WASHINGTON DC — “If we tell people about our house, will anyone believe us?” remarks Nagamma Shilpiri of Mumbai.
As a young girl living in the slums of India, Nagamma joins one billion others who consider “home” a ubiquitous term. She lives in constant transition, isolated from the opportunities of Mumbai.
And yet, those in slums do not resign themselves to “unremittingly bleak” lives.
When Proximity Becomes Personal
In the Jembatan Besi slum, children rarely see sunlight. Residents of this slum – the most densely populated in Indonesia – precariously balance additional stories on homes. Four stories high, these homes of wood and scrap metal feel more unstable with every story.
In the most populated neighborhoods, dwellers built across the top of the alleyways. This plunges the narrow streets into permanent darkness. Bare light bulbs dangle from wires across these alleyways, shedding light on the sewage and garbage littering the ground.
Neng, 14, concedes that threats to health and sanitation exist.
“But I like living here,” she asserts. “All my friends are here and I can see them after work. Even if I could leave, I wouldn’t want to.”
The Jembatan Besi slum battles poor sanitation, food insecurity, and substance abuse. Those living within the safe confines of the city may not understand why these residents feel content in such conditions.
“I like the sense of community,” notes Muratsih, 36. “If someone dies round here, everyone goes to their funeral. You don’t get that in an apartment block.”
Wife of the sub-district chief, Muratsih volunteers with a local anti-malaria initiative. She learned the name of every resident in her neighborhood, greeting them with concerned questions or compliments.
Like any parent, she worries about the safety and health of her children. She also, though, worries about her neighbors and the growing sanitation concerns. In this slum, more than twenty residents can live in a small shelter. And as a result, these men and women build unwaveringly strong relationships. Strangers become neighbors and neighbors become family.
Capitalizing on the Connections
The United Nations predicts number of slum dwellers will double in the next 25 years.
Subur, a young mother in a Jakarta slum, transitions from bridge to bench alone. She once lived beneath the stairs of a house, but faced eviction when the family accused her of disturbance. Consequently, she and her newborn son now live on a bench outside another home. Exposed to the harsh winds and rain, Subur sits upright on the bench to shield her son.
Newspaper covers the bench to soften her concrete bed. Though content with the instability of her living situation, Subur expresses concern when speaking of feeding her son. Neighbors may offer further support, in the form of food and shelter, if she lives in a home for an extended period of time. Establishing mutually-beneficial relationships offers more stability in this Indonesian slum.
Those in the world of development should see proximity as a benefit, rather than simply a barrier. Neighborhood programs may offer the following:
- Peer health education, like the malaria initiative led by Muratsih
- Microfinancing small businesses partnerships to stimulate an economy
- Conditional cash for sharing shelter, to protect mothers like Subur
Tailoring aid to the values and needs of regions must become integral in development field. This aid taps into the natural protectiveness and compassion residents feel for neighbors, securing a pathway for relief in the slums.
For a virtual tour of slums across the glob, visit The Places We Live.
– Ellery Spahr
Sources: The Places We Live, UNICEF
Photo: National Geographic