DirtPol's blog posts tagged with 'slums'

THE POLITICS OF DIRT AND THE DIRT OF POLITICS: DEMOLITION FEVER GRIPS MAKOKO by John Uwa

Apr

15

When the news first hit the Stand that the Lagos State Government of Nigeria plans to demolish the water settlement which goes by the name Makoko, what first came to my mind and all other followers of the event, as I supposed, was the demolition of Maroko in 1989. Like Makoko, Maroko was inhabited by low income earners who lacked some basic social amenities like portable water and waste disposal materials. With the absence of these basic amenities Maroko was tagged “dirty” and marked out for demolition. Today, some the choicest areas in Lagos like Lekki Phase 1 and 2 where top class Lagosians now live is what we have left of Maroko. Makoko is one of the over 40 slums we have in Lagos State (Betty Abah: 2014), and the state government is stopping at nothing to claim this settlement which is situated in front of the lagoon and also boast of a sizeable number of lumber mill, water trading and fishing. With the government’s threat of demolition which has attracted human right activists, locally and internationally, Makoko is now in the spotlight of a serious political debate and litigation between the State Government and other stakeholders. “Dirt” appears to be the main issue of contention. The state government has given two reasons for the attempted demolition of Mokoko. 1. The huge dirt generated from this slum pose serious health and environmental threat; and 2. The master plan and the beautification of Lagos stipulate that such areas of the state like Makoko should be demolished and reconstructed (for who?). On its part, the inhabitants, human right and environmental activists are claiming that the government has deliberately abandoned the area so as to justify its demolition plans.

As a ‘dirt’ researcher, I thought that a visit to this slum would provide some insight into the politics of demolishing and the reclaiming Makoko; and indeed, my visit to this part of Lagos revealed some truth. The area which is situated in front of the Lagoon provides some sort of ambience which can connect one with nature; the same kind of landscape which ‘influenced’ the takeover of Maroko by the State Government. I also thought that the huge waste generated in this slum must be really disturbing when we begin to talk about health and environmental challenges. Incidentally the adjoining water is used for bathing, fishing and defecation. While I was still thinking of this discovery, I realised that the presence of government in terms of public school, health centre, portable water and waste disposal materials is totally unavailable. What came to mind afterward was a series of questions which every researcher of ‘dirt’ may have to ponder upon. Why is the government not making it presence felt? Could the tag “dirty” be used as an excuse to demolish Makoko?  In whose interest is the demolition? Can dirt be used as an index to exclude some people or give advantage to some people over others? What does Makoko need, demolition or government presence?  One thing is obvious; ‘dirt’ appears to have been employed as and index to justify certain action, and to compel recognition.

The attached pictures from Makoko and Otto Ilogbo which were taken in the course of DirtpPol research may provide some sort of semiotic view for further interpretation and investigation.

 

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MAKOKO

 

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MAKOKO

 

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RIGHT ON THE SLUM. OTTO ILOGBO

 

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OTTO ILOGBO

 

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Defecating right into the water

 

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Floating Restaurant



About the author:  John Uwa is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in media and communication.  John's based in Lagos, has an MA in English Literature and speaks Yoruba, English and Pidgin.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

Follow DirtPol on Twitter: @ProjectDirtPol

Ethics in the Field by Rebeccah Onwong'a

Apr

23

There are few challenges I have encountered while working in the slums that I would like us to discuss. First, it is important to note that slums vary in one way or the other. For example in Dandora slum, it is not easy to get information because the residents fear talking to strangers. This is because the the gangs in the slums forbid them from talking to strangers and anybody who is seen talking to strangers is “disciplined”. On the other hand, in Kibera slum nobody cares about strangers. So far, I have not heard of any gang operating in the slum. The problem in Kibera is that nobody is willing to volunteer information for free. The informants always insist that you have to give them lunch. They argue that they use their time to take you through the slum.They say that this time could be used to engage in other income generating activities. It is surprising that even the idle ones insist on the “ lunch”. This has forced me on several occasions to hide my identity as a project researcher. Most of the time I pretend to be a college student to avoid being asked for money. It is in this context that I would like us to discuss if it is ethical to lie or give lunch to get the information you want. While responding to the question, it is important bear in mind that if you don’t lie or give lunch, you might not get the information you want.


About the author:  Rebeccah Onwong'a is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in health and environment.  Rebeccah's based in Nairobi, her academic background is in Biology and she gained her Masters degree in Belgium.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit the DirtPol website.

GUEST POST: The Politics of Decay in a Nairobi Council Estate by Constance Smith

Dec

22

The Politics of Decay in a Nairobi Council Estate

On 14 May this year, an article appeared in the Nairobi News with the headline “In Comes Chinese Money, Out Go Eastlands Estates”. The article describes a memorandum signed between Nairobi County Government and two private Chinese companies to demolish current council housing and build 55,000 apartments on the site, as part of the city’s so-called ‘urban renewal’ programme. The Eastlands estates are several neighbourhoods of colonial-era housing in the east of Nairobi, built by the British colonial government between the 1920s and 1960s to provide affordable housing for Africans in Kenya’s rapidly growing capital city. Although today they are dilapidated and in disrepair, tens of thousands of Nairobians still call them home.

According to the article, the new apartments are to be designed, constructed and then sold by the companies, in effect suggesting that this will be the end of public housing in this area of Nairobi. One of the targeted estates, Kaloleni, is the focus of my PhD fieldwork on architecture, history and materiality, where I have been exploring residents’ responses to this looming threat of redevelopment.

Kaloleni

The Eastlands Urban Renewal Strategy was developed as part of Nairobi County government’s plans to combat so-called urban decay in the city.

In Kaloleni, after years of neglect, most residents would welcome some form of state-instigated investment and construction within their estate, but many reject the label of urban decay.

As a policy category imposed by the state, urban decay is a judgement. It implies material and social failure and the condemnation of a whole community, whilst simultaneously allowing those who built or manage the estate to avoid being held accountable. In their refusal to be branded as a site of urban decay, Kaloleni residents object to the state’s evasion of responsibility.

They argue not only that they live in a historically and architecturally important site but that the neglect of their neighbourhood is politically motivated on the part of the local government, as they seek to condemn and redevelop it.

As with so much public housing all over the world that gets labelled as ‘dangerous’ or ‘decayed’ and earmarked for regeneration, Kaloleni was once a model estate, intended to generate a bright future for its new residents. Built in the 1940s and based on the garden city ideals of urban design, it was one of the first estates in Nairobi aimed at African families. It marked a period of British colonial urban planning in Africa that moved away from functional “bed-spaces” for migrant labourers towards a more ideological model that would refashion domestic life and build the exemplary colonial subjects of the future.

By the 1950s and 1960s, Kaloleni was at the heart of a growing urban middle class in Nairobi, and it was an aspirational place: it was the most well-to-do of the African estates, and it was a marker of some success to live there. Today, older residents are nostalgic for a time of order and maintenance, with neat lawns, playing fields, daily milk delivery and a well-equipped music room and library. But from the 1980s, widespread corruption and mismanagement at both municipal and national levels meant that the administration and upkeep of Kaloleni began to decline, and today there is almost no formal state presence in the estate at all. Despite still being council tenants, residents are now largely left to fend for themselves.

Whereas once the council swiftly managed repairs, these days any pretence at maintenance has been abandoned and it is up to the residents to fix their own homes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet there is something of a paradox apparent in Kaloleni. Though residents dispute the label ‘urban decay’ and the ramifications it entails, decay is nonetheless a powerfully affective force in Kaloleni. Homes are dilapidated, previously tarmacked roads have turned to dust. Water no longer runs in the pipes, broken streetlights lean precariously at awkward angles, the bulbs long gone. Rubbish is no longer collected, electricity is intermittent and the sewerage system is at breaking point. Families are now at the poorest end of the spectrum, and the estate has become dirty, congested, and unsafe.

What this makes visible is an important slippage between decay as a governmental category and a material process.

Many residents regard the material degradation of Kaloleni as a political act on the part of the city authorities. They feel that the council are deliberately running things into the ground so that they can condemn the estate as decayed, and so justify the demolition and redevelopment of the site, evicting the current residents in the process. This gives a very different gloss to the visible signs of neglect. These are not neutral processes, the product of some natural cycle of decay, or the consequence of Kaloleni being simply ‘forgotten’ by city authorities. Household maintenance is a political issue for residents, and their practices of management and repair inscribe the houses with their own personal histories. They are not simply repairing their homes for functionality and comfort, but in a small way trying to stem a much bigger tide of institutional neglect, and making a statement about their right to reside in the estate.

In some ways, there is a sadness and nostalgia to this decay, a loss of pride in an estate which was once desirable and orderly. But Kaloleni should not be regarded as a ruin, a relic of a colonial past destined for oblivion. Much recent scholarship on decay implies ruination, abandonment and desolation. The quintessential image of architectural decay is one of loss, a monumental relic of a ruined past: a decrepit fort, an abandoned factory, a deserted village.

Instead, the processes I have been following suggest that ‘ruin’ and ‘decay’ should not be conflated. Rather than headed for ruination, decay in Kaloleni is more productive: a sedimented history with which residents are increasingly engaged.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Ann Laura Stoler has encouraged us to consider the political life of imperial debris, “the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities and things” (2008: 194). This afterlife is vibrant in Kaloleni. Far from being abandoned, the population is today many times higher than its original intended capacity, thanks to residents’ construction of ‘extensions’, one room corrugated iron dwellings that they rent out privately. Amidst the decay is also a sense of opportunity, as formality and stricture give way to informality. Where previously economic activity was limited to formal outlets in the centre of the estate, today kiosks, hair salons, cafes, car mechanics and market stalls are flourishing across the neighbourhood. Governmental failure to fulfil mundane responsibilities of maintenance is countered by opening a front door to reveal a dramatic modification and vivid redecoration of a proud resident’s home, whilst many others have hedged and planted beautiful front gardens to create private outdoor space and keep the encroaching rubbish and mud at bay.

What is this kind of decay that is not ruination? In one sense, we could simply say that this is what happens when formality is replaced with informality. The failure of the council to manage their social housing has led to a ‘making-do’ culture, in which residents come up with ingenious fixes and creative solutions to issues such as lack of piped water, unreliable electricity provision and poor sanitation.

Whilst at a certain level this may be true, for me, it doesn’t really get at the social and material implications of such neglect. As I followed the materiality of decay in Kaloleni, tracing what was disintegrating and what was not, and questioning how people felt about it, I began to see decay not as something associated with loss and oblivion, but to see it as accumulation. What I was observing was a build up of material traces, a sedimentation of the remains of lives lived. If rubbish is not collected, broken objects are not removed, houses are not repainted, what we are left with is not less, but rather more – what we might term an excess.

There is no ruined enchantment to these residues, they are not often beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, but they reveal the way in which a landscape can be inscribed with multiple ordinary histories as they accumulate in the estate. I began to suspect that living within and among such sedimented histories generates an engagement with the past, a way of relating to the material structures of the estate that has helped to shape the resentment and rejection of the label urban decay.

front gardenThis was particularly clearly articulated by one resident, Limush. He compared Kaloleni to the new Thika Superhighway, one of the Kenyan government’s flagship infrastructural projects in recent years. He commented how the area bisected by the road has now changed so much that it is unrecognisable to him. It has been cleared, obliterated, all traces of what was once there removed. Importantly, he said not only can he no longer remember what was there before and how it looked, but “I can’t remember what I used to do there”. That is to say, he has lost his embodied knowledge of that area, its location in his lived experience. He said “if the buildings come down, Kaloleni will be gone” – not just physically but gone from history: “without the buildings you cannot remember, you have no memories”.

In this way, oblivion and loss may emanate not so much from decay itself as from its elimination. Once branded as a site of urban decay, that place becomes dead-end, futureless. It is a condemnation, an obliteration of slowly amassed material and corporeal micro-histories. Conversely, by starting to see decay as a process of accumulation rather than loss, new possibilities begin to emerge. Instead of a descent into oblivion, decay remains unforeclosed, an ongoing process of sedimentation. We start to see how the relationship between people and architecture is generative; the accumulated traces of decades of habitation leave their mark – both on buildings and people – in an ongoing process of place-making. Interior - me and Georgio

Constance Smith is a PhD candidate at University College London, a Social Anthropologist specialising in Material Culture