Over a week ago, on August 5, I went with my colleague Betty to Kroo Bay slum, one of the estimated 61 slums in Freetown. Last September, the rainy season caused flooding in slums throughout the city which killed seven people and made thousands homeless. Many of the homeless were temporarily housed in the country’s national stadium, and the government eventually resettled some in the Six Mile community 20 km outside of Freetown.
On our first visit, Betty and I wanted to interview people in the slum about how they were preparing for the floods this year. We were turned down, but it was still a really interesting experience. On another visit a few days later, we managed to talk to Saidu Turay, who has been Chairman of Disaster Response Management in Kroo Bay slum for over ten years. You can read about what it was like visiting the slum in my column — I won’t go over all the details again here. The interview we did with Turay will hopefully make it into a longer story I’m working on — and if it doesn’t I’ll post it on this blog.
On our first visit, the chief of Kroo bay told Betty in Krio that they didn’t see the point in doing another interview with the press, because none of the many media interviews they’d given had yet helped their community.
At this point in my internship, I’ve gotten used to being denied interviews due to bureaucracy. Just today, for example, I was turned down for two interviews, one at an office I’d trekked up to up a steep hill for the second time in the same week. Yesterday I tried to get two interviews, my colleague tried to arrange a third one for me on the spur of the moment, and he wanted to nail down one himself. All four fizzled out, or were “postponed.”
But the people in Kroo Bay slum – the chief and the youth representative — gave us reasons for why they didn’t want to be interviewed — which is a lot better than being given, “come back tomorrow.” Basically, nothing had changed in the slum for ten years. And they’d given a lot of interviews in that time.
I appreciate their honesty, but I’m still torn between frustration that they turned down the interview, and sympathy with their choice to turn it down. I guess this shows the importance of building real trust with sources in vulnerable communities, so they don’t feel exploited by coverage that doesn’t benefit them at all.
Still, I couldn’t help but think — how does it help them to be completely voiceless?
I have to admit that I always thought of Third World slums as kind of hopeless, desolate places, maybe crime-ridden and always unsanitary, where people were constantly dying of disease. I know that betrays my ignorance, but it does seem to be the mental image you pick up in the west if you’re not careful. And to be fair, I’m sure this accurately describes some slums to a certain extent.
But I was surprised at how…normal Kroo Bay slum seemed on the surface. No one came to us begging us for money, and it didn’t exactly feel like a sad, hopeless place. Sure, there were trash and very dirty pigs everywhere, but it seemed like a functional community, where people worked and lived much like people anywhere.
Although maybe “functional” is too positive a word. As I learned, the folks in the slum are vulnerable to disease and flood, there’s a high level of unemployment and poverty, parents can’t pay for their kids to go to school, people live in rusting tin shacks, and the muddy river serves as trash dump, toilet and water source all at once.
Deforestation in the hills above Freetown — often to make room for more houses — intensifies the risks of floods, according to disaster response manager Turay.
After I visited the slum I read a report from the Africa Research Institute on slums in Freetown that gives an interesting explanation for why people choose to live in them even if they’re not fit for human habitation:
Informal settlements may fall short when it comes to design, legal status and comfort but they generally tick many boxes that are critically important for inhabitants. They are well located in relation to economic and transport hubs, provide space for home-based economic activities, possess longstanding community support systems and are affordable. Forced relocation is therefore disruptive at many levels. This is not to say that slums provide acceptable living conditions; rather that slum communities exist where they are for a reason.
Many of the slum dwellers are from upcountry outside of Freetown, and the slum provides housing they can afford.
I’ve been learning that some Sierra Leoneans have harsh, disparaging and arguably elitist views of slum dwellers. One newspaper columnist scorned people for living in places unfit for human habitation, and longed for the old days when people would be evicted from such places. Yesterday my colleague shared a similar view, saying the slum dwellers had no reason to complain about being relocated to Six Mile.
Six Mile, as far as I understand, is a new community that was created to house slum dwellers who had lost their homes in flooding. Turay from Kroo Bay told Betty and I that people didn’t want to move there because it was far from the city where they could find work or send their kids to school. But my colleague dismissed this, saying it was the slum dwellers’ responsibility to build up the area into a habitable community. They could practice agriculture, build a school and so on.
“But They just don’t want to do the work,” he said. Instead, slum dwellers want to be near the wharf, where they can take in smuggled shipments of goods from Liberia and Guinea, he said. Youths who are up to no good and a lot of sex workers come from the slums.
I don’t know if the smuggling is as foundational to the slum economy as my colleague said, but I doubt it’s the only reason people want to stay in these communities.
These arguments reminded me so much of the rhetoric in Seattle about the homeless. So many people blame them for their predicament in a weirdly tautological way. They’re homeless because they’re criminals, drug addicts, or incapable of hard work — and because they’re homeless, they must be one or more of those things, and so shouldn’t be allowed anywhere the community of “normal” people. They should just…stop being homeless, and we would all be better off.
This attitude seems to be behind that newspaper columnist who criticized people for choosing to live in places unfit for human habitation. No, we shouldn’t improve their lives, he wrote — the slums are inherently unlivable, no matter how livable we make them. Also, some of the slum dwellers have TVs!
As I wrote in my post on visiting an orphanage a few week ago, it’s disheartening to come across these elitist attitudes in Sierra Leone, of all places, where almost everyone could use help from a social safety net.
If these attitudes are also common among government officials, it would explain why the government decided, without consulting with the actual people who would be affected, to send them to a community they didn’t want to live in. As Turay put it in his interview with us, planning for disaster response in the slums should involve everyone, especially those most affected.