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DEVELOPMENT-KENYA: UN Chief Will Help Humanise Slums

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Jan 31 2007 (IPS) - Kibera, Kenya&#39s biggest slum, and reportedly one of Africa&#39s largest, has been basking in world media attention recently.

At the just concluded World Social Forum, Jan 20-25, in the Kenyan capital, thousands of delegates from Africa and abroad marched through the teeming slum, calling on governments to give serious attention to the plight of a majority of its people forced to live in terrible squalor like in Kibera.

On Jan. 30, Ban Ki-moon, new UN secretary-general, toured the vast squatter settlement, about 7 km south-west of Nairobi where there is no sewage system or safe drinking water facility. Its mud-walled shacks are covered with an assortment of rusting iron sheets, polythene and cartons.

He could not have missed the tightly-tied polythene bags on every roof: some bags have burst open revealing its contents – human excreta. Flies buzz all around what have come to be known as "flying toilets". In the absence of toilets, people defecate in bags and throw them as far as they can, on to other people&#39s roofs and homes.

In Kibera, Ban said: "This visit gives me an opportunity to see first hand the challenges and problems the people are facing. I feel very humbled by what I am seeing now. Improvement of living conditions, water, sanitation – all these are challenges which we must overcome."

It was Ban&#39s first visit to Kenya after he took over the world body from Kofi Annan on Jan. 1.

The secretary general arrived in this southern African country from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he had attended the two-day, bi-annual summit of the 52-member African Union. He was scheduled to leave Nairobi Wednesday, after a meeting with Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.

Ban noted that upgrading slums would go a long way in addressing poverty, as well as achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The UN endorsed eight MDGs seeking to reduce poverty by 2015 in 2000. They include among others, combating hunger, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, child mortality, maternal mortality û issues that are rarely tackled, particularly in slum settlements. Nearly a billion people worldwide live in desperate poverty in illegal squatter colonies.

He was all praise for a slum upgrading project jointly supported by the Kenyan government and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) that seeks to improve livelihoods of people living in slums by building them permanent houses and roads, as well as providing water and sanitation.

The project was launched in Soweto, one of Kibera&#39s 12 villages, in 2004. Kenya&#39s housing minister Soita Shitanda told IPS that the first 600 houses in Soweto would be ready for occupation in November this year.

Its residents cannot wait. "Human needs must come first. It is critical that people&#39s living conditions are upgraded to ensure they live in dignity," Raphael Handa, chairman of the Soweto community, said.

At present, the population of some 71,000 makes do with just 50 bathrooms and 110 toilets. Handa described it as "grossly insufficient". He observed: "These facilities are not enough. That is why we have flying toilets."

The unsanitary situation, coupled with the lack of clean water has continued to put residents at a risk of water-borne diseases. The settlement becomes virtually impassable during the rainy season, when sewage also spills into shacks, posing a serious health threat. Mountains of garbage and scarce water provision add to the health hazards.

"Water is an issue. Water pipes are passing through sewers and that is why most people û 85 percent û suffer from typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea. We need water and sanitation urgently, we need slum conditions to be improved," Handa appealed.

However, there are others who think that slum upgradation alone will not improve the lives of slum dwellers. A holistic plan of action, which includes addressing the widespread problem of unemployment, was critical to a sustainable strategy for urban poverty upliftment.

"Most of the youth in the slums do not have jobs. We do casual jobs here and there where we are paid about a dollar a day. This is not enough to keep one going for a month. We have rent to pay and families to care for," James Nzioka, a Soweto resident who works as a casual labourer at a construction site told IPS.

Gerald Maingi, another youth living in Soweto has already given up. "I have no job and no education. I have to take chang&#39aa (a cheap illicit brew) so as to forget my frustrations," he said. Kenyan youth comprise 61 percent of the jobless û 90 percent of whom have no skills, according to government figures.

Many have taken to crime. Kenya&#39s youth minister Mohammed Kuti pointed out last year that 60 percent of prisoners in the country&#39s jails were young people between 16 and 24 years.

UN chief Ban who visited Soweto promised to help improve living conditions there. "I bring my message of hope. Please do not lose your faith. As secretary general, I will do my best to help your living conditions in the future," he said.

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