Senti slum in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, is a tangle of structures that pass for houses, toilets and other buildings. So dense and disorganised is the area that it is an eye sore to the community itself. Maybe this is about to change, as Bright Mhango reports.
In Area 18 in Lilongwe, rentals speak of a middle class, roads are paved with tar, some up to people’s gates while garbage collection services are on point.
But metres after crossing the river next to the Area 18 graveyard, one is greeted by all that defines urban poverty: narrow passes, houses facing the direction they choose, grass-thatched houses and every structure that can scream the word “informal” about it.
But a strange movement is taking shape on the other side of Nankhaka River; locals say they are tired of waiting for government to bring them development which almost always never comes in these parts of the world.
Margin Banda is one of the people at the heart of the movement that seeks to transform Senti slum area into an organised community.
“To us, it was the fear of being evicted that made us build informal structures. We thought this land belonged to government and that we would be evicted anytime. After we were told that this land is actually customary, we realised that we could do anything with it.
“We realised that we had to get organised because we seriously did not know what we were doing: no toilets, no connector roads, land disputes were rife,” said Banda
Nevas Chirwa is the project officer for the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) and he chronicles how the slum area came to know its shortfalls.
He said CCODE and the Malawi Homeless People’s Federation realised that for these settlements to be developed in an organised fashion, there was need for mobilisation of the communities to secure their buy-in.
And so began the movement.
Residents of Senti were taken on an exchange visit to Nancholi Township in Blantyre to see what their counterparts were doing in terms of organising their communities.
“This came in upon understanding that over the years, their settlement had been changing, but for the worse. People were still building structures with a retrogressive impact on their overall settlement development,” said Chirwa.
CCODE provides technical support to the communities to help them realise their vision. The support is in the form of mobilisation and mapping strategies as well as capacity building and planning expertise, among others.
The project is being financed by Tilitonse Fund.
The idea is to increase social cohesion and organisation of the urban poor through functioning relationships to the local council; improve access to information on rights, entitlements and responsibilities in the city by urban poor communities; increase commitment and resource allocation to community priorities and enhance people’s civic engagement to influence budgets and activities of authorities.
“The community plans will influence budget allocations and other support. On the political front, the communities will have a ready strategy which politicians will have to follow. It has been noted that politicians decide where and how to do things which is mostly against the wishes of the people who reside in these areas,” said Chirwa.
In the new set-up, every family will be required to mark out its land limits and only burnt bricks will be encouraged to be used to build houses.
Some families have already begun giving up land to make way for roads and alleyways.
“This initiative is headed by a chief in every cluster. Whatever happens is sanctioned by the chief and, therefore, it has legitimacy and we ensure that committees also have a say, so it is a democratic set-up,” said Agnes Thunde, a community leader.
Community leaders said this is their initiative and CCODE only came in after they expressed interest in organising themselves.
“We had our shortfalls: if a fire starts inside the mangled houses, it can easily spread and cannot be easily put out because there is no access for fire trucks. There is the risk of diseases in that if someone falls sick, there is no way an ambulance can get to them.
“Even a funeral is difficult to administer in the mazy alleyways we have here. That is why we thought of getting organised,” said Banda.
The community has already drawn up plans to take down some houses and construct roads while space for water drainage has also been marked out.
“Instead of throwing garbage into the Nankhaka River, we are planning to set up dumping sites in our clusters. Women will be trained in recycling the waste into manure and resell the plastics,” said Banda.
“All new houses to be built will be looked at and approved first by the chief,” he added.
The Senti initiative comes in the wake of a conference of slum dwellers that was held at Chinsapo in the city where slum dwellers agreed to do something about their sorry state of living.
The only question that hangs about Senti residents is whether the brilliant plans they have spelled out will translate into action.