Big surprises: Why African cities should look at slums as the 'new normal'

Just 1 in 10 children in the slums is unwanted; you can earn 5 times the average national income; and raise a big fat happy African family there

IT’s the mantra of urban public policy in Africa: Slums are bad. Everyone should live in a decent house that doesn’t let in the cold and rain, has clean water to drink, and not have to jump rivers of sewage to get home. 

But the story isn’t as straightforward as that—scratching past the surface can challenge some of the assumptions held about Africa’s “informal settlements”, as they are euphemistically called.

The proportion of city dwellers who live in slums can be staggeringly high in Africa—in most of western, eastern and central Africa, more than 50% of city residents live in slums, and it can be as high as 80% in Mozambique, Angola and Central African Republic (CAR). 

The stereotypical image of a slum is that of a squalid, overcrowded settlement of dilapidated metal-and-cardboard shacks. 

But some African cities “hide” their slums well. In Addis Ababa, for example, some 40% of the housing stock is formal, yet a quarter of those in supposedly good formal housing actually live in slum-like conditions—a quarter lack access to toilets, a third share toilets with more than six families, and 34% rely on public water taps that have unreliable supply. 

Village mentality

Other cities are essentially villages in disguise—in Arusha, Tanzania, more than 75% of homes are unplanned and 80% are made of mud.

Many city authorities in Africa turn a blind eye to urban sprawl and mushrooming of informal settlements for practical reasons; the slums are a source of cheap labour that keep the wheels of industry, business and middle-class homes churning. 

But it isn’t all poverty and squalor in the slums, and sometimes, “village thinking” can pay off handsomely—UN-Habitat reports that in Brazzaville, Congo, 80% of the urban demand for leafy vegetables is met by gardeners who occupy 500 hectares of land in the city, and the earnings of market gardeners have been estimated at up to five times (400% higher than) the national per capita income average. 

In Bangui, CAR, 1,000 tonnes of vegetables are produced every year from eight city market gardens, and Kampala is another “village-city”, where urban agriculture is conducted on hillsides and wetland valleys, producing up to 60% of the city’s food supply.

Harare’s case is particularly striking—like most other cities with a significant European settler population, urban farming was severely restricted as the colonialists tried to make the line between themselves and the “native African” as bold as possible. 

UN-Habitat reports that until recently, urban farmers were “closely monitored” by the authorities and destruction of crops by police was not uncommon.

But it seems that the country’s agricultural reform policy is having some unexpected effects—as rural plantation farming has shrunk and inflation made the national currency nearly useless, farming within Harare’s city’s limits has boomed, today, 60% of Harare’s residents grow their own food.

Informal= normal | Create Infographics

Public policy in Africa tends to see slums as dens of squalor to be done away with, teeming with unwanted and orphaned children. 

But again, the data speaks a different story—a 2012 survey in Nairobi shows that only one in ten children is unwanted at the time of conception—two-thirds of pregnancies are wanted, and just under a quarter (23%), mothers say the pregnancy was wanted but mistimed, happening sooner than expected.

More children die before their fifth birthday in the slums, with households reporting more diarrhea and coughs than in the rest of Nairobi, and overcrowding and poor sanitation has largely been blamed. Respiratory diseases spread fast in cramped conditions, and more children means more mouths to feed, heightening the risk of malnutrition.

But again, the data tells a very different story—child survival in Nairobi’s slums actually improves with larger household size. Newborn and child deaths are twice as likely to occur in a household with two or less people sharing a room, than with five or more people sharing a room. 

Deaths were highest in households with 3-4 people: typically, one or two adults, and one or two children (ironically, the typical middle-class composition). 

Why is this? It’s startlingly simple, the researchers say: larger households have more hands available to take sick children to hospital, as most poor parents simply cannot afford to take a day off work to take a child to hospital. 

Having more people share one space means that each working adult saves on rent: leaving families with more disposable income, thus big families eat better.

But the most interesting thing about slums is their ability to thrive outside the official government system, so much so that some African governments have decided to “live and let live”. 

Settlements like Bonaberi (Douala), Camp Luka (Kinshasa), Kanu (Abuja), Kibera (Nairobi), Soweto (Johannesburg) and Jesus Our Saviour (Lagos) all fall largely outside of the control of formal authorities and exercise a high level of self-governance. 

The absence of the state from the public sphere is striking, UN-Habitat says, particularly in West Africa - except the pervasive and often corrupt police presence that employs its own version of informality by collecting bribes and favours from the public.

Northern African governments were the most likely to be “embarrassed” by slums, UN-Habitat says, with official data either underrepresenting the problem or overstating success in dealing with it. 

But even as North Africa has the lowest official slum proportions, this doesn’t guarantee prosperity or social mobility. Even with a high literacy and university education; research revealed that more than 40% of jobs were filled through personal or family contacts and only 16% by competition or examination—hence the widespread social unrest in North Africa over the past few years.

Slums are ‘normal’?

In southern Africa, although slum populations are relatively low, and living conditions in informal settlements somewhat better than in the rest of Africa, inequality at city and national level is staggeringly high, indicating that even though the poor in southern Africa are “doing better” than in the rest of Africa, the rich are far, far richer.

African urbanism needs to be rethought “from the slums”, UN-Habitat says, arguing African governments should re-frame informality for what it really is: a door by which modern cities are built. When the state retreats from the public sphere, as has happened in several African cities, informality becomes the framework by which urban areas are administered. In this sense, “informality has a greater claim to legitimacy than the state itself.”



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