A Vision of the Future

Kibera is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest slum with maybe one million people living in tiny, one-room shacks crammed together on the edge of Nairobi. And, if the experts are right, it’s the face of the future. Some time this year – maybe it has already happened – half the world’s population will be living in cities. The new arrivals are mostly in Africa and Asia, and they aren’t moving into tasteful townhouses or condos. They are building more tiny, one-roomed shacks which leak during the rainy season and are like ovens for the rest of the year.

The challenges are numerous. How do you get clean water and drains to these people? They are building their homes from corrugated iron and mud bricks, but who will collect their waste? What will they use for power?

Kibera’s community cookerKibera, on the edge of a city that hosts a huge United Nations presence, is something of a testbed for ideas. Some bits are working. Numerous community groups are running waste collection schemes. Scrap metal, paper and glass can be sold on to recycling companies. There is no shortage of ingenuity in Kibera. There is a “community cooker” that burns trash to provide heat for cooking. Latrines are being developed that produce biogas. But large parts of the slum still resemble a rubbish dump. Plastic bags clog the stinking open drains and pigs snuffle around picking at goat bones.

For no matter how hard the residents try to improve their living conditions they are up against a dense web of vested interests. As soon as a toilet block is built their landlords increase the already exorbitant rent. Local political leaders will undermine projects if they think that it will reduce their influence among their captive population. And the government sees no duty to treat Kibera’s residents as citizens with a right to water, sanitation and all the rest. So for now their toilets are plastic bags and their rubbish dumps are the narrow alleys.

 As Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, chief policy analyst with the United Nations’ human settlement programme Habitat, says: “The people who own the land, they may not necessarily be interested in changes.”

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