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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Living in Shit (an excerpt from Mike Davis' Planet of Slums)

The following is an excerpt from Mike Davis' excellent book Planet of Slums. Davis' writing provides a startling and provocative view on the world we live in. In this book, he examines the increasing slummification of the Third World, as rural areas depopulate at an astonishing rate and the former residents move to ever-growing megacities, where they crowd together in miserable conditions and unemployment. Half the urban population of the world lives like this, and the numbers are growing every day. Consider it a must read this summer.

The excerpt follows:


Excremental surplus, indeed, is the primordial urban contradiction. In the 1830s and early 1840s, with cholera and typhoid rampant in London and the industrial cities of Europe, the anxious British middle class was forced to confront a topic not usually discussed in the parlor. Bourgeois "consciousness," Victorian scholar Steven Marcus explains, "was abruptly disturbed by the realization that millions English men, women and children were virtually living in shit. The immediate quesiton seems to have been whether the weren't drowning in it." With epidemics believed to originate from the stinking fecal "miasmas" of the slum districts, there was sudden elite interest in conditions like those catalogued by Friedrich Engels in Manchester, where in some streets "over two hundred people shared a single privy," and the once-rustic River Irk was "a coal-black stinking river full of filth and garbage." Marcus, in Freudian gloss on Engels, ponders the irony that "generations of human beings, out of whose lives the wealth of Englad was produced, were compelled to live in wealth's symbolic, negative counterpart."

Eight generations after Engels, shit still sickeningly mantles the lives of the urban poor as (to quote Marcus again), "a virtual objectification of their social condition, their place in society." Indeed, one can set Engles's The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 side by side with a modern African urban novel, such as Mehja Mwangi's Going Down River Road (1976), and ponder the excremental and existential continuities. "In one of these courts," wrote Engels of Manchester, "right at the entrance where the covered passage ends is a privy without a door. This privy is so dirty that the inhabitants can only enter or leave the court by wading through puddles of stale urine and excrement." Similarly, Mwangi writes of Nairobi in 1974: "Most of the paths crisscrossing the dewy grasslands were scattered with human excrement... The cold wet wind that blew across it carried, in the same medium with the smell of shit and urine, the occasional murmur, the rare expression of misery, uncertainty, and resignation."

The subject, of course, is indelicate, but it is a fundamental problem of city life from which there is surprisingly little escape. For ten thousand years urban societies have struggled against deadly acccumulations of their own waste; even the richest cities only flush their excrement downstream or pump it into a nearby ocean. Today's poor megacities - Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on - are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians. (Except, perhaps, Rudyard Kipling, a connoisseur, who in The City of Dreadful Night happily distinguished the "Big Calcutta Stink" from the unique pungencies of Bombay, Peshawar, and Benares.) Constant intimicay with other people's waste, moreover, is one of the most profound of social divides. Like the unversal prevalence of parasites in the bodies of the poor, living in shit, as the Victorians knew, truly demarcates two existential humanities.

The global sanitation crisis defied hyperbole. Its origins, as with many Third World urban problems, are rooted in colonialism., The European empires generally refused to provide modern sanitation and water infrastructures in native neighborhoods, preferring instead to use racial zoning and cordons sanitaires to segregate garrisons and white suburbs from epidemic disease; postcolonial regimed from Accra to Hanoi thus inherited huge sanitation deficits that few regimes have been prepared to aggressively remedy. (Latin American cities have serious sanitiation problems, but nothing to compare with the magnitude of those in Africa or South Asia.)

The megacity of Kinshasa, with a population fast approaching 10 million, has no waterborne sewage system at all. Across the continent in Nairobi, the Laini Saba slum in Kibera in 1998 had exactly 10 working pit latrines for 40,000 people, while in Mathare 4A there were two public toilets for 28,000 people. As a result, slum residences rely on "flying toilets" or "scud missiles," as they are also called: "They put the waste in a polythene bag and throw it on to the nearest roof or pathway." The prevalence of excrement, however, does generate some innovative urban livelihoods: in Nairobi, commuters now confront "10-year-olds with plastic solvent bottles wedged between their teeth, brandishing balls of human excrement - ready to thrust them into an open car window - to force the driver to pay up."

Sanitation in South and Southeast Asia is only marginally better than in sub-Saharan Africa. Dhaka, a decade ago, had piped water connections serving a mere 67,000 houses and a sewage disposal system with only 85 connections. Likewise, less than 10 percent or homes in metro Manila are connected to the sewer systems. Jakarta, despite its glitzy skyscrapers, still depends on open ditches for disposal of most of its wastewater. In contemporary India - where an estimated 700 million people are forced to defecate in the open - only 17 of 3700 cities and large towns have any kind of primary sewage treatment before finaly disposal. A study of 22 slums in India found 9 with no latrine facilities at all; in another 10, there were just 19 latrines for 102,000 people. The filmaker Prahlad Kakkar, the auteur of the toilet documentary Bumbay, told a startled interviewer that in Bombay "half the population doesn't have a toilet to shit in, so they shit outside That's five million people. If they shit half a kilo each, that's two and a half million kilos of shit each morning." Similarly, "a 1990 survey of Delhi," reports Susan Chaplin, "showed that the 480,000 families in 1100 slum settlements had access to only 160 toilet seats and 110 mobile toilet vans. The lack of toilet facilities in slum areas has forced slum dwellers to use any open space, such as public parks, and thus has created tensions between them and middle class residents over defecation rights." Indeed, Arundhati Roy tells of three Delhi slum-dwellers who in 1998 were "shot for shitting in public places."

Meanwhile in China, where urban shantytowns reappeared after the market reforms, many in-migrants live without sanitation or running water. "There are reports of people," writes Dorothy Solinger, "squeezed into shacks in Beijing, where one toilet served more than six thousand people; of a shantytown in Shenzhen housing fifty shelters, in which hundreds subsisted without running water;... [and] a 1995 survey in Shanghia revealed that a mere 11 percent of nearly 4500 migrant households actually possessed a toilet."

Being forced to exercise bodily functions in public is certainly a humiliation for anyone, but, above all, it is a feminist issue. Poor urban women are terrorized by the Catch-22 situation of being expected to maintain strict standards of modesty while lacking access to any private means of hygiene. "The absence of toilets," writes journalist Asha Krishnakumar, "is devastating for women. It severely affects their dignity, health, safety and sense of privacy, and indirectly their literacy and productivity. To defecate, women and girls have to wait until dark, which exposes them to harassment and even sexual assault."

In the slums of Bangalore - the high-tech poster city for "India Shining" - poor women, unable to afford the local pay latrines, must wait until evening to wash or relieve themselves. Researcher Loes Schenk-Sandbergen writes:

Men can urinate at any time at any place, whereas women can only ben seen following the call of nature before sunrise and after unsset. To avoid hazards, women have to go in groups at five o'clock in the morning... often [to] marshy land where snakes would be hiding, or some deserted dumping ground with rats and other rodents. Women often say that they do not eat during the daytime just to avoid having to go to the open field in the evening.

Similarly, in Bombay women have to relieve themselves "between two and five each morning, because it's the only time they get privacy." The public toilets, explains the writer Suketu Mehta, are rarely a solution for women because they seldom function: "People defecate all around the toilets, because the pits have been clogged for months or years."

The solution to the sanitation crisis - at least as conceived by certain economics professors sitting in comfortable armchairs in Chicago and Boston - has been to make urban defecation a global business. Indeed, one of the great achievements of Washington-sponsored neoliberalism has been to turn public toilets in cash points for paying off foreign debts - pay toilets are a growth throughout Third World slums. In Ghana a user fee for public toilets was introduced by the military government in 1981; in the late 1990s toilets were privatized and are now described as a "gold mine" of profitability. In Kumasi, for instance, where members of the Ghanaian Assembly wom lucrative contracts, private toilet use for one family, once a day, costs about 10 percent of the basic wage. Likewise, in Kenyan slums such as Mathare it costs 6 cents (US) for every visit to a privatized toilet: this is too expensive for most poor people, who would prefer to defecate in the open and spend their money on water and food. This is also the case in Kampala slums such as Soweto or Kamwokya, where the public toilets cost a daunting one hundred shillings per visit.


Anonymous Phoenix Portable Toilets said...

Well put... I've read stories about Kinshasa. So amazing what American's take for granted, at least those oblivious, scooting through their upper-middle class existence.

Tue Nov 17, 09:53:00 AM 2009  
Anonymous cheap flights to accra ghana said...

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Mon Jan 18, 01:58:00 AM 2010  
Anonymous portable toilet rentals said...

I had read this book recently and it was very informative about slums.

Tue Jul 29, 05:14:00 AM 2014  

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