Shantytowns—Hard Times in the Urban Jungle
By Awake! correspondent in Africa
THE shantytown child moves barefoot down the street of a west African city. On her head she carries a flat, round tray that holds two dozen oranges. On her thin frame hangs a yellow, hand-me-down dress. She is perspiring.
Competing with other youngsters from poor families, she is on the street to sell. “Buy de orange!” is the usual cry. But this child is silent; perhaps she is hungry or sick or merely tired.
From the other direction come two schoolgirls dressed in royal-blue school uniforms. Each wears white socks and white sandals. Each has a book bag stuffed with books. The girls walk briskly, chatting together happily. They don’t notice the child, but she notices them. She watches them with expressionless eyes.
The schoolgirls eventually reach their comfortable, secure homes. But when the child goes home, late in the day, it will be to a quite different world. Home to her is a warren of patchwork wood and tin dwellings.
The main street here is a path of hardened dirt. During the rainy season, it turns to mud. It is too narrow for a car to travel. Along it you will find no police station, no fire department, no health center, and not a single tree. Above are no power or telephone lines. Beneath are no sewerage pipes or water mains.
People teem. The air is filled with the hubbub of voices. Conversations mingle with laughter, argument, crying, and song. White-robed men sit on long benches, conversing. Women stir rice that steams in pots over wood fires. Children are everywhere—playing, sleeping, working, talking, selling. Most, like the child with the oranges, will never visit a zoo, ride a bicycle, or see the inside of a school.
In a country where the average life expectancy at birth is only 42 years, the people in this area die younger. At age nine the child has already beaten some of the toughest odds in the world against surviving the first four years of life. During that time she was 40 to 50 times more likely to die than if she had been born in a developed nation. Many of her contemporaries here didn’t make it to age five. If she lives long enough, she will be far more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth than a woman in Europe or North America—150 times more likely.
Hundreds of millions live in rapidly expanding slums and shantytowns like this one. According to United Nations statistics, 1.3 billion people are jammed into the cities of the developing world, and 50 million are added each year.
Life in Developing Countries
Does your home have a measure of privacy, tap water, a toilet? Does someone collect your garbage? Hundreds of millions of people in developing countries do not enjoy these things.
In many cities poor areas are so crowded that it is common for a family of ten to share a single room. Frequently, people have less than ten square feet [a square meter] of living space. In some parts of a city in the Orient, even small rooms are subdivided for multiple occupancy, with caged bunk beds for privacy and protection against thieves. In another land, a “hot-bed” system enables people to rent beds by the hour so that two or three persons can sleep in shifts each day.
According to the 1991 annual report of UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), 1.2 billion people worldwide have unsafe water supplies. Millions must buy their water from vendors or collect it from streams or other surface sources. Where piped-in water is available, sometimes more than a thousand people struggle to share a single standpipe tap.
UNICEF also estimates that 1.7 billion people lack sanitary means for disposal of human wastes. It is not unusual for 85 percent of shantytown residents to have no access to toilet facilities. In most cities in Africa and Asia, including many with populations of over a million, there is no sewerage system whatever. Human waste goes into streams, rivers, ditches, canals, and gullies.
Garbage is another problem. In the cities of the developing nations, from 30 to 50 percent of the solid waste is not collected. The poor areas are neglected most. One reason is that the poor throw away less waste that can profitably be used or reclaimed by garbage collectors or recycling businesses. A second reason is that since many poor settlements are not recognized as legally established, governments deny them public services. A third problem is that many poor areas, because of their location and crowded nature, are difficult and expensive to service.
What happens to the garbage? It is dumped to rot on the streets, on open land, and in rivers and lakes.
The plight of the urban poor varies from place to place. Yet, three factors are almost universal. The first is that their homes are not merely uncomfortable, they are hazardous. The book The Poor Die Young states: “At least 600 million people living in urban areas of the Third World live in what might be termed life and health threatening homes and neighborhoods.”
In what way can inadequate housing promote ill health? Crowded conditions in poor urban areas help promote the spread of diseases, such as tuberculosis, influenza, and meningitis. Overcrowding also increases the risk of household accidents.
Lack of adequate, clean water increases the transmission of waterborne diseases, such as typhoid, hepatitis, and dysentery. It also results in diarrheic disease that kills a child in the developing world, on the average, every 20 seconds. Lack of sufficient water for washing and bathing makes people more prone to eye infections and skin diseases. And when poor people must pay high prices for water, there is less money for food.
Contamination of water and food results in fecal-oral diseases and intestinal worms, such as hookworms, roundworms, and tapeworms. Uncollected garbage attracts rats, flies, and cockroaches. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for mosquitoes that carry malaria and filariasis.
The Poverty Mire
A second characteristic of shantytown life is that it is extremely difficult for residents to break free of it. Most of those who come to the city are migrants driven from the rural areas by poverty. Unable to afford decent housing, they begin and often end their urban lives in slums and shantytowns.
Many of the people are industrious and willing to work hard, but they are faced with no alternative but to accept jobs with long hours and low pay. Hard-pressed parents often send their children to work instead of to school, and children with little or no education have little prospect of rising above their parents’ situation. Even though youngsters earn very little money, what they do earn is often crucially important to their families. Thus, for the majority of the urban poor, there is not much hope of improving their lot in life; their goal is day-to-day survival.
A third feature of life is that tenancy is uncertain. To many governments, shantytowns and slums are an embarrassment. Rather than working to improve shantytowns, which is not always practical, governments often send in the bulldozers.
Governments may justify shantytown clearance by saying that it is necessary to beautify the city, to rout out criminals, or to redevelop the land. Whatever the reason, the poor are the ones who suffer. Usually there is nowhere for them to go and little or no compensation is provided. But when the bulldozers move in, they have little choice but to move out.
The Role of Government
Why do the governments not provide adequate housing with water, sewerage, and garbage-disposal services for all? The book Squatter Citizen answers: “Many Third World nations have such a shortage of resources and so little chance of developing a stable and prosperous role within the world market that it is possible to question seriously their viability as nation-states. One can hardly castigate a government for failing to address the needs of its citizens when the entire nation has such an inadequacy of resources that, under current conditions, there are insufficient resources to allow basic needs to be met.”
In many countries the economic situation is deteriorating. Last year, the outgoing secretary-general of the United Nations reported: “The position of most of the developing countries within the world economy has been deteriorating for some time. . . . Over 1 billion people now live in absolute poverty.”
What About Foreign Aid?
Why do the prosperous nations not do more to help? Discussing the impact of aid on poverty, the World Bank’s Development Report admits: “Bilateral donors [accounting for 64 percent of all foreign aid] . . . provide aid for many reasons—political, strategic, commercial, and humanitarian. Reducing poverty is only one motive, and it is usually far from the most important.”
On the other hand, even when governments have the means to improve the plight of the poor, they do not always do so. A problem in many nations is that while local government has to provide housing and services, higher levels of government give it neither the power nor the resources to do the job.
Cities of the Future
Based on the trends of recent decades, experts project a bleak future for the urban poor in developing countries. Rapid urban growth, they say, will continue, and governments will be unable to supply most city dwellers with piped water, sewers, drains, paved roads, health care, and emergency services.
Increasingly, settlements will be built on dangerous sites, such as hillsides, floodplains, or polluted land. Increasingly, people will suffer from disease as the result of overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. Increasingly, the urban poor will live under the constant threat of forced eviction.
Does this mean that there is no hope for shantytown residents like the girl with the oranges described at the outset of this discussion? Not at all!
A Dramatic Change Coming
God’s Word, the Bible, shows that a dramatic change for the better will come about—and soon. This change will come, not through the efforts of human governments, but through God’s Kingdom, a heavenly government that will soon take control of the entire earth.—Matthew 6:10.
Under God’s Kingdom, instead of being trapped in squalid slums and shantytowns, godly families will reside in a paradise. (Luke 23:43) Instead of living in constant dread of eviction, the Bible states that “they will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble.”—Micah 4:4.
Under God’s Kingdom, instead of dying young in overcrowded tenements, people “will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat their fruitage. . . . For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be.”—Isaiah 65:21, 22.
These promises may be difficult for you to believe, but you can be sure they will come true. Why? Because God does not lie, and “with God no declaration will be an impossibility.”—Luke 1:37; Numbers 23:19.
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Under God’s Kingdom, poverty and shantytowns will be replaced by paradise conditions