Wednesday, April 4, 2007


I recently saw a picture in a daily- a picture of a bulldozer crushing structures in a shantytown somewhere on the outskirts of an African city. The caption described the scene as an ongoing project in the "beautification" of the city.

"Beautification"?! I realize that our culture is obsessed with euphemisms, but this particular use is pushing it too far? The theory behind the beautification project is probably that the poor slum dwellers make the city ugly and aesthetically unpleasing. Apparently, the city planners' and policymakers' solution to this urban "eyesore" is to evict the slum dwellers and force them out of the city, pull their structures down and burn whatever remains to ashes. It's a common enough occurence in our cities, so common that the use of he word "beautification" no longer raises eyebrows.

Particularly disturbing in this instance is the fact that the human story is lost. Does anyone wonder what happens to these people after they are kicked out of their homes in the middle of the night and all their worldly possessions are destroyed? Where do they go? How do they fare? Unfortunately, for most newspaper readers, these people become yet another statistic, one more addition to a long list of victims of the urban monster. However, for the people living the tragedy, the questions are real: what do they do? Now that they've lost their homes in the city, how long before they lose their jobs (assuming they have jobs). What about security? With no roof over their heads, they are completely naked, more vulnerable than before to the extremes of weather and to criminal elements.

Our burgeoning cities have been described as festering wounds on the verge of exploding. They have been called demographic catastrophes, and the rising poverty and crime within them has given rise to immense fear in socety as a whole. It is as if the urban African is suddenly faced with this hulking monster that he/ she has created, and doesn't know what to do about it. In fear, he/ she strikes out and tries to eradicate the threat, forgetting that on the other side is a human being with a story as legitimate as his/ her own and a right to exist.

Why have we abdicated our responsibility to our fellow human? Why do we concentrate national resources and infrastructure in one part of the country and then lament when masses migrate there looking for jobs? Why have we neglected to develop industries and to support agriculture in other areas? If we took decentralization seriously and tried to create viable mini-economies in several communities across our countries then perhaps there wouldn't be such a large influx of migrants into our cities, seeking the jobs and security that they cannot find in their rural homes or in the small towns they live in.

And what exactly is it that our city planners do? I can think of numerous cities in which the basic layout has not changed much with the official end of colonialism. Infrastructure and facilities have not been expanded or built to help accommodate the rising populations and quickly changing demographics. New neighbourhoods are built without any allowance made for water supplies or for waste disposal. Schools and hospitals are full to capacity and beyond, and the services that they offer are so watered down as to be almost useless. And yet we have city planners and architects who draw monthly salaries and regional budgets are allocated for these very "projects".

Instead of recognizing our problems for what they are and trying to fix them at their source, we opt for cosmetic interventions that will "beautify" the city. What is the point of destroying shanty towns in the South of the city, only for more to crop up in the North of the city weeks later? What is the point of ejecting rural migrants from our urban centers when we know full well that it is in the urban centers that employment in industries, homes, markets etc exists? We actually need these migrants in our cities as laborers (who, mind you, will out of desperation accept wages below the legal minimum, putting a smile on the callous industrialist's/ employer's face), and yet we refuse to acknowledge that they're crucial for the basic functioning of our economies.

It's time we stopped hiding behind pretty words and faced the ugly world we had a hand in creating.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.

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