What women want – part two: to map vulnerability to climate change


This article was originally published by IIED. 

By Sheela Patel, founder director of SPARC India and co-founder of SDI

This blog draws mostly on the experiences of SDI’s federations, (usually) formed by women’s savings groups. For members of these groups and their federations, exchange visits within their city or between cities – and internationally – have long been a key part of learning. This would include visits to cities where groups were mapping and collecting data on risk and vulnerability.

But when pandemic-related travel bans made in-person visits no longer possible, women learnt how to have digital conversations over the internet.

Five priority areas emerged. The four described in part one of this blog were: a roof over their heads; greens in their meals; women taking care of their own health; and ‘wheels and wages’, or the difficulties navigating increasingly unaffordabe transport options.

This blog discusses the fifth request from women – to be able to use their own knowledge and skills to map vulnerability to climate change.


Mapping benefits for everyone

Mapping and profiling informal settlements brings great benefits by guiding and informing responses to climate change risks. But just as importantly it benefits city government – if they support, engage and work with these women and their federations, both in mapping and data collection, and in developing responses. It also allows women to devise and agree their own strategies for change.

Examples of community-led mapping and profiling informal settlements include:

  • Across Kenya, within a 20-year history of the Kenyan federation of slum dwellers (Muungano wa Wanavijiji)
  • In Cuttack (India), mapping flood risks at city level
  • In Kisumu (Kenya), enumerating and mapping all informal settlements, and
  • In Epworth (Zimbabwe) using a geographic information system (GIS) for informal settlement upgrading.

Engaging the people who know best

Slum mapping and profiling is not easy. Residents often distrust the reasons given for collecting data, and the people who collect them. But this can be overcome by engaging residents from the start, including in the data collection.

SDI’s Know Your City campaign has engaged and supported slum profiling in thousands of informal settlements in 450 cities. The information gathered is added to SDI’s database.

In the last two years of working on climate change issues, SDI has tried to understand what brought women to the city, the challenges they face and where they live. An underlying driver of women moving to cities is their vulnerability to climate change, and being unable to find work in rural areas because of climate change’s negative impacts on agriculture and on rural populations.

In urban areas, the location where women squat is usually on land that was not in use because it was either next to a river or a dumping ground, or in some other way not suitable for habitation. Riverside settlements risked flooding while high-density informal settlements lacking public space created urban heat islands.

Now we must unpack the challenges that women face, understand how these are linked to climate vulnerability and build capacity, so women can deal with these challenges themselves. And we must address the ‘leaking bucket syndrome’ of constantly existing in survival mode to address these ever-present challenges.

So when women heard about the Race to Resilience campaign, it was something they understood very well. If they were supported to come up with robust solutions, it could help save their city, their families, and their communities.

It would also limit the depletion of valuable resources destroyed by disasters. It would improve their ability to climb out of the difficult conditions in which they were living, towards a better quality of life.

Communication is key

Women also realised that most city governments and communities were not in regular touch with each other. When disaster struck, there was no mutual, trusting relationship between them and the city, and urgent issues were not addressed.

But having a detailed vulnerability map of informal settlements is an effective way of grabbing the attention of local government. With a map, training communities and city officials, it was possible to develop a plan together to address different problems.

This would prove invaluable when identifying measures for disaster prevention and preparedness. Women immediately saw the benefits and are keen to explore this with other groups and federations across their networks.

Knowledge is power

The SDI network starts by exploring what women themselves can do. What are the simple questions they can ask themselves and each other to build up responses to help define the challenges and develop action plans. This revealed practices they are already doing, but which may have some frailties, and identified the actions they could do for themselves.

In the second phase, SDI approaches external partners for technical and financial support. Each federation presents their plan to their city government representatives to explore whether they can partner with them in the process.

But the most exciting aspect of these processes is that if communities outside SDI actively engage with these campaigns, they open up ways for grassroots advocacy to inform resilience.

Listening to those who are excluded and vulnerable, and trusting in their ability to define what they need, leads to solutions that are built around them. The outcome is new ways to engage a range of actors and stakeholders who can contribute to solutions that become the new normal.

My two blogs reflect on what women want, and we invite social movements, other networks and people who design solutions in health, housing, habitat, and data management, to join us.

Together we can develop capacities and skills to engage community networks to define areas of investigation. Solutions that deliver the needs and priorities of poor communities, neighbourhoods and especially for women – as identified by them – are possible.

New narratives for a ‘new normal’

Screenshot 2020-07-29 at 11.20.20


This post originally featured on the IIED blog. 

By Sheela Patel and Suranjana Gupta

Sheela Patel and Suranjana Gupta report that women at the grassroots are generating practical responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Their effectiveness in this crisis highlights the importance of including grassroots women in climate change planning.

Megan Rowling of the Thomson Reuters Foundation deserves at least half the credit for this piece. In a recent webinar on how grassroots groups are responding to the coronavirus, she called us out for using the ‘same old tired narratives’ presenting women as either ‘vulnerable’ or as ‘active agents’, leading us to reflect on why we use this language and to unpack some of the ideas behind these words.

Having worked with many grassroots women’s groups hit by major disasters, the Huairou Commission has seen repeatedly how organised grassroots women have dealt with disasters to get communities back on their feet. For instance:

  • In the most remote parts of Honduras, where no assistance reached communities for days after Hurricane Mitch, indigenous women fed their families bread made of an indigenous root that survived the floodwaters. The same group went on to create seed banks to revive indigenous crops and agricultural tool banks to restore farming.
  • In Turkey, earthquake-hit women monitored relief distribution and negotiated to improve sanitation and food in relief camps. They went on to organise women’s cooperatives that now run a country-wide network of women and children’s centres.
  • In India, grassroots women in earthquake-affected areas became communication assistants to the government, going door-to-door disseminating information on the housing reconstruction programme, and reported back to government on implementation problems.
  • In the Philippines, grassroots groups hit by Typhoon Haiyan initially monitored relief distribution in partnership with the national government and later created housing tool banks jointly managed with local government.

For nearly two decades now, Huairou Commission has supported hundreds of grassroots leaders from many countries – including Honduras, Jamaica, Turkey, India, Uganda, Zambia, Indonesia and Philippines – to travel within and outside their countries sharing practices, mentoring and advising their peers on reducing impacts of disaster and climate change.

What’s more, such exchanges have attracted the attention of local and national government agencies, getting them to recognise and legitimise grassroots women’s organisations.

At policy forums (particularly those focused on reducing disaster impacts), despite leadership roles played by grassroots women, they were conspicuously absent and persistently described as a ‘vulnerable group’, alongside children, the elderly and the disabled.

Paradoxically, women are caregivers to the other three groups. Like women, each of the other three groups offers valuable insights to address crises.

Despite the problems with bundling the four groups together, it has helped humanitarian efforts to considerably step up their responses to the special needs of these groups. But their narratives around vulnerability and responses to them essentially remain short term. They rarely examine the processes that impoverish and weaken the capacities of communities to withstand the onslaught of disasters in the first place. And the predominant narrative remains one in which women are cast as a vulnerable group, placing grassroots women-led scalable solutions in policymakers’ blind spot.

Promoting networks, partnerships and recognition

Social movements like the Huairou Commission, Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and WIEGO have consistently challenged this perspective. Years of investment in grassroots women’s movements have steadily built on grassroots initiatives – refining their practices, scaling them up through peer exchanges and government engagements – persuading governments to listen, learn and partner with grassroots organisations.

Can the COVID-19 crisis be an opportunity to mainstream such partnerships? Can the new normal we envisage turn grassroots-government partnerships into the ‘rule’ rather than the exception to it?

Grassroots movements play a critical role in collectivising grassroots groups through peer exchanges. Exchanges allow grassroots women to share practical knowledge, tell stories and build solidarity and even demonstrate how their leadership is recognised by local government.

This process of aggregation gradually elevates accidental initiatives, turning them into innovations which then coalesce to become scalable solutions. The consolidation of each solution lays the foundation for the next set of explorations.

Where there are responsive administrators or politicians, grassroots-government engagements can create an upsurge of collaborative action, pulling together grassroots and state resources to make concrete improvements in the lives of the poor, dramatically changing how women are perceived.

This kind of transformation, however, takes time. It can’t be accomplished through three-year projects. Resilience investments need to be long term. They have to produce a diversity of solutions to counter multi-generational deprivation and negligence that endangers the lives, livelihoods and wellbeing of economically and socially marginalised communities.

It is therefore vital to sustain community networks and maintain their visibility as drivers of development. As movements and networks gain public recognition, they are able to attract  an array of allies, expanding their reach to ensure that new investments produce lasting changes in the everyday lives of poor communities.

How grassroots women are delivering pandemic responses

Screenshot 2020-07-29 at 11.20.34


Grassroots organisations’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are building on years of organising, learning and collective problem-solving. When governments announced lockdowns, grassroots women acted swiftly, putting to work their relationships with each other and with government; and drawing on collective resources built over time.

  • In the Philippines, grassroots leaders reached out to their networks in 24 rural barangays (districts) to disseminate information to educate communities on COVID-19. In informal settlements in the national capital, women-led water cooperatives used their savings to buy food for distribution.
  • In Nepal, women’s cooperatives coordinated with local governments and municipalities to distribute relief and community resilience funds managed by women’s cooperatives were drawn upon to give livelihoods restoration loans.
  • In India, women’s federations worked with village councils to distribute relief. They surveyed villages to identify those most in need of assistance and have already supported more than two thousand households to claim government entitlements. As early as March 2020, predicting food shortages, grassroots women encouraged their peers to plant vegetables. Three months later, vegetables from kitchen gardens are ensuring that families have nutritious food.
  • In SDI federations in several countries, including India, Kenya, South Africa Nigeria, Malawi and Zimbabwe, explored many possibilities based on stories of mask-making, soapmaking, quarantine management and food distribution – exchanged by their peers.

Are grassroots women driving these initiatives also victims of the crisis? Are they vulnerable to discrimination or exclusion?

Of course they are. But as movements focused on empowering grassroots women, we choose to emphasise grassroots women’s leadership as the foundation upon which their collective power is built.

When women are classified as ‘vulnerable’ they tend to become disempowered voiceless entities, excluded from decision-making. When we see grassroots women as drivers of change, we turn the spotlight on their innovations and contributions. And we can clearly see the value of involving them in public planning and decision-making.

So whether it is managing the COVID-19 crisis today or forging new pathways to adapt to the changing climate, shifting the narrative to focus on grassroots women’s agency is already a crucial step in the right direction of constructing new narratives for a new normal.


Sheela Patel is the founder and director of SPARC India and former chair of the SDI Board. Suranjana Gupta is advisor on community resilience at the Huairou Commission. 

Knowledge is Power: Collecting Data in Nairobi’s Slums

Capturing slum profiling data. Capturing slum profiling data.

**This post was originally published on the Muungano blog**

By Milkah Njeri, Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Huruma, Nairobi, Kenya)

Born in an informal settlement and brought up in yet another informal slum in Nairobi, in itself sounds catastrophic. Having been born in Korogocho did not castigate me to a life of poverty; I had a vision to lead a normal life. Raised in a family of four girls and four boys life was not that promising but I learned to live a simple life.

In a country where half of the population lives in urban areas, one would expect pockets of slums strewn across almost every neighbourhood with high population densities. The picture is not a far cry from reality, at least in the context of Korogocho. But even if the country has seen incredible growth over the years, there is hope things can turn around.

[caption id="attachment_1368" align="alignnone" width="259"] Picture Credit-www.panoramio.com[/caption]


Being a single mother, I joined Muungano in 2001 in Korogocho. By then I used to save five shillings daily. In 2003 I moved from Korogocho to Huruma and later joined ex-Grogon saving scheme and also as an assistant secretary for ex-Grogon land and housing co-operative society with no papers, not even attending a computer class I was a among ten youths in eastern region to undergo a data capturing training in using Microsoft Access and Excel. I later on learnt data verification , since then I have learnt more and used these skills to train my fellow slum dwellers, all this achievement needed passion and patience.

My first baby steps came earlier than I expected when I started working on the Kambi Moto slum upgrading project, seven years ago in Huruma, Nairobi. The challenges surrounding the community momentum to advocate for the re-allocation of land from the Nairobi City Council back in the day to demonstrate a community led slum upgrading concept, may have differed from other informal settlements such as Kibera, or Mathare, but seldom do we as humans of informal settlements get the feeling of hopelessness in the slum communities.

The urban poor in our great country need to be empowered, and solutions have to be designed by them. Community organization, a difficult yet key element to successful Kambi Moto slum upgrading, was successfully carried out, with communities taking mostly the lead. In places where there is collective sense of purpose and willingness to be supported, the likelihood of successful community upgrading is greater.

In April 2015, I attended workshop and learnt another way of capturing data – through the ONA platform. This is an SDI managed online tool, which enables communities’ to key in; process; analyse; verify and generate information about informal settlements. I have passion for profiling, what I love most about data is that it talks about people’s livelihoods in informal settlements, and the interesting part altogether is that and when people begin to speak back to the data, collective actions and needs is inevitable. This information helps we, slum dwellers in stopping evictions which happens regularly in most settlements, and while using this information communities are well able to advocate for provision of services in their slums. This has really improved my skills and made me who I am today.

Recently, I had an opportunity to visit Zimbabwe to attend a data profiling and ONA platform workshop in Bulawayo city in June. In this session I was able to take other federation members from different countries through keying in data using ONA, this is because of the capacity, skills and experience I have gained through Muungano wa Wanavijiji.

As an affiliate of Slum Dwellers International, we visited Ngozi mines, an informal settlement located within a dumpsite area in Bulawayo central. Together as a team we supported the Zimbabwean federation in a settlement profiling and mapping exercise with other federation members from different countries, before leaving Ngozi mines, we supported the communities living there to organise the community and formed a saving scheme and saved five dollars and fifteen rands.

To date, the group has twenty five members.

One aspect that I took home after the learning exchange to Bulawayo, in particular is that forging partnerships with our governments is key in addressing issues of informality and slum upgrading. Civil society and private sector groups are also becoming important players in the urban arena. Slum dweller movements, such as Muungano wa Wanavijiji effectively reach out to communities and are best assigned the roles of community organizing, facilitating dialogue, community organising-through empowerment of community savings schemes, community prioritized need identification, project identification, project management and maintenance of community facilities, which often creates a sense of collective ownership that further drives sustainability of community projects.

Additionally, I could not help but notice that the private sector, through the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA), is increasingly interested in working with the county governments in developing low-cost housing in various counties. Muungano recently undertook city wide settlement profiling in six counties. Sets of information generated from the process have continued to empower communities to have knowledge of their informal settlements, which  through prudent discussions, slum dwellers have begun engaging their local governments on the provision of basic services and infrastructure developments. In a long time counties, have finally recognized the importance of engaging all the stakeholders in planning, execution and monitoring programs for the poor.

Governments have an important role to play in respect of addressing issues of slums, particularly by creating partnerships between national and local governments, civil society and even the communities themselves to work toward an expanded and sustained program for the urban poor.

What might slum dwellers want from the SDGs?


Jockin Arputham has been fighting for the rights of slum dwellers for nearly 50 years. This blog is drawn from an interview by IIED’s David Satterthwaite ahead of World Habitat Day about what the Sustainable Development Goals could mean for slum dwellers.

Jockin Arputham founded the first national slum dweller federation in India in 1976 and went on to ally this with Mahila Milan, the Indian federation of women slum and pavement dweller savers. He has spent over 20 years encouraging and supporting slum and shack dwellers federations in many other countries – and he is President of Slum/Shack Dwellers International.

Jockin visiting Mathare Slum_2

Making the SDGs action oriented

The SDGs promise so much but they are not action oriented. Many countries do not have the  capacity to act.  We see dreams of a slum-free world or a slum-free country or slum-free cities.  But that is an ideal that needs strong political will, a strong and stable economy, and a conducive environment for the community. In Europe you might expect UN promises that everyone has a decent home to be met – but is this realistic for India?

Ambitions must be achievable

My ambition for the SDGs is limited to what we can do – what is meaningful, useful and sustainable – and implementable.  So our goal is not slum-free cities but slum-friendly cities.  Not a slum-free India but a slum-friendly India.



What does slum-friendly mean?  That the SDG promises like clean water and good sanitation for all, land tenure for people, incremental housing and basic employment are met for all slum dwellers. If these five mandates are accepted, how can we set standards and measure what is or is not happening in each city?  If there is also a mandate for people to participate, and take part, then set dates by which to achieve each of these. Even to achieve the more modest goals for slum-friendly cities means that governments have to do three times what they are doing now

Will action on the SDGs be any better than the Millennium Development Goals?  So much high talk of all the goals in last 15 years but where are we in the goals and in their measurement?  Are we setting unattainable goals with the SDGs?

We have seen government commitments made at Habitat I (the first UN Conference on Human Settlements) in Vancouver in 1976; then at Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996. At Habitat 1, there were commitments and targets for 1990 and these were not met.  There have been very few tangible achievements.  I was invited to go to speak at Habitat I in 1976 but the government was bulldozing the settlement where I lived, so I stayed in Mumbai where I had fought this threat for 10 years.

Habitat III is approaching (in 2016). Will this bring more unrealistic commitments? Or will it truly be a “new urban agenda” with a clear strategy for achieving the goals with new measures? New locally-generated metrics that everyone can follow.  Everyone’s participation including slum dwellers. All the UN documents and processes claim they have people’s participation but usually this is just a grand talk show.

Looking back – what was the world’s urban population at the time of Habitat 1? Just 1.6 billion people.  At Habitat II there were 2.6 billion.  And now 4 billion.

We have seen the growth of NGOs and big donors and their budgets but for slum dwellers, where has all this money gone?  NGOs and big donors are sharing a platform in the name of the poor and the poor are left out.  Local governments and slum dweller organisations are the ones working on achieving the goals but these are usually left out of these new platforms.

Communuty Meeting with Jockin 2

No forced evictions

And the threat of eviction for slum dwellers still remains.  After Habitat I, we had many sister city programmes – beautiful red wine talk – but this did not deliver land tenure. There should be a commitment at Habitat III – no forced evictions. No evictions without relocations that are acceptable to those who are relocated.  After 40 years we still have not cracked this. Now the pressures of forced eviction will grow as cities invest more in infrastructure.

The cost of decent relocation is peanuts compared to infrastructure budgets. It should be part of the cost of all projects that require relocation. But this needs political will and administrative skill to work with the people and design with the communities. The huge costs of forced evictions are not counted – for the residents, the lost homes, possessions, assets, livelihoods, access to schools….

Where people are moved, we need a package of meaningful rehousing through which the quality of life of the people moved also improves.

Jockin visiting Mathare Slum_1

What new urban agenda?

Now, with Habitat III, either you close the dialogue that has produced so little or you come forward with what we can realistically achieve in the next 15 years and set up a system of measurement that involves and is accountable to slum dwellers.  From this, we learn about what works and from our mistakes.

We need to learn how to find solutions for renters too; so often, relocation programmes only benefit those who ‘own’ their home and can prove they have lived there for many years.

Slum dwellers must become a central part of slum friendly cities especially the women savings groups who are the foundation of the slum dweller federations around the world. But how? We need community participation with a strong focus on women. Full involvement of women in developing slum friendly cities gives a clear change of life for millions of people.  As the women say, I work with my sisters, my federation, my family. Women’s savings groups can manage money and this is a big change. It helps them learn to budget, and they bring their knowledge of the local situation. Then as they join together they work at city scale and interact with city government and city politicians

For each of the SDGs, you need to connect them to the ground.  Create a mechanism to achieve each target.  You do not set up targets without setting out system of delivery – and this system has to involve community groups and local governments. And with progress monitored locally and openly – so these are accountable for all.

Jockin Arputham was regarded for decades in India as a public enemy as he fought against evictions (and imprisoned dozens of times). Latterly his incredible contribution to how to address slums (and work with their inhabitants) has been recognised in India where he was awarded the Padma Shri award and internationally.

David Satterthwaite is a Senior Fellow in IIED’s Human Settlements Group.

Addressing Evictions Before Push Comes to Shove

A Commentary On A Recent Spate Of Evictions To Affect Federation Groups In West And Southern Africa.

In the last fortnight the SDI Secretariat has received reports from a number of our affiliates about large-scale evictions taking place in settlements in which the SDI network has a presence. Current estimates are that over 40,000 people have been evicted in Badia East, Lagos (Nigeria), Crab Town, Freetown (Sierra Leone), Old Fadama, Accra (Ghana), and Caledonia Farm, Harare (Zimbabwe).

In their desperation to find a way to stop the destruction of Crab Town, the SDI affiliate in Sierra Leone reached out to the network. A lively correspondence has ensued. It is a revealing and enlightening communication between slum dwellers and support professionals that reminds us that the SDI network has its roots in a struggle against evictions and that over thirty years later struggles for land and security of tenure still lie at the heart of the movement.

We invite you to read the full correspondence, included below, and to contribute to the discussion. SDI will continue to support community efforts to get ahead of the bulldozers and invites its partners to intensify efforts to find workable solutions.


On Sep 7, 2015, at 6:36 PM, Samuel Sesay, SDI affiliate in Sierra Leone wrote:

Dear All,

It is sad to inform you that one popular slum in Freetown situation at Aberdeen Beach axis has been absolutely demolished and about 9,000 slum dwellers made homeless in the middle of the heavy down pour of rain in West Africa. The entire exercise started on Saturday 5th Sept. 2015 and the demolition work is still going on. The entire deal was driven by the Ministry of Tourism with the intention of taking away all the coastal slums and make them attractive for tourism. The government intend to continue in this until they get rid of all coastal slums in Freetown. This has created a very serious alarm. Fedurp and Codohsapa went on the ground and bull dossers, caterpillars and vibrant youth were hired for the exercise.

Sorry we couldn’t provide pictorial evidence because the entire area was heavily covered with military and police presence and picture and videoing was not allowed, if you are caught, then you will be charged to court for various offences. So, that is the situation we are faced with right now and the exercise is still on going. So that is that the SDI family.


Samuel Sheka Sesay,

Programme Coordinator

Centre Of Dialogue On Human Settlement And Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA).

REPLY From: Joe Muturi, National Leader Kenya Federation


Date: 11 September 2015 at 11:52:57 AM SAST

Dear Samuel,

On one of my visits to SL, you took us to a part of kroobay where the families where evicted and I remember telling you that you should never take visitors on field visits to showcase your failures. This is exactly what I meant. If you appeal for sympathy after evictions happen then they will continue to happen. You must do something to make sure you raise the price of evicting a community. 

As I say this I want you to know that my and all of SDI’s thoughts are with you and we feel you. We know how cruel it is and we also know how difficult it is to deal with these situations. 

The immediate problem is that when a community is evicted and they do not stay on the land, they end up losing because they are already hard hit and cannot afford to re-invade the land. And when they leave the settlement everyone ends up looking for a place to go by themselves and it is very difficult to bring them together again. 

Nigeria, has had an experience of going to court and getting compensation for the evicted families. So I am copying in Megan who can share on the Badia East experience. I am also copying in Jane, who could share a Kenyan legal precedent where the courts granted compensation for evicted families in a settlement called city carton.

These cases are however exceptions made possible by the involvement of the world bank in Nigeria, and in Kenya we had new laws and the judge was previously muungano’s lawyer. It is easier if you had done an enumeration but I think you had only a profile. And therefore this is the info you will need to fight for the settlement. These cases are long and hard and if there is a legal NGO in SL you could try getting them to take up the case.

Whatever else you do make sure that this eviction does not go away quietly. You must make sure that it is in the media and that there is a petition to government, delivered with people power and some oomph. Demonstrate or do whatever you have to make sure everyone knows that there are consequences. And all settlements in SL need to see you as the movement that fights for them.

This is easier said than done, because you are always trying to build a relationship with government. In Kenya we say we work like a rat, “we bite and blow”. You fight and appease at the same time. You fight over one settlement with ministry of tourism and you build a project in another settlement with another ministry. You should never allow an eviction to happen without a noise. 

SDI can help in making a noise if you help us document the eviction and keep us updated on what you are doing. The secretariat will post on its website and all of us will highlight it wherever we are, So keep sharing with us on a daily basis.

Lastly, since you know the evictions for coastal slums will continue. You need to take preventative steps. One way is to create a coastal slums federation – a daughter federation of the  big federation. A federation that is just focused on building advocacy and proposals for the coastal slums. If I remember well there are plenty of coastal slums, mo wharf, kroobay, Susan’s bay, colbolt etc. when doing this remember you must mix the positive and negative. Do advocacy and the building local solutions for the communities.



REPLY From: Megan Chapman SDI affiliate in Nigeria


Date: 14 September 2015 at 10:10:57 PM SAST

Dear all,

Very sorry for the slow reply, Samuel, and very sorry to hear of the demolitions and displacement in Freetown. How are the people coping? Can you provide any further details about the background to the evictions — was there any prior statement of intent to demolish by the Ministry of Tourism? Was there any notice? Any prior attempts at engagement between the affected community/communities and the government? Any action in court? Any protest or action since? Media attention?

Indeed, Nigeria has plenty of experience with forced eviction — large scale and ruthless — and, sadly, little experience of success in getting compensation or justice through the courts. Decades of losing in court and continued demolitions is what led us to seek partnership with SDI so as to try new methods — namely mass mobilization and proactive engagement — aimed at changing the politics towards bringing an end to forced evictions in Nigeria (both by raising the costs, as Muturi explained, and practically illustrating win-win alternatives). 

We have tried many different approaches to dealing with forced evictions through litigation and advocacy. Generally, it is always best to start working preventively before the worst happens. Trying to get compensation, resettlement, etc, after the fact is an up-hill battle. We have, literally, dozens of demolition/eviction cases before Nigerian courts, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and regional human rights courts — the most successful ones are those where the community is able to continue to stay united and mobilized, bring a lot of media attention, and pursue various political and legal angles at once.

Of all these cases, we have only had ONE instance of after-the-fact compensation — the Badia East 2013 case that Muturi has mentioned. Indeed, there was no opportunity for prior engagement in that case, since the rumors of possible demolition came less than 48 hours before the demolition and the Lagos State Government denied its intention to demolish just the day before they came in and demolished 267 structures affected 9,000+ people. 

After the demolition, we followed many angles very very quickly. The community protested two days after the demolition. We filed a case in court seeking an injunction against demolition of the rest of the community. We petitioned the NHRC, which came to investigate a few days after. We got a ton of media attention, including New York Times, Huffington Post, and other international news. And — most importantly — we petitioned the World Bank, which was simultaneously funding an infrastructure upgrading project in Badia East and argued that the WB had a responsibility to the intended beneficiaries of its project.

The last angle was the one that ultimately led to a modicum of relief for the people. World Bank’s involvement was the game changer because we were able to make a compelling legal and political case (with risk of public embarrassment) that the Lagos State Government should have followed World Bank safeguard policies on involuntary resettlement to come up with a “resettlement action plan” (RAP). Ultimately, our continued pressure on World Bank and World Bank’s continued pressure on the Lagos State Government led to a retroactive RAP that involved modest financial and livelihoods assistance amounting to $2mill, which went to landlords (without title documents) and tenants alike — a first in Nigerian history.

That said, the process was messy and imperfect. All of us wish the risk had been identified beforehand and the community had started preparing years in advance. Based on this experience (and dozens of others with even less successful outcomes), the Nigerian Federation is now mobilizing communities at risk of eviction to organize, build strength through savings, profiling, legal awareness, strategic alliances, and proactive solutions. 

Happy to chat more on Skype or phone, including discussing the specifics of potential legal claims and/or looking at the political landscape to think about strategic advocacy options. For legal assistance, perhaps you could reach out to Timap for Justice (we can put you in touch if you do not already have contacts)? Just let us know how we can help. 

In solidarity,


Megan S. Chapman

Co-Founder / Co-Director

Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria



[caption id="attachment_10554" align="alignnone" width="578"] Residents of Bogobogoni village in Kibarani, Changamwe watch from a distance as buldozers demolish their houses as police gaurded the demolition of the houses without a court order to pave way for a private developer. Over two thousand people were left homeless. Photo by Gideon Maundu.[/caption]


This is nothing new for us. Violence, displacement, and legal disempowerment perpetrated by entrenched political and market interests are systematic realities in the lives of slum dwellers the world over. In all of these cases it is clear that the desperate efforts of poor people to cling onto miserable pieces of land end up clashing with vested interests of people with money and power. Local politicians and businessmen resorted to violent means to assert their claims to the spoils of development that should be going to those who often end up being its victims – informal settlement dwellers themselves.

[caption id="attachment_10553" align="alignnone" width="602"] A demolition scene at Mitumba Slums near Wilson Airport Nairobi as several Houses were demolished on November 19,2011 , in the ongoing government exercise to clear settlements said to have been illegally constructed on a land belonging to Kenya Airports Authority (KAA)..,government bulldozers rolled into the Slum ,Two Primary Schools and SDA Church were demolished . William Oeri (Nairobi)[/caption]


But before we go any further we need to get some facts straight – starting with some facts about poor people and about cities.

Reality number 1. People are leaving the rural areas for good reasons. Changes in how land is farmed and owned and increasingly tied to global markets are leaving more rural people in crippling debt, without land, work, money or any hope of surviving. At the same time, increasing numbers of natural disasters are destroying rural livelihoods and impoverishing more and more households. With TV, cheap mobile phones and easy communications, people in the most remote villages now know what cities have to offer, and their choice to migrate is usually a well-informed one.

Reality number 2. In cities they find job opportunities as well as markets for their own informal businesses, making and selling cheap goods and services. And the money they can make in cities can usually be enough to support themselves and their households, as well as send money home to relatives still in the rural villages. In cities they have better access to schools, health care, culture and opportunities for a future no village could ever offer.

Reality number 3. Cities need large supplies of cheap labour. This is imperative for various city-based economic activities in many different sectors such as industry, construction, the public sector and the informal sector. This cheap labour toils in the factories, staffs the crews that build houses, bridges, roads, and shopping centres. They sweep the streets, carry away the city’s garbage, prune its trees and maintain its sewers. They are the housemaids, the taxi drivers, the cleaners, the delivery boys, the clerks. And where would our cities be without the markets and the street vendors, selling prepared foods, fruits, vegetables, clothes, shoes, and so on?

Reality number 4. These important inhabitants of our cities often have no choice but to live in slums. Land prices in cities have skyrocketed and the poor find themselves increasingly priced out of any formal land or housing market. In most cities in Africa and Asia, planners and governments, at all levels, have been unable to cope with this influx of poor people and with the natural growth of urban poor populations. It is hard to find cases where governments have been able to intervene successfully in these markets with programmes to help meet the land and housing needs of their poor populations.

Reality number 5. Slums are solutions to housing problems. Policy makers, city managers, urban planners and many citizens tend to see the growth of slums in their cities as unsightly and lawless blights that should be cleared away or at least hidden in out-of-the-way corners of the city. Nobody would argue that a crowded, dirty, unplanned settlement is anybody’s idea of an ideal living situation, with its poor quality housing, its bad infrastructure (or no infrastructure at all) and its insecure land tenure. But if you go beneath their admittedly grim outer layer and take a deeper look at what is really going on in slum communities, you will often find them to be places of support and hope and growth and not places of despair at all. In fact, these makeshift settlements evolve quickly into vital and complex life-support systems for the poor, which can help meet a variety of their needs and give them a base for lifting themselves out of poverty. They may fall short when it comes to design, status, comfort and resale value but they generally tick a number of boxes that are critically important for the urban poor, such as location (proximity to jobs, income opportunities, transport hubs, schools), space for home-based economic activities, community support systems in the form of networks of friends, neighbours or kinsfolk, and affordability.

[caption id="attachment_10557" align="alignnone" width="605"] A demolition scene at Mitumba Slums near Wilson Airport Nairobi as several Houses were demolished on November 19,2011 , in the ongoing government exercise to clear settlements said to have been illegally constructed on a land belonging to Kenya Airports Authority (KAA)..,government bulldozers rolled into the Slum ,Two Primary Schools and SDA Church were demolished . William Oeri (Nairobi)[/caption]


Given these simple facts one would imagine that city leaders would recognize poor people as valuable contributors to the smooth functioning of our cities and slums as the foundation stone for good urban development. But this is often not the case. In fact as the tragic events in Caledonia Farm, Badia East, Old Fadama and Crab Town demonstrate many city governments make decisions that force poor people out of their homes and off their land. One has to ask the question: “Why?”

Those who are responsible for evictions or choose to justify them often present them as the process by which people who have illegally occupied a piece of land belonging to someone else are removed from that land by due process of law. In this view, the squatters are the criminals and the property owners are the victims. This does not capture the human reality of an eviction, which is always painful, violent and impoverishing for the evictees. And it also does not capture the unjust systems of land use and property ownership in many countries that allow a few to enjoy great property wealth and leave many with little or nothing at all.

There are cases, it must be noted, where evictions cannot be avoided, and this may apply to some of the current crises. But even when health hazards or environmental risks make evictions necessary, suitable alternatives, negotiated with the affected communities, need to be provided. It is not in the interest of the city authorities and the better off to treat poor citizens like leaves swept into a corner only to be blown far and wide by the winds of desperation and necessity. Once evicted the urban poor do not disappear. They do not rush off to the rural areas. They find other parcels of land in the city to settle on once again.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the courts, the constitution, and flimsy barricades are the only recourse for those who face evictions. But it is because of the very power relations described above that we know (not just theoretically, but from bitter experience) that laws, pyrrhic victories in courts, and unfocused public demonstrations do not and will not turn the tables — will not restrain those with power and resources whose intention it is to grab the spoils of development. This does not mean that SDI disregards constitutional rights, litigation, and the courts. However, we know that these are reactive or defensive tools, often applied after evictions have already happened.

There has been a gradual evolution in how community organizations handle evictions. For decades their main tools, as mentioned above, were organizing to bravely and often quixotically resist settlement specific evictions through demonstrations, marches and barricades and by filing court cases to stop demolitions. But during the violence, fear and dislocation of an eviction it is hard to think clearly and negotiate alternatives. Once a crisis erupts, the tools available to communities reduce sharply. So the question for poor communities has got to be how to create a more pro-active, longer-term process to resolve these eviction conflicts. Instead of waiting for the eviction squads to come and then trying to stop them, what if communities could find space to focus on the longer-term goal of securing tenure and gradually building houses long before the evictions happen?  Litigation and confrontation are always a last resort, but more and more community organizations have developed, refined and scaled up a number of long-term strategies to stop evictions and change their relationships with their city governments, and these strategies are now starting to bear fruit.

In a seminal document prepared for Cities Alliance, our colleague Tom Kerr summarized the experiences of slum dwellers in SDI and its sister organization the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and came up with 5 tools or strategies that communities have used to negotiate alternatives to eviction.

Strategy Number 1 – Ever expanding networks.

Karl Marx pretty much summed up the state of affairs more than 150 years ago when he declared that the poor are weak because they are not united and they are not united because they are weak. In Europe and the United States at that time the primary terrain of conflict was the industrial factory. While their dwellings were just as squalid, unplanned, overcrowded and insecure as the shantytowns and slums of today, the overwhelming majority of the urban poor worked in these factories. There was not much of an informal sector and so the urban poor and the working class were pretty much synonymous. They were also more easily able to organize since they were concentrated in close working proximity. They were able to come together and secure the occasional victories. But as Marx pointed out “the real fruit of their battle (lay), not in the immediate result”, but in their ever-expanding union.

The urban poor are now defined as much by their physical vulnerability and their living conditions (if not more so) as they are by their direct exploitation as wage labourers. Nevertheless the first and most critical strategy remains the same – to build a movement – that is to federate illegal slum communities at the city, national and international level. With that strength comes unity and with that unity comes strength. Local, national and global solidarity is the number one macro strategy to force negotiations for decent alternatives to evictions. No household or community alone can negotiate with the city for alternatives when organized and well resourced vested interests are pushing for projects that lead to wholesale dislocation. Only when the urban poor negotiate together, in organizations which have the collective force of big numbers, does it work. To make change, there needs to be a “critical mass” of people breaking down resistance to change, and dissolving the barriers between poor people and decision making about the allocation and distribution of resources. Community networks also create platforms for horizontal learning, mutual support and sharing of ideas between poor communities, in different parts of the city, different parts of the country and different parts of the globe.

Strategy Number 2 – Women Centred Community Savings.

Collective saving binds people together, teaches them to manage their collective resources and helps them take control of their own development. Savings make room for poor people to develop self-reliance and self-awareness and to make decisions together through a collective mechanism. When small savings groups link into larger networks or Federations, these networks give community members access to greater financial resources and enhanced clout when negotiating for their basic needs, and enables the poor to deal with the larger, structural issues related to their problems — especially eviction and access to urban land.

Strategy Number 3 – Community Enumeration and Mapping

SDI linked federations of the urban poor have very consciously undertaken a strategy of self-enumeration and self-surveying. Federations constantly gather reliable and complete data about households and families in their own communities. Then they codify these techniques into a series of practical tips for their members and have thus created a revolutionary system of information gathering and management that forms the very basis of a real governmentality from below. All SDI federations are now deeply aware of the radical power that this kind of knowledge gives them in their dealings with local and central state organizations – especially when it comes to trying to prevent evictions. In every country and city there is a host of local, state-level and local entities with a mandate to eradicate, rehabilitate or ameliorate slums.  But none of them know exactly who the slum-dwellers are, where they live or how they are to be identified. All slum policies have an abstract slum population as their target and no knowledge of its concrete, human components.  Since these populations are by definition social, legally and spatially marginal, invisible citizens as it were, they are by definition uncounted and uncountable except in the most general terms. By rendering them statistically visible, the Alliance controls a central piece of any actual policy process dealing with upgrading, relocation and resettlement.

Strategy Number 4 – Participatory Preparation of Alternative Plans

When poor communities are backed up against the wall and demand their rights through protest or defend what they have through resistance they are putting the authorities in a position where they only have two options: to acknowledge what people are demanding or to reject it. Such a situation is often a dead-end for communities – as the evictees in Accra, Freetown, Harare and Lagos will testify. But things can be very different when there is an opportunity for community organisations to design strategies and plans which demonstrate that their situation can be improved and on that basis begin a dialogue with the authorities. Demonstrable and testable alternative ideas backed up with large numbers of people is a strong way for community organisations to establish their credentials as development partners and therefore by association as citizens with defendable rights.

Strategy Number 5 – Urban Poor Funds

Urban Poor Funds or similar community managed development finance facilities are institutions that have been set up in many SDI countries to respond to different local needs, capacities and political contexts. They all build on the financial and organisational assets that are generated by community savings. As a result money is pulled through the system by people’s real needs, not pushed though by the development agendas of other actors. They become the basis for deal-brokering, for leveraging significant resources from within the network and beyond and putting these resources behind alternative plans to evictions that have emerged from participatory planning and are backed up by knowledge derived from mapping and surveying. This in turn is backed up by large numbers of organized, united and informed slum dwellers – not only from the affected settlement – who are no longer victims but empowered people capable of having a decisive say in their own development destinies.

SDI has chosen to put its efforts and energies into these long-term eviction prevention planning strategies – instead of being defensive, waiting for eviction to come and then scurrying to find a way that “they” should not evict “us” too easily. At the end of the day it is all about ordinary slum dwellers organizing themselves community-by-community, coming together at the city level, at the national level, and at the international level. SDI choses to link communities together so that they can equip one another with knowledge, unity and organisation, starting processes of change, working out and proposing alternatives, making governments understand that when there are evictions, everybody loses, barring a handful well connected individuals.

Our colleague Jane Weru a renowned human rights lawyer from Kenya once summed this up with these insights:

“I am sure you must be asking yourselves who we are as Shack Dwellers International. You see people from all over – brown, white, black coming together and I am sure the question as to what brings these people together must be floating in your minds. I was thinking about that question.

First thing that came to mind is that essentially the people in Shack Dwellers International, in the support organizations, and the Federations are mainly people who are discontented. Discontented with the current status quo. From India to Kenya to South Africa we are people who are very unhappy about evictions. People who felt very strongly that it was wrong for communities, whole families to live on the streets of Bombay or to live on the garbage dumps of Manila. We felt very strongly about that. So we the people within Shack Dwellers International are people who are, in a sense, the discontents of our societies.

I think also we the people within Shack Dwellers International are people who have a vision. We are the dreamers to a certain degree. We believe that this world can be better and we believe that working together we can make a difference. So essentially we are pragmatic. And you can see our pragmatism in the approaches we have. This pragmatism has led us to develop social movements. Not only in our countries but across the borders.

We have a vision of an alternative world that we want to see in existence. And that vision is based on our current discontent with what we see in our cities. This vision is backed up by our practices. Backed up by our customs and our ways of doing things. We have enumerations, savings, house models and these are practices and customs that lead to the development of this alternative society that we believe in.

And how is this? How do these mundane customs and practices like savings and enumerations bring change in our society?

I think these practices and customs help develop a new culture amongst us. What is this new culture? I think the culture that we’ve developed within our community is a culture of care and nurturing, because in our saving schemes we interact at a very high level. We save on a daily basis. On a daily basis people move from house to house collecting money and like we say within the Shack Dwellers International network – collecting information, collecting problems and seeing how as a community we can begin to resolve those problems. Using the different resources we have at that communal level we begin to address the problem of the women who does not have food in her house for that day, who is able to come to that community organisation that has developed within that settlement and say: “today I was not able to get work, can you give me a bit from my savings. So I can buy food today. And if I don’t have a bit from my savings, can this community give me a bit of money for today so I can put food on my table.”  So we develop these communities of care and sharing, right from the ground. That is the culture we develop.”

[caption id="attachment_10558" align="alignnone" width="387"] Scene of inferno on Saturday night at Mukuru-Hazina Slum in South B, Nairobi. More than 100 houses were reduced to ashes rendering more than 400 people homeless while an informal school and electric posts were not spared. Area chief Solomon L. Muranguri said the fire was caused by a stove. Photo/SAMMY KIMATU (31.07.2011)[/caption]

Below is a selection of images of evictions and demolitions that have taken place in the past few years in Kenya and Ghana. 

[gallery link="file" ids="10568,10569,10570,10571,10572,10573,10574,10575,10576,10577,10578,10579,10580,10581,10582,10583,10584,10585,10586,10587,10588,10590,10589,10591,10593,10594,10595,10597,10600,10601,10602,10603,10604,10605,10606,10607"]

Community Savings: a basic building block in the work of urban poor federations

This paper describes the community savings groups that are the foundation of many federations of slum/shack dwellers/homeless people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It reports on discussions with federation members in Kenya, Namibia, Malawi, the Philippines, Uganda and Zimbabwe on how savings groups are set up (mostly by women living in informal settlements) and managed (including the care taken in recording changes in each saver’s account). It also describes how these groups support their members working together to address difficult issues such as getting tenure of the land their homes occupy or getting land plots on which to build and access to services. For each of the six national federations described, details are also given of how the savings groups help change relations for the better with local and often national governments as they demonstrate to government their capacities. This includes undertaking projects and the community-driven mapping and enumerations of informal settlements. The paper also discusses the challenges that savings groups face – for instance when they lose momentum or when households cease to be active savers – and how these are addressed.

To read the full working paper, click here. 

Memoirs of a Ugandan Slum Dweller: Part XIV

Kampala, Uganda

*Cross-posted from The Age of Zinc*

Age of Zinc is proud to present the final instalment in a memoir from the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Check back soon for our next memoir!

Chapter 14

I was always thinking that if I get married I have to get a man who will always take care of me and that is also what I tell my daughter. She is just 18 so she is still innocent and I thank god for that because it is hard.

My first daughter is targeting right and has some things she wants. I promised her, I’d work nail and tooth to see that she achieves whatever she wants. I told her, “You are not going to get married tomorrow before you have your own job. You have to be working and then you can get a man. If you want to get married before you have a job, you’re going to end up suffering. And when you start suffering, don’t think of me suffering for you, that is your own problem. But I’m ready to support you until you get what you want.” I don’t have to baby feed her. She is a good girl. When she returns from school you give her wax and tell her that this is your capital. I tell her she can make some candles and sell them and then she shows me the sales. I tell her that you have to work for this money so when you go back to school you will have some money with you. She will never sit still. She spares some time for her books and does housework and then goes to work on the project.

I think each child should at least show what they are able to do to. You need to know your children: who is ready to work, who doesn’t want to work, and who is trust worthy. If you are open with them you know what they are thinking and know if they are going in a certain direction.

Some others maybe think that they will be supported, but I grew up knowing that I need to support myself. I don’t think I need someone to wake me up because if I know what I want, I have to do it myself. Why wait for someone? Let me fail and someone can come in. 


To Slum Dwellers International of thinking to mobilize women and empower them to a higher level of leadership which gives them strength to face their challenges and target development. Today we have empowered slum dweller women for development.

To note Kiberu Hasan (Uganda), Rose Molokoane (South Africa), Joseph Muturi (Kenya), Jockin Arputham (India), Abasi (Uganda), and the ACTogether staff.


Memoirs of a Ugandan Slum Dweller: Part XIII

Students at Makerere University learn from Slum Dwellers

*Cross posted from the Age of Zinc


Age of Zinc is proud to present the thirteenth instalment in a new memoir from the slums of Kampala, Uganda. Check back every week to catch the next part of the story!

When we work as a team we are able to get many things. We can’t sit back and say: “I’m poor, I can’t do anything.”  No, you have to start small and then you can grow.

The federation saved my life. I was almost gone and had a lot of stress. I had three children at that time. I was finding life hard with these children because I was not working much and the money was not supporting us. I had my shop but we still couldn’t save money. All the expenditures were going to pay off the loans and trying to survive. When I went to Owino I was able to start a new business and then with the federation I was new person. I was free.

With the federation women we are thinking big – we want businesses. We are also planning – we can buy a piece of land and we can acquire a loan. We can become a society and do things for ourselves. We do not have to sit and wait or beg.

We focus on improving our lives and changing the image of the slums. Instead of thinking that slums are places of useless people, we want the government to think that slums are part of development. This is what they have to focus on how we develop.  Slums have always been around and are growing everyday. They need to understand how we can find a solution – together with the slum dwellers.

Today people are informed. Even if I’m gone there are thousands of other people who know what they want and they can get it. So for me, I’m satisfied that I’ve at least worked. I’ve done something. So even if I leave now, tomorrow my children who are still slum dwellers will find the movement moving on.


No More Kid Mangwangwa

Both India and South Africa are voting today in parliamentary elections. But change is not something that comes about every four or five years at the ballot box. The real change-makers are on the streets, moving towns, cities, and nations, forward through their daily struggles. Pule Raboroko was one such unsung South African leader. The below is a retrospective that honours this key personality in the South African SDI Alliance. Similar short biographies of the men and women who have forged this global social movement will be featured regularly on the SDI blog. 

It is my subsidy you are talking about. It is you the government who promised it to us and it is you the government who tell us that the R15,000 is all we are going to get for our years of misery and suffering. And now you want me to accept it when you pour my subsidy down the drain, down your throats and the throats of developers.” – Pule Raboroko.


Pule Raboroko was stabbed to death in a Kanana shebeen in the early hours of Sunday 25 October 1998. His young wife lost a husband, his little children lost a father, the Federation (uMfelandaWonye) lost a national leader and the nation lost an unsung hero.

Pule Raboroko was an ordinary man. Pule Raboroko was never going to get a minute’s silence in parliament or an obituary in the daily papers, written by one of the venerable scribes of the new elite. It is left to his family, his community and his comrades in uMfelandaWonye to honour his memory. Raboroko would have preferred it that way.

He was born in Sebokeng in the late 1950’s. Like millions in his generation he grew up with the painfully simple aspiration to help to overturn the apartheid regime that tormented and degraded him. Raboroko grew up to be a proud man who did not like to be humiliated. He wore his wounded manhood on his sleeve, and in the end it might well have cost him his life. Just like it has cost the lives of countless men in this country’s racially segregated ghettos.

Pule Raboroko spent 15 years of his adult life in a back-yard shack in Sebokeng. In 1983 he was in the forefront of the riots that rocked the Vaal and ratched up the fear and the desperation of the white state. He was a member of UDF and ANC street committees until 1994.

On the day of the elections he led his people out of the backyard shacks and into a promised land – 15 hectares of dry veld that, of course, was called Kanana. In the eyes of the new authorities (what did Fanon say – Black skin, White masks?) that act made Raboroko into a land-grabber, a leader of queue jumpers, someone who undermines development and profits from the desperation of the poor.

Raboroko was no angel, but he did deliver 3000 homeless families in the Vaal Triangle from decades of humiliation and extortion in the backyard shacks of Sebokeng. And this action inspired thousands of others to follow this example, for Raboroko had exposed a universal truth. Government queues don’t move, they just groove for the corrupt. Government threatens land invaders with harsh recrimination, but nothing gets government to negotiate as quickly as a land invasion.

It is not the point to praise or condemn invasions, but by honouring Raboroko’s memory we honour the real urban planners of our cities – those men and women who have been desperate enough to occupy land, build shacks, source water at great risk to themselves and their loved ones.

First came the backyard shack-dwellers of Sebokeng. Then came their comrades from Small Farm, Evaton, Sharpeville. Soon the settlement of Kanana was followed by Election Park, Boitumelo, Botshabelo … And Raboroko was always at hand to help his fellow squatter citizens, to block out sites, to draw as good a layout plan as any professional surveyor, to design and help build infrastructure, to provide water.

The politicians did not believe him when he told them that he was not undermining Government but was helping them to deliver on their promises. The people did. Not only the people in the Vaal, but poor people throughout the land.

They are crying for Pule Raboroko today in hundreds of informal settlements throughout South Africa. They mourn him in Joe Slovo Village, Despatch where he helped design a layout plan that helped settle two thousands families. They mourn him in VukuZenzele, Cape Town where he did the same for 250 families more. And the women in Nonzamo, Queenstown are wailing for the soul of the man who helped them get running water. The men in Newlands West, Durban sit silent and solemn by the side of their stoves, thinking of the man who was with them when they fled the violence in Siyanda and sought a safe place to live. And it is a pall of sadness as well as a pall of smoke that covers the shack settlements of the Vaal region this week. There is hardly a squatter family in Kanana, Agrinette Hills, Patrick Hunsley, Election Park, Boitumelo that is not reminded that it was not the liberty that was awarded them by this new government that gave them land.

In the time of the bitter arrival of freedom, Raboroko was your everyman. Raboroko was a rough, even violent and self-destructive man. But then he was a product of the urban shacklands, and violence and roughness is the equilibrium of the shacks. So why is it so difficult to recognise that rough men like Raboroko who are committed to their communities are central to our urban transformation? Why point self-righteously at his scars, why look at his warpaint and say “I told you so”? Why not rise above the insalubrious, just like Raboroko did?

In the city centres and the suburbs where planners and politicians live, memory subsides into the new demands of reconciliation and consumption. On the outskirts where Pule lived, and debauched and tried to build a better life with his fellow squatter citizens, people have nothing and so they survive on memory. Not rigid, not dogmatic, not even angry, but the memory of old roots, the memory of community, a memory that spreads over time, carried by imperfect heroes like Pule Raboroko. It is that memory kept alive that is the key to a better tomorrow. It is not a sanitised solution, ribboned with red tape. It is beauty replete with horror. It is the simple order in the very heart of disorder.

A cowardly thrust of cold steel on a dark night and the Federation lost its first urban planner. Not a well heeled professional, schooled in an urban grammer, made up of grids and regulations, but a multi-lingual, multi-historical visionary, trapped for a lifetime in a mosiac of shacks and unlit streets and stagnant puddles. This was his backdrop. This was his home – be it in Kanana or Piesang River, Khayelitsha or Cato Crest. Our urban planner took the Federation’s message to the formal world – where he and his colleagues were often ignored and ridiculed.

But what is it that the Raboroko’s of the Federation are trying to say? That development is not a linear progression to be mapped and regulated. It is a process whereby the poor themselves show the way to make throbbing mosaics out of the haphazard whirls of life.

There will not be a minute’s silence in Parliament for Pule Raboroko, but the women of the Federation hold his memory to their hearts and their whispers accompany his spirit on its journey to his ancestors. Our tired eyes are burning with tears held back, as if by clouds of thick smoke on a highveld night, dust, and a wind as sharp and merciless as death.


Memoirs of a Ugandan Slum Dweller: Part XI


**Cross-posted from The Age of Zinc** 

My husband happened to be in one meeting and saw what I was doing. I didn’t know he was there because I was really busy, moving up and down, coordinating this and that. When I saw him later, he said, “Ah! That’s why you have become very tired. You are working so hard, now I understand.” Now when I go back home I will find that he has prepared food and he does not complain. If I tell him that I didn’t eat lunch or don’t have money for transport, he will give me something. Then tomorrow when I get money I show him what I made and we plan together. We agreed to share and know show much we are spending and what we have left. That is the only way it will change us. Initially, he would get his money from his houses and I wouldn’t even know how he was spending it. But after joining the federation we are like twins. We are one. We think the same and we work together. We even share the same challenges. If I’m hurt he feels that I’m hurt because he knows that we have the same responsibilities.

One of the things I learned from the federation was to understand how to manage my home and my husband. I had almost lost him before I joined the federation, because we were not moving in the same line. After I joined the federation, he was the one looking for me then. I was not around. I was so busy and I would go back home occupied thinking about more things. I was thinking about what we were going to do next. I was not thinking about him leaving me or doing whatever – I was busy, I got another husband, the federation! He was even scared that I found another man. I told him the federation is my husband and I’m going to be with them for the rest of my life! He asked me who this federation was and I told him it’s the savings that we had started – that is the federation. He was also scared because I never complained and was always satisfied with what I had. I knew that what I had was what I needed to fit into my life and I didn’t have to look for anything else then.

I’m used to not eating money, so I could never eat it. Whatever money I was given I was saving it. Our house was in a swamp area and whenever it rained water was always coming in our house. I thought two of my children were going to die in the house because of the weather – it was so cold. The first money I saved was for improving the house. I told my husband that I have saved this amount of money and I beg you to add in more money. So we improved the house. We had to buy cement and sand to lift the house up because it was sinking. When it rains in the swamps people have to pile up more soil to bring the level up. When you bring the soil level up though the houses go down more. So we had to bring the house up too. You change one part today and another tomorrow – that’s how you fix it. So it wasn’t breaking down the house. We had two rooms. After finishing one room, we did the other room, and then we did the floor. It was perfect! It changed our lives. It took time for the children to get well but today they are well. I also suffered from asthma with the weather; it was very tough for me. But I succeeded in changing it! Even women were wondering how I managed, but I did. And now my husband was also talking and telling people that when your woman joins that federation it changes them, they start thinking. He was the one then mobilising the men. He also joined and was saving. He knew that what I was targeting was big so he had to work with me. I was also helping him to plan. He used to get money and just spend it like that – on pleasure and going out alone. I grew up without those luxuries so I didn’t mind them, all I want to be alive and make sure my children are alive. That’s what I want.