I have sat in several meetings where people seem to openly admit that there are ‘slums’ in Kigali. This word slum always makes me feel like my heart will jump out of my chest.
This is for the obvious reason, owing to what I have seen to be the action taken against what has been called such, in some countries.
I therefore chose to note down some interpretations, alternative views and perhaps a new way of thinking about informal settlements that helps us to positively embrace them as part and parcel of our human settlements.
To start with, there definitely is a need to bridge the housing gap in the City of Kigali. A commonly referenced ‘Housing Market Study’ conducted in 2012 for the City of Kigali showed that 340,000 new housing units are needed by 2022.
This literally translates into a count of 34,000 dwelling units each year. Out of these, 86 per cent should be affordable housing and mid-range housing, and 13 per cent social housing while only less than 1 per cent to be premium housing.
It is the process of the production of housing that renders them formal or informal.
The question of informal settlements is not just a Rwandan one but a global phenomenon.
According to the UN, at least one third of the global urban population suffers from inadequate living conditions; be it lack of access to basic services (drinking water and/or sanitation, energy, waste recollection, and transportation), low structural quality of shelters, overcrowding, dangerous locations, and/or insecure tenure.
These are the main characteristics normally included in the definitions of so-called informal settlements. In different contexts, people will call them slums, squatter settlements, favelas, shacks, villas miseria, bidonvilles, etc.
You will easily agree with me that all these names have one thing in common. They highlight a negative characteristic, those of impoverished, unsafe and simply terrible places.
Worse still, often times than not this label is also applied to the inhabitants of the same. Terrible? … Terrible humans?... Really?.. I strongly disagree and will tell you why.
The voice of Lorena Zárate, the President of Habitat International Coalition conveniently injects a new thought line for informal settlements that I would request us to consider.
She has strongly argued that “informal settlements are neither informal nor irregular – they are, above all, human settlements”. Humans reside in them. Humans like you and I.
Now, why they reside in those informal settlements or slums, and why you and I reside where and how we do, is a wide array and collection of histories and circumstances that are not negative at all!
In Kigali for instance, informal settlements are as a result of rapid urbanisation where growth of cities is at a much faster rate that the urban planning process.
In the immediate post-colonial era, Rwandan people and in huge numbers just needed to get into the city for opportunities and much later, thousands of returning refugees found themselves in Kigali for work and abode.
All they needed was to settle down and be part of urban development and nation building. Mind you, at the point in time, there were no city engineers or city urban planners to dictate who settles where and how.
It was an intuitive process based on where land was available.
Now some governments have hidden in the shadow of the UN’s Millennium Development Goal 7- target 11, which commits to reducing the population living in ‘slums’ by 2020. What a tragic translation!
The actions taken have been unfortunate. It is reported that in Zimbabwe alone, over 700,000 people were affected by terrifying slum “clearance” operations in 2005, which took the revealing name of “Remove the Filth”.
But then, what other alternatives exist? Is it possible to embrace informality? Lest we forget, informal settlements are produced by humans under different circumstances; they involve innovative people-driven processes, participatory and people-centered problem solving ideas to produce and manage housing crisis at that point in time.
They are able to use collective experience and few rules available to produce a solution to a glaring problem; they recycle materials, use locally available materials and techniques, build fast, and apply pragmatic sustainability lessons that some of us who spent years in school studying haven’t had the chance to.
Now, Kigali’s case study is promising; the government through the Ministry of Infrastructure and Rwanda Housing Authority is consequently drafting and adopting new policies to facilitate the provision of shelter and implementation of affordable housing in Rwanda.
Currently, they are undertaking an “informal settlement upgrading” starting with Agatare cell in Kiyovu sector in Nyarugenge district and several other areas are on the list.
This is a commendable perspective that offers an alternative solution to affordable housing. Instead of flattening the settlements overnight and living dwellers with no roof over their head, they have chosen to upgrade them and plug in what makes them ‘terrible’.
They involve the residents and make them understand how they want to improve their lifestyles, health, security and what other issues we find problematic in there.
I can’t agree more with Lorena Zárate that since a city is produced by the people, the urgent assignment for us all is to understand it, it’s people and support them.
The limited and negative approach towards informal settlements should indeed be kept aside and various stakeholders; academics, residents, activists, institutions, governments etc. should instead put their heads together to review the contextual circumstances and seek alternative and critical points of view for sustainable solutions.
The writer is a lecturer at the school of Architecture, University of Rwanda. She is an architect and urban designer with keen interest in the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.