A kilometer south along Umoja Road in Tabata, a relatively new suburb sprawling to the west of Mandela Road in Ilala District, Dar es Salaam, a semblance of planned residential urban area comes to an end. Adjoining it further south towards the edge of Msimbazi valley is a poor neighbourhood of informal settlements with typical characteristics of a squatter or slum: haphazardly built mud, concrete and brick structures juxtaposed with relatively modern houses, small alleys, open sewers and litters strewn in all directions.
Whenever it rains heavily—like it did over the past few days—the area becomes automatically a disaster zone: alleys mired in mud and dirt water, crumbling latrines, flooded homes and thousands of stranded commuters as most pathways becomes impassable.
The situation is much worse deeper into the squatter realm, where life is characteristically harsh during “normal periods”—the penalty that millions of slum and squatters have to pay for living in these marginalized areas.
The situation along the Msimbazi valley speaks for thousands of similar settlements across the country, only varying in the degree of deprivation conditions from city to city and from one urban area to another.
These informal settlements—squatters, slums or shanty towns, whatever you name it—are in most cases the nucleus of social vices: addiction to drug and alcohol, prostitution and thuggery, among many other ills. They are also the places where urban poverty is most concentrated and rife with killer diseases including TB, malaria and AIDS, just to mention a few.
Some one billion people are estimated to be living in slums, squatters and other varieties of informal settlements in urban areas world-wide. Experts say these people die earlier, “experience more hunger, attain less education and have fewer chances of employment” as compared to residents of relatively prosperous neighbourhoods.
“In many Sub-Saharan African cities, children living in slums are more likely to die from water-borne and respiratory illnesses than rural children. Women living in slums are also more likely to contract HIV/AIDS than their rural counterparts. These differences are attributed to the poor living conditions in slums, which expose women and children to a variety of health hazards and force girls and women to engage in sexually risky behavior,” says UN-HABITAT, the international agency for cities.
The urban challenge—improving housing and the living conditions of people in informal settlements, such as squatters and slums—is among the priorities in the global development agenda. It is widely recognized that the attainment of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be impossible without improving the living conditions of millions of urban dwellers, partly by upgrading basic services in the informal settlements.
UN-HABITAT estimates that for every three city residents, one is a slum dweller. It was further estimated that by 2007, the urban population had surpassed the rural population world-wide. Some 95 per cent of urban global growth was taking place in the developing world, including Sub-Saharan Africa where slum population accounts for more than 70 per cent of the urban population.
Sub-Saharan Africa is also said to account for the worst slums in the world: people in the majority of slums and informal settlements lack access to water, sanitation, durable housing and sufficient living area, according to UN-HABITAT.
The situation is compounded by high rural-urban migration, as poverty drive millions of people from rural areas to seek jobs and better prospects for life in the cities—which on the other hand are ill-equipped or ill-prepared to meet the unprecedented population surge.
By 2007, Africa had the highest annual urban growth (4.58 per cent) and also the highest slum growth in the world (4.53per cent). Poverty aside, conflict in some African countries was a major contributing factor as people in their droves flee war zones daily to seek relative peace in the cities.
The definitions of slums vary and may include many forms of informal settlements, but in most cases they refer to “structures not complying with building regulations and standards, having inadequate basic services provision and insecure tenure status.”
Such settlements are commonplace in many urban areas in Tanzania, if not in all. They also cover “once respectable or even desirable” settlements, but which have since been left to deteriorate or decay.
There have been some programmes in the country to recognize some of these informal neighbourhoods, particularly squatters (illegal settlements), but the exercise has to a large extent been limited to provision of tenure (or licenses) under schemes such as MKURABITA and similar projects by municipal and district council authorities. However, the majority of informal settlements are still beset with numerous problems, notably lack of reliable infrastructure and basic social services.
For people living in the squatters and slums it is normally a nightmare whenever there is an emergency—most of these areas are not accessible to fire tenders or ambulances. The combination of poor quality of building, haphazard construction, lack of infrastructure and inadequate social services deprive slum dwellers of “the advantages and opportunities offered by cities.”
To make things worse, the authorities sometimes have responded to the challenge by forced evictions—to clear slums and squatters-- which experts say create even more problems: thousands are driven to homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness and numerous psychological problems, and sometimes the situation degenerates into violence. Such heavy-handed measures often fall far too short of addressing the urban challenge.
At a major gathering held in Vancouver, Canada in 2006, the World Urban Forum, the international community called for increased resources to help meet the urban challenge, especially the MDG target of improving the lives of 100 million slum dwellers by 2015, which required and injection of between 70 to 80 billion dollars. Tanzania’s Vice-President, Dr. Mohamed Shein who attended the Forum, disclosed at the time that the combined international development assistance and private funds set aside for slum upgrading and related infrastructure in all the developing countries was less than 4 billion dollars.
Today, with only five years to go, it is a safe bet that that MDG target will hardly be attained.
Meanwhile, the global slum menace goes on unabated, although some countries , including Tanzania “have in recent years shown promising signs of growing political support for slum upgrading and prevention, that included reforms governing land and housing,” according to UN-HABITAT.
That may be good news to squatters along the Msimbazi valley, who are eagerly waiting to see concrete actions to ease their plight. Their dream is to have “safe and welcoming community spaces, where members of the neighbouhood can gather to organize, learn and have fun together.”