was actually a harmless human being”.

Christine Onyango, the class teacher, told him some of the reasons for their somnolent expressions: some of the girls had been raped by their fathers or used as “punching bags”, and one boy in the class was certainly drunk on chang’aa.

Onyango told Parsons that it was not uncommon for a lively child in her class to go home with a drunk father, only to return the next morning “like a torn and tormented ghost who never smiles in the same way again’’.

The suffering in slums such as Kibera is often ignored by policymakers because it is assumed that the poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty, or that “development” (when it finally arrives) will take care of urban poverty.

But as Rajesh Makwana, director of Share the World’s Resources, a UK-based non-profit organisation that commissioned and published Megaslumming states, urban poverty is not an inevitable consequence of urbanisation, but “the unnecessary result of an inequitable economic system, and there is no reason for its continued existence”.

Slums are the result of many factors, ranging from devastating free market prescriptions by international finance institutions to corruption and inappropriate use of public funds by governments.

The consequences of these failures are there for all to see — rapid slum growth and deepening inequality. Allowing the resulting discontent and rage to fester in slums can lead to political instability and violence, as witnessed in Kenya after the 2007 disputed elections.

As Parsons notes, “the anarchy of early 2008 had far deeper roots than merely another rigged election poll.”