February 02, 2005

Plastic bags at night

It was Robert Neuwirth who first alerted me to the delights, and the implications, of the "flying toilet", something to watch out for if I ever make it to Nairobi and its slums. As Rob and I sidle our way through the bylanes of Bombay's own great throbbing slum of Dharavi one hot June afternoon, he tells me about Nairobi's Kibera. Such a dangerous place, so ridden with crime, that people who live there cannot drum up the nerve to visit their community toilets at night.

So what do they do, I ask.

Well, simple. They use a plastic bag for their excretory needs, tie a string around the mouth and send it sailing into the night.

What would I be more wary of, I wonder idly, of a night in Kibera? The attentions of muggers and murderers? Or a filled plastic bag descending rapidly from the stars?

Rob spent two years living in slums in four great cities of the world: Rio, Nairobi, Istanbul and Bombay. The result is his new book, Shadow Cities. I haven't read it yet, but if his keen eye and journalistic sense are any indication, if his willingness to dig into and understand our urban condition are any indication, it will be a rewarding read. Here, on Worldchanging, is one review that's out.

From that review, let me repeat this passage from Rob's book:

The true challenge is not to eradicate these communities but to stop treating them as slums - that is, as horrific, scary and criminal - and start treating them as neighborhoods that can be improved. They don't need to be knocked down and built new, because in most cases this will only produce housing that is not affordable to the people who are living there.

That sums up Rob's views nicely; it's also exactly what I found myself thinking about last week, as I wandered the utterly destroyed flatland that used to be Ambujwadi.

Rob has a blog where he continues to write about squatters and urban issues. Read him if you have any thoughts on slums. Read him if you have any thoughts on cities. Read him, that's all.

1 comment:

Sunil said...

Hi Dilip....
Firstly, thanks for the pointer about the book. This is a topic i'm extremely interested in, and the book seems ideal to satisfy my bibliomania for the next few days.

Next, a more interesting point. A lot of my friends are terrified of slums. They are definitely not comfortable wandering around in them, especially at night. Ask them why, and they say "its a den of crime, or you'll be robbed, or blah and blah." Their evidence for such statements....nothing (or at best, some "information" from the movies). Public perception goes a long way in making neighborhoods, and somehow slums have public perception against it (even though, like most localities, a majority of the residents are hard working, law abiding "normal" people). The other aspect is that some people are extremely uncomfortable when any one poor is around them.
I've never figured out why....though I keep coming up with theories....