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Sierra Leone News: Freetown’s Sprawling Slums

slumIf you think life is fair, just think of your birth and you will realize that you just found yourself in a family and you started referring to two strange people Mama and Papa. That’s just the way of the world and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. The good news is that you can actually turn things around. You can move from being a Painter to a Billionaire and the other way round.
I never knew our slums in Freetown date back as far as the 15th century. In 1787, just after the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in England, a treaty was signed with King Naimbana. See, there is a story behind the name Naimbana. The name is actually Banna. When the English met him for the first time, they said “What is your name?” he replied, “Me Naim Banna”, meaning “My Name is Bana” The English started calling him Naimbana, and it stuck.
King Naimbana’s treaty with the British ceded the lands along the coastline and it became home for the blacks discharged from the British armed forces and also for run-away slaves who had found asylum in London. During the rebel carnage in Sierra Leone, a lot of people who fled the war came and lived in the Freetown slums. Of course as poor displaced people, they could not afford expensive housing in Freetown. In 2012 Graham Tipple and Associates did a scoping visit to Freetown. Their research found that out of an estimated population of between 900,000 and 1.5 Million people in the city, about 500,000 live in slums. Most of these are located along river valleys, slopes of the mountains and on flood plains, alluvial mud flats and mangrove swamps along the coast.
According to Wikipedia, a slum is a heavily populated urban informal settlement characterized by substandard housing and squalor. The slums in Freetown may differ in size and other characteristics, but most lack reliable sanitation services, supply of clean water, reliable electricity, timely law enforcement and other basic services. Slum residences vary from shanty houses to professionally built dwellings that because of poor-quality construction or provision of services, have deteriorated into slums.
Slums are predominantly found in urban regions of developing and undeveloped parts of the world, but are also found in developed economies.
According to UN-Habitat, around 33% of the urban population in the developing world in 2012, or about 863 million people, lived in slums. The proportion of urban population living in slums was highest in Sub-Saharan Africa (61.7%), followed by South Asia (35%), Southeast Asia (31%), East Asia (28.2%), West Asia (24.6%), Oceania (24.1%), Latin America and the Caribbean (23.5%), and North Africa (13.3%). Among individual countries, the proportion of urban residents living in slum areas in 2009 was highest in the Central African Republic (95.9%). Between 1990 and 2010 the percentage of people living in slums dropped, even as the total urban population increased.[7] The world’s largest slum city is in Mexico City.
Slums form and grow in many different parts of the world for many different reasons. The slums in Freetown were caused by: rapid rural-to-urban migration, economic stagnation and depression, high unemployment, poverty, informal economy, poor planning, politics, natural disasters and the Civil war.
The population growth in Freetown especially from the 1990s overtook whatever plans to discourage rural-urban migration. International and local development partners therefore instead decided to improve conditions in the slums. Strategies tried to reduce and transform slums in different countries, with varying degrees of success, include a combination of slum removal, slum relocation, slum upgrading, urban planning with city wide infrastructure development, and public housing projects. In Sierra Leone most of these strategies are just far cries in the wilderness. Nevertheless some NGOs, local and international have been working hard to improve slum conditions. To a large extent, it has proven an uphill task as some of the slums are located in disaster prone areas like water ways and mangrove swamps. Most slums suffer from substandard housing and overcrowding, inadequate or no infrastructure, vulnerability to natural and unnatural hazards, unemployment and informal economy, violence, child malnutrition, epidemics and slum removal/relocation threats.
When we consider that Sierra Leone is the third most disaster prone country, after Bangladesh and Guinea Bissau, then one can hardly take lightly the horrible locations and conditions in our slums.  Whenever the issue of slum relocation comes up, it is clouded in political arguments. In fact we are yet to have a government that has the necessary political will to handle the slum issue once and for all. The recent 90-day by the Office of National Security for slum dwellers to relocate was just a hoax, to say the least, especially coming in the rains. We are getting deeper and deeper into the rainy season and the down pour is at times very threatening.
The type of flooding that took place in Freetown and some other parts of the country in September last year was perhaps a precursor to future disasters. Yet we are yet as a nation to come out with a clear strategy to prevent future recurrence.
The whole slum history has some serious emotional angles. Some families in a slum like Kroo Bay will tell you their great great forbears had lived there for ages. This seeming blind emotional attachment defies the counter argument that the slums are not at all safe for human habitation. You need to see when Kroo Bay is flooded, domestic animals and their human owners struggling for safety.
It looks like government is at its wits end figuring out what to do. So development practitioners are now saying that if moving the slums cannot yet happen, then at least they can improve the conditions by improving social and other amenities. The irony is that a large part of Freetown has a lot of slum characteristic. Check the east end and see the alarming deprivation.
I really think it’s high time the government came out with a comprehensive strategy to handle the slum issue once and for all. We really do not need any more disasters or epidemics to take our environmental degradation seriously. We definitely cannot afford to continue to have life-threatening calamities in an already economically sinking republic. “Udat dae interpret koss, ihm sef dae koss.”
By Beny Sam
Friday July 22, 2016

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