Home in the dark


I’m feeling a bit ashamed of myself for going on about the creepy crawlies so much. Actually, the eight-legged variety seem to have moved out of my bedroom. Does that mean I won? Feel a bit bad in a way, after all they were here first. However I can still hear rustling sounds in the night… Apparently the cockroaches live – INSIDE THE DOORS.

We work a pretty long day here; I get into the office around 8-ish and there’s usually people there already. We leave any time between 6 and 7 in the evening. The other evening my usual lift got stuck in a meeting and I ended up stranded in the office alone at about 7 – by which time it’s pitch dark, and there are no street lights around. I arranged for the usual taxi driver to pick me up and waited in the dark on the road (no pavements) clutching my belongings pathetically. Never have I been so glad to see a taxi pull up. He knows my hosts well so I felt I was on my way home. Until about 20 minutes later when I realised we’d left the usual road, were driving along a dirt track and I had no idea whatsoever where we were going. I was just about to pipe up my concern, as casually as possible, when taxi driver muttered something about not remembering which house it was. I said, none of these houses, and frankly none of these streets – I don’t recognise this place at all. Turns out, taxi driver didn’t know my hosts had moved house. Anyway I explained where they now live and we were there in about ten minutes. Taxi driver thought it was really funny. Me, I was wondering how long it would take the British Embassy to find me.

This was the first time I’d driven at night through the areas that are officially called informal settlements, locally called compounds and we’d call slums. The ‘houses’ are sheds, sometimes painted brightly but often in a state of collapse, some with curtains for doors. Along the side of the road there are small shops and bars, all painted in bright pinks and blues and with hand-painted names and signs. In the night there are fires burning and it seems like all human life is out on the street. It sort of feels a bit like a fair, until you remember that these people survive here day in and day out. There’s limited access to clean water and there are no sewage systems. Yet somehow some kids get to school regularly, as long as they can avoid the rampant TB and HIV/AIDS that is.

There are numerous NGOs and community-based organizations working with these people. Some help them build their own homes with loans and materials, others lobby the authorities to make land acquisition easier and fairer. Some focus on women, others on vulnerable children. Some work with women in rural areas, training them to make bricks and helping them hold on to their land – which traditionally would automatically belong to their husband. I work with the Civic Forum on Housing and Habitat, which brings these organizations together to advocate for adquate housing, and also supports them organizationally for example in developing policies, especially on gender and HIV\AIDS. Ultimately though the aim is to make their voice stronger and more powerful, as they lobby on behalf of the poorest of the poor.

House, George Compound

This is an example of the houses people are living in, in the compounds, or informal settlements.

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