New book on slums an asset for social policy makers


By Alexander Opicho

Published in September, this book is only a few months old. Allan Mayne, a Professor of urban studies at the University of Leicester, and also a visiting professor to dozens of other learning institutions in the Western World, is the author of Slums: The History of Global Injustice. It is a seminal work on sociology, economics, politics and literature about the urban poor as expressed through the examination of the phenomenon of slums as a mega injustice by the political and economically mighty on the wretched humble of the earth.

Mayne puts it that slum dwellers are victims of a global injustice perpetrated by the agents and forces of selfish politics. The author makes the radical comment that slum is a socially pejorative word that only aims at labelling and socially excluding the victims of economic misfortunes – in the class of other words like ghetto, nigga, aborigine, coolie, etc.

Mayne condemns the word slum as the first step of this social injustice – and sees it as a process of alienating, marginalising, excluding, violating and persistently but gradually brutalising the persons who live in informal poor quality settlements.

And truly it is.

If you happen to be in Kampala and visit the Naguru slum on the north-western side of Kampala, or visit Nairobi’s Mukuru, Kaloleni, Kawangware, Mathare, or Kibera, you immediately get the element of injustice – clogged drainages, open sewers piling garbage, the works… You immediately begin to agree with Mayne.

The paradox of the matter is that all these extremely poor areas called slums are usually close to posh estates, where some of the top political leaders and policy makers live. It is this same paradox that made politician Joe Khamisi to doubt, question and caution people about the honesty of politicians in his book, Politics of Betrayal. For example, if we use Nairobi as a testimony, Kawangware neighbours Hurlingam, Kibera is adjacent to Karen, Kangemi borders Westlands, and Runda draws its day-scholar workforce
from Mathare.

Unlike African scholars, who dealt with this vice through allegory as a literary tool, Mayne has adopted a global outlook on slums, discussing and contrasting the slums of Britain, India, America, Brazil, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Italy and other parts of the world. Just like Francis Fukuyama, in his Political Order and Decay, Mayne also makes a political observation by alluding to radical political literatures to argue that slums as poor quality housing facilities are the outcome of bad human decisions, that they indicate failure in social and political policy, which can be corrected if there is a political will beyond persistent political crudeness in the current and commonplace political culture of patronage and clientelism. He cites corruption, land grabbing, political revenge, cartels, poor policy on rural-urban migration and the failure of education systems, as well as malicious commercial globalisation as the factors behind the bludgeoning of slums across the face of the earth.

He argues, “…more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and a billion of these urban dwellers reside in neighbourhoods of entrenched disadvantage, these are neighbourhoods that are characterized as slums. Slums are often seen as a debilitating and even subversive presence within society. In reality, though, it is public policies that are often at fault, not the people who live in these neighbourhoods.

Mayne demonstrates that the word slum is in fact a language of hatred used by the advantaged against the least advantaged. Slum, he notes, is not the language of the benevolent and empathic caregiver, but an evil-loaded phrase of the exploiter labelling the victim in order to justify the process of exploitation. Unfortunately, this word has been extensively used for two hundred years as direct or sometimes as indirect way of condemning and disparaging the urban poor communities. In clear pursuit of intellectual and literary efforts to prove his point, Mayne probes beyond the traditional and senseless stereotypes of multiple deviance, social-political disorganisation, bucolic inertia, and degraded environments to explore the tempo-spatial coherence, collective sense of community, and effective social organisation of poor and marginalised neighbourhoods over the last two centuries. It is such a good case for Ubuntu to those literary scholars who fight for literature as a vessel of our interconnectedness.


It has to be noted Mayne’s is a book of social history and literature, and its focus is on the importance of safe neighbourhoods. It would have been helpful if such a book had the support of statistics and evidence of systematic research. Unfortunately, Mayne does not show the slum statistics and data from research; he does not demonstrate how colonialism and corporate globalism have led to the reckless mushrooming of slums in Africa. A deeper study of this book has it that logic, deductive and inductive, shows that the author only sympathises with slum dwellers because even the Western world, where he comes from, has not sufficiently dealt with this social injustice, even in world capitals like New York and London, and the jarring feeling that, perhaps, were this an exclusively African problem, he would likely dismiss it as laziness. ^



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