Friday, July 16, 2004

On slums, squalor and Sodom and Gomorrah

The LA Times continues its series on 'living with pennies'. this time focusing on the physical living conditions of a large portion of humanity.

Squalor everywhere, but still this is a neighborhood:

Plastic bags, knotted and sagging, soar across the slum late at night.

They bounce off tin roofs, splatter against mud walls patched with tin cans and tumble down the steep hillside, where they sprout every few feet like plastic weeds. In the morning, they are trampled into the ground.

After 33 years in this shantytown known as Deep Sea, Cecilia Wahu barely notices the bags anymore. They are called "flying toilets," and because no one here has a bathroom, everyone has thrown a few.

"My dream, before I die, is to live in a permanent house, not a shack," says Wahu, 66, who has rheumy eyes and is missing teeth. "It could be small, but it must have a nice kitchen, a real bed and its own toilet."

That is her dream. Her reality is an 8-by-8-foot mud hut.

Survival in Deep Sea is a matter of staying above an endless tide of mud and waste. All that separates Wahu from the filth is a dirt floor, thin plank doors and a stubborn sense that even this place is a neighborhood.

About 1,500 people are crammed into this treacherously steep four-acre warren. They live on less than a dollar a day, and this is the best shelter they can afford.

There is one water faucet, one toilet and no electricity. The homes are jumbles of tin, red-baked mud and sticks that barely keep from tumbling into the fetid Gitathuru River below.

Tropical rains eat away at the walls. Roving bands of thugs threaten to break down homes unless they are paid protection money. Wealthy neighbors across the river lobby the government to clear the hillside.

The future of Africa is bound up in such places.
The whole article is worth reading, it deals with Kenya but it pretty much captures the flavor of what I've seen in Ghana. I suppose slums are the same everywhere in the world whether it's Lagos, Mumbai, Port-au-Prince, Haiti or Rio. On the other hand, by concentrating on the physical squalor, one misses a little of the color and vitality of those places and the people who live there. The bustling nature, the loud sounds, laughter, crying. People living in objective squalor are sometimes the most house-proud whether as in the places in my own experience (Abutia, James Town and Aburi) or the houses I visited in Soweto in 1994. Simply concentrating on these places as an accumulation of tin shacks, or mud huts, as the case may be, that are festering with disease is not to tell the whole story. Human beings can, and do, adapt to anything; even in these conditions we are all jostling for a foothold and way out. Not to mention that we've all seen Beverly Hills and Manhattan, even if only on CNN or the movies.

Growing up in Ghana, one was always aware of the poor living conditions. The poverty in the villages was bad enough but the sheer physicality of city slums bring everything to the fore. Poverty often juxtaposed in startling proximity to great wealth and luxury. James Town, where the Ofosu-Amaah family home is, is right next to the Castle, the seat of the government, and is in many ways a very depressing place. But then things change. As a child, Nima occupied a place in my imagination as the worst slum in Accra, a rough and miserable place; the stereotypes of Nima boys was as uncouth, brash, vicious, ill-educated - your garden-variety slum boys. A decade or so on, many of those things are still true but things are changing and it's not just better education. Physically, the shacks are sturdier and perhaps more sanitary - maybe built with tin and the occasional bags of concrete, rather than the asbestos and mud of old. I guess the same is true these days in Soweto, the 'notorious' township of old is now marketed for tourism, rebranded the 'largest urban residential area'. It's a struggle but it is not a static state. Home improvement is not just popular in the US or UK.

There's a slum in Accra called Sodom and Gomorrah (the link is to a photo essay on it which says it all). The reason it earned that biblical name is quite obvious; it is the worst of the worst - at least in Ghana circa 2001-present. (Nima boys might even fear to tread there). Governments have been trying to demolish it for the longest time. It is unsafe, insanitary, lawless and all the things one would expect. Here is a good piece about it:

End of the road for 'Sodom and Gomorrah' squatters

On arrival in Accra the first point of call is this 'no man's land', which is succour for the disadvantaged in Accra. Soon, and as is common with slums in some parts of the world, the place became a hideout for armed robbers, prostitutes, drug pushers and all kinds of criminals-hence the name 'Sodom and Gomorrah'. The people sleep, eat, and relieve themselves in the open, making it unfit for human habitation

In view of the disorderly nature of life in the area, successive governments have tried to give the lagoon and its surrounding some face-lift. In fact, plans to make the place a resort has been on the drawing board for a long time, but the political will to initiate the project has held it down this far. Doing that means dislodging the hundreds of thousands of squatters from a land that means everything to them and with that, jeopardising their survival

Early this year, the government obtained a Kuwaiti Fund loan to implement the "Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project." Under the project, government is expected to dredge the lagoon and restore its surroundings to a green belt and recreational facility. This is because the Lagoon is near Ghana's premier hospital- the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, which has been affected by the lagoon’s current deplorable state. To kick start the project, in April this year, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), the authority running Accra's local government asked the squatters to pack and leave.

This case of has attracted the NGOs worrying about the human rights of the squattors, for example see this: Pending forced eviction of 30,000 dwellers at Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana

Over 30,000 squatters at a squatter camp at Agbogbloshie market-a suburb of Accra in Ghana referred to as Sodom and Gomorrah could suffer forced eviction shortly if a writ filed for an injunction to restrain the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) from carrying out its planned action is rejected by the High Court in Accra.
Knowing the particulars of the case of Sodom and Gomorrah, I'm actually glad that it will eventually be demolished. The current government in Ghana is all about due process, going by the book for 4 years with the squatters. This is unlike the famously arbitrary and often brutal practices of our Nigerian brothers that still seem to continue even under civilian rule (Obansanjo in civilian life still the unsentimental of the military general he was just decades ago).

Regardless, it is only a matter of degree between a squatter's camp and James Town. The point is to capture the totality of the experience.

One of my favourite novels is Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau - the wonderful 'word scratcher' of Martinique. I'll review it later but here's a synopsis:
"Through his narrator, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, a daughter of slaves, he chronicles 150 years in the history of Martinique, starting with the birth of Marie-Sophie's beloved father, Esternome, on a sugar plantation sometime in the early 19th century. It ends with her founding Texaco, a teeming shanty town built on the grounds of an old oil refinery on the outskirts of Fort-de-France, poised on the edge of a city that constantly threatens to engulf it".
Chamoiseau begins in the present with the arrival of an urban planner, whom the residents of Texaco mistake for Christ. Marie-Sophie must now become Texaco's protectress, for only she can dissuade the urban planner from ordering her anarchic quarter razed to the ground. Like Schehezarade before her in Arabian Nights, she relies on storytelling - wonderful, wonderful stories about the history of Texaco and its denizens.
"The fellow that we would call the Christ appeared. He was hit by the stone... When they brought him to me, I told him of Texaco like I just told you, from my Esternome to my Irene. He was sitting before me, finishing my aged rum, closing his eyes sometimes over scraps of pain, opening them to look at me intensely. When I was quiet, his eye shone a wee bit. Now that he knew the bulk of the stories, I told him he could unleash his bulldozers and raze all, and destroy all, but that he should know that we will stand, up front, me first, as from time immemorial.
The slum of Texaco is itself a character in the novel but it is this fierce sentiment of the people therein that interests me. Dickens, writing about poorhouses in the 19th century, would have approved of the panache of Chamoiseau, but surely would be dismayed that the conditions he so richly detailed back then are still fodder for art and the lot of so many today, indeed "as from time immemorial".

See also: The Books of Nima

For some Ghanaian literature on slums try Bill Marshall's Bukom, Mohammed Naseehu Ali's more recent The Prophet of Zongo Street and Kwesi Brew's poetry especially The Slums of Nima discussed here.

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