In Lower BCA in Blantyre, we saw how slums are mushrooming in the country.
From the clustered, low-lying settlement in the southeastern slopes of Blantyre, thousands of low-income city dwellers look uphill at a low-density location dominated with mansions, electric fences and paved roads.
Such is the opulence of BCA Hill, whose residents include former president Bakili Muluzi, prominent politicians, lawyers, business barons and other movers and shakers in the commercial city that the strivers feel they have been pushed out of town.
Every morning, multitudes take dusty shortcuts as they cannot afford a minibus to Limbe, Makata and other places where the majority of them work in menial jobs.
From cock-crow. people walk from the township derided as Bisiyele where the poor, who mostly migrated from remote areas with dreams of better jobs and livelihoods only to slump into urban poverty, spoke of how they had been pushed out of town.
According to old-timers, what was mainly lush forests on an undulating terrain in the 1970s has been rapidly deteriorating into a slum since the restoration of democracy in 1993, a year before Muluzi succeeded one-party ruler Kamuzu Banda.
“I bought my plot at K5 000 when I arrived from Ntaja in Machinga almost 37 years ago. I sell fish. Then, I was making envelopes for sale and I worked with Crown Fashion until 1988. Many people have come to settle here. Some are employed while others are not. Many run small-scale businesses in Limbe. But we have one thing in common: we were earning very little and this was the only place we could afford,” says Daud Chilumba, 64, a father of eight.
The residents say they are getting poorer while the rich behind the hilltop fences get richer.
The slum is characterised by overcrowding, rundown houses with rusty and crumbling roofs, unsanitary conditions, daylong noise and dashed hopes.
High unemployment rates in the country push ambitious arrivals from rural areas into destitution—and many seek refuge in unplanned settlements.
According to government statistics, the population of slum dwellers rose from one million in 1990, peaked at about 2.6 million in 2009 and dropped to roughly 2 million in 2014.
Urbanisation researcher Deborah Potts says Kamuzu inherited “an extremely underdeveloped urban system” and the development of Lilongwe into a capital city in the early 1970s remains the major progress in urban growth since independence in 1964.
All four cities—Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu—are home to bursting slums.
It appears, city councils are not in a hurry to put urban crisis in check as urban disasters become frequent and demands for safer homes and resilient cities are rising globally.
But no slum is intended, says Blantyre City Council (BCC) director of town planning and estate services Costly Chanza.
Trends show they thrive on laxity in town planning, especially failure to enforce dos and don’ts when it comes to land use where people can safely build homes.
According to Chanza, BCA, Ndirande, Mbayani, Bangwe, Chirimba and other informal settlements speak of massive urbanisation in the cities.
“Ndirande became a slum location because people settled there to be close to Makata Industrial Site. In Bangwe people wanted to be close to Limbe. It is almost the same story everywhere,” he explains.
Chanza and sociologist Charles Chilimampunga also blame widespread poverty for the mushrooming of settlements on riverbanks, steep slopes, forest sites and undesignated areas.
Chilimampunga, a lecturer at Chancellor College, contends: “Poverty compels most low-income earners to settle in low-class locations as opposed to middle-class or high-class areas. Secondly, people like to settle where there are those who are like them to relate with.”
But Link for Citizen Empowerment and Development country director Jephter Mwanza says “eye-pricking” slums will keep sprouting unless authorities flawlessly enforce existing regulations.
“A lot of people come to town to look for jobs, but they fail to be sustainably supported by friends and relations who initially host them and end up going into slums which could have been avoided if city authorities adhered to plans and regulations,” he says.
Lilongwe City Council spokesperson Tamara Chafunya says there is population pressure, with many wishing to construct houses within the city where about 76 percent of its population, estimated at one million, live in informal settlements.
“Most people opt to purchase cheap land wherever it is available rather than waiting for official plot allocation by government agencies,” she says.
Unsafe settlements keep mushrooming due to illegal land sales, says Mzuzu City Council town planning officer Yona Simwaka.
“Traditional leaders in the cities sell plots illegally. The problem is that we are slow in providing affordable plots,” he says.
Laws and court rulings outlaw chiefs in the city, but their influence thrives on lax law enforcement and political expediency.
According to Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development spokesperson Charles Vintula, there would be order in urban development if developers and authorities followed Town and Country Planning Act.
But Chanza blames the emergence of illegal housing on slowness to create new plots to be allocated to the ever-growing population.
“BCC does not have land. It is government that has land. This is different from other countries where city councils control land so they can allocate it to people,” he says.
Meanwhile, government is developing the National Urban Policy to accommodate emerging urban issues and reduce disasters when more people scramble for disaster prone areas. n