Ebola is serious, but you don’t need me to tell you that. You’ve probably heard all about how the virus has successfully traversed the Atlantic Ocean and made its way to the United States by now. Even if you don’t keep up with the news, chances are you have come across an Ebola joke or maybe even read up on Ebola conspiracy theories after Chris Brown tweeted about how it might be a mechanism for population control. The point is that American media outlets are so heavily saturated with Ebola news, facts and opinions that it is hard for someone to be completely oblivious to the topic. Unfortunately, Ebola coverage won’t last forever, and its impact on the African continent will soon fade from daily conversation as other newsworthy events begin to take priority.
The problem here is not that Ebola exposure will undoubtedly decline, but that other factors, which have plagued the African populous for longer, have never even made it into the news conscience of the average news consumer.
These issues, like overcrowded housing and poor availability of resources, are generally the result of African urbanization.
Urbanization itself is not bad, but it requires a level of industrialization that can support rural migrants with new jobs, places to live and other basic commodities. However, some cities in Africa such as Nairobi, Kenya became inhabited prematurely with a great number of people who hoped to escape conflict, natural disasters and other predicaments, but instead found themselves displaced in conditions falling below typical poverty standards. As these conditions get worse and the population rises, there starts the inevitable formation of slums.
There is a drastic difference in basic human rights available to those living in the slums, even when compared with the typical poor. In slums surrounding Nairobi, these rights are often denied to people by the government which results in scenarios where one toilet is shared by 500 people, kids play and eat near gutters overflowing with human waste and water becomes a difficult, if not impossible, resource to access.
Edo Kim, CEO of The Supply (an organization that aims to give slum dwellers a voice through education), has made it his mission to raise awareness of another slum related problem: education. While promoting his nonprofit organization on a tour, Kim made a stop at Stony Brook University where he spoke to me about why he decided to be a voice for the slum population, and why higher education is one of the biggest resources denied to them.
Kim made it clear that the youth in slums are not satisfied with their given conditions and exhibit “a bright vibrancy to excel while helping their community prosper.” The problem with their goal is not their lack of drive but simply the conditions they were born into.
It is hard for slum students in Kenya, such as Paul Soi, to excel academically when a police officer locks them out from taking a national exam unless they bribe him with 20,000 Kenyan shillings, or $250, and their parents only make an average of $40 a month.
Exploitation of slum students like Soi combined with government apathy leads to a lower number of students receiving a higher education. Still, there is an even greater number of students who cannot finish secondary school because such schools are not provided by the government along with functional sewer systems, stable electricity, and health clinics to aid infectious diseases that prosper in overcrowded, unsanitary environments like slums.
The Supply tries to change this by providing low cost secondary schools that not only incorporate the fundamentals of Western education but also emphasize a curriculum designed to teach students their basic human rights and community leadership skills. By doing so they hope that future generations of educated youth in slums will become self-reliant and push for change. The problem, however, is that it is impossible to be completely self-reliant and government involvement must take place for this transition from slums to hospitable locations to go smoothly.
How can we be sure that government involvement will lead to improved slum conditions?
One must only look at the situation in Morocco where the Cities Without Slums campaign has helped over 1.5 million people through the cooperation of the government and private sectors, such as Addoha, to build low-cost housing in better sanitized locations. This is not to say that Morocco does not have its fair amount of lingering problems, but by taking initiative instead of destroying slums, and hoping that they will go away, governments of other African cities can also begin to deal with this crisis. A crisis that, according to UN-Habits, is estimated to triple from the current 1 billion population mark by 2050.
It is impossible to summarize detrimental issues in African slums into an easily digestible narrative. Their conditions are ever changing. Maybe they change so fast that media outlets cannot keep up with its pace well enough to give it five minutes of broadcast time, or consistent updates via social media outlets. That is actually the biggest problem with all of this; people need to start talking about things that actually matter. But things that matter are established by how much media coverage it gets, and the African slum crisis is not getting nearly enough attention.
Perhaps CNN and FOX News will report about slums during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil where a “social cleansing” of slum inhabitants is sure to provoke protests. But waiting that long to care about severe social inequality that continues to haunt 70 percent of Africa’s urban population will never amount to anything.