The misconceptions of slum life
More and more people are living in slums. What can be done about it?
A few weeks ago I blogged about Safaa Marafi’s thesis about neoliberal policies, urban segregation and the Egyptian revolution. Now she has published a newspaper article that is a good example of public anthropology: Living in Slums … A Historic Dilemma that Needs to be Resolved!.
Here she explains one of the most important anthropological insights. If you work with people, you need to understand their point of view. In order to solve the problems of slum life one needs to listen to the voices of the people who live there.
Efforts to develop Egypt’s slums have been going on for several years, yet without tangible change. The key aspect that is missing in these projects is getting close to these people, understanding their priorities and way of life and meeting their expectations, she writes:
Understanding their culture, needs and way of life is essential to help provide them with the necessary resources they need, whether proper education, job, medical assistance. Moreover, do they need small shops, kiosks, or commercial areas?
From this stand point, I stress on the need to conduct serious research by social scientists to understand the culture of these people through one-to-one interviews and giving them the chance to express their needs and voice their concerns. Thus, this will assist in tackling the slumization phenomenon from its grass-roots.
Anthropologists have stressed the importance of the “native’s point of view” in development projects for many years. Nevertheless, not only in Egypt, but also in Europe, people living in poorer neighborhoods are often stigmatized. Politicians and mainstream media tend to portray them as lazy and often criminal people that have to be “civilized”. So therefore, the poor are in policymakers’ view not worth to be listened to?
Marafi’s piece reminded me of some articles about slum life that have been published recently. All of them attack these misrepresentations.
One of them is the fascinating but sad story The life and death of Khanoufa: A personal account of Cairo’s “most dangerous thug”, written by Mohamed Elmeshad.
Egyptian police claim to have captured a man they called “Cairo’s most dangerous criminal”. Elmeshad questions these and gives us the perspective from his neighborhood where some of them see him as a victim of the system he was born into. A system where being associated with a slum area limits your opportunities in life.
“He turned out how he did because the police left him no other path in life,” Khaled, one of Khanoufa’s neighbors, said. At the age of 14, after participating in a neighborhood brawl, Khanoufa spent the first of a series of six-month stints in juvenile hall for youth misdemeanors. He became “marked” by police as someone they could pin crimes on or extort for money with the threat of imprisonment.
When his father, Abdel Shakour, passed away, Khanoufa’s family could no longer afford to pay-off the police, and he began spending more and more desperate nights in prison.
“That is when he turned to a life of crime. When he realized that he would be treated as a criminal for the rest of his life, no matter what. He reached a level of despair and said, ‘They’d take me in and put me in prison, regardless,’” Khaled said. He ended up spending half of his life in prison, from his teenage years until his death.
Mohamed Elmeshad has written another article from the same neighborhood (Ezbet Abu Qarn): Cairo’s poorest residents help the less fortunate in Somalia – a powerful story about cosmopolitanism from below.
A group of young men were moved by the images they saw in the media, and decided that the famine in Somalia must become a priority during Ramadan. Within four days, they were able to gather a large sum money among the poor people to the relief effort in Somalia.
“There are old widows who rely solely on charity to stay alive, who donated what I know is a really large amount for them,” said Sayed Kamal, one of the organizers.
“We don’t have people dying from hunger in our parts, but we do know poverty better than anyone else in Egypt, and we know about the fear of going hungry,” said Gamal Abdel Maqsood, a scrap metal dealer.
People in poor areas are no passive victims but do fight for their rights. In her story Popular committees bring true spirit of democracy to the streets, political scientist Rana Khazbak describes a campaign in another poor area in Cairo, Imbaba. Ehab Ali, a member in the popular committee in Imbaba, sounds like an anthropologist when he explains their campaign:
“We wanted to do field work in the streets among people. The piece of bread we eat every day is politics, the traffic congestion is politics, and the garbage in the streets is politics. That’s why in order to solve these problems and for Egypt to become a better place, we have to start from the bottom at the grassroots level.”
The popular committees were formed during the Januar revolution to protect neighborhoods when police withdrew from the streets in the midst of nationwide protests that toppled former President Mubarak.
Born out of a moment of chaos and fear, [the popular committes] proved themselves to be capable of self-organization in the days that followed. But most importantly, they proved to people that the end of “government” did not mean the end of the world.
In this surge of grassroots activism lie potential forms for popular governance. The committees not only teach us about the specific issues facing each neighborhood, but together they can teach us something about how political representation, accountability and local governance work on the ground.
Finally, just one week ago, Amnesty International has released a report about Egypt’s slums: ‘We are not dirt’: Forced evictions in Egypt’s informal settlements.