Note to readers: EL PAÍS offers openly all the content of the Future Planet section for its daily and global contribution to the 2030 Agenda. If you want to support our journalism, subscribe here.
That Wednesday, Fatumata Kamarah, a 16-year-old girl (short curly hair, slim figure, long arms and average height) was at school when a teacher took her out of class to tell her: “A huge fire has started and your house and your belongings are burning ”. It was last March 24. She was then living in Susan’s Bay, an informal settlement that abounds in Freetown. Located in a coastal area of the capital on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, it is one of the informal settlements o slums poorest and largest in Sierra Leone.
Before that day when the flames raged for hours with little resistanceSome 7,000 people were crowded into some 1,500 homes with no improved water source or more electricity than hundreds of home-made and illegal connections. The fire burned some 250 of those homes and today, a few months later, people who had very little and who lost everything, more than 1,000 affected in total, are still without anything.
“I have five sisters and one brother. We all lived there together, with my mother. When the teacher told me that, I ran out of school to go with my family. Nothing bad happened to any of them, but our house was devastated, ”says Fatumata. However, they and all the inhabitants of Susan’s Bay had some luck, since the event did not lead to fatalities. By the time the fire started, around six in the afternoon, the people had not yet returned home from their respective jobs, most of them informal.
Like that of Fatumata’s mother, Warrah Bangura, a 45-year-old woman who sells fruits, vegetables and nuts on the streets for a living. “The fire destroyed my refrigerator, my television and all my savings: about 3.5 million lions (just under 290 euros),” he says. It seems little money, but it is more than many of his compatriots have. In this country, located in the west of the continent, 54% of its nearly eight million inhabitants must live on less than $ 1.5 a day. Susan’s Bay is the expression of this data in its maximum exponent.
When asking the residents of this neighborhood for someone who can speak on their behalf, many point to Umaru Sesay, a 37-year-old man who runs a kind of social center, a 20-square-meter room right next to the sand and from the sea, one of the few places rebuilt after the passage of the flames. “The situation, even today, is catastrophic. There are neighbors who have to sleep on the street because not everyone has a shelter. In addition, the Government and some NGOs donated some things to us, but they have stolen them from us, ”he laments. And he remembers how it was that afternoon in March when much of his community was reduced to ashes. “We saw the fire coming at full speed. We had time to take all the children, put them on the boats and push them into the sea. They would be safe there. It is not common to have such large fires, but we have suffered many smaller ones. It is that we need to change the materials to build our houses; if not, this problem will never be solved ”.
Later, Umaru Sesay affirms that the Government has forgotten its people, that this is not something new, and lists everything that is missing in Susan’s Bay: there are no water tanks, no electricity, no hospitals, no schools. The fastest way to access from the main arteries of the city is to go down some huge stairs, which is followed by a steep slope, and walk through a dozen narrow streets, which makes it impossible for any vehicle to enter. And this is a pattern that is repeated throughout the 72 slums of Freetown, a city of just over a million inhabitants. Perhaps all of this helps explain that statistic that states that, in Sierra Leone, the average schooling is about three and a half years per kid. Or that other that indicates that the country has the fourth lowest life expectancy in the world, because people live here an average of 54 years. Or the one that grants this nation the highest maternal mortality rate, with 1,360 women dying every 100,000 live births, often forced to give birth in their living room.
In Susan’s Bay there are no water tanks, no electricity, no hospitals, no schools …
But in Susan’s Bay, in addition, now more things are missing. “This has been my home for the last 20 years and I have never seen such a sad situation,” says Mabinty, a 37-year-old woman who lives with her three children and a dozen other family and friends in one of the tents. that some NGOs have built in the neighborhood and that give the settlement an appearance similar to that of a refugee camp. “I have lost everything. My children cannot even go to school because their uniforms, their backpacks, their books have been burned… The government promised that it would help, but no one has done anything for us yet, ”says Mabinty. And he also explains that at this time, in the middle of the rainy season, the community’s soils are flooded and the drains overflow. And that before, when they had their old houses, this was not a problem, but now, some nights, they have to leave the tents because they are flooded and spend several hours in the cold and outdoors until the sun arrives and they can use the light to drain water and dry them.
No urban planning
Fires in communities like Susan’s Bay are not uncommon; overcrowding, total exclusion from urban planning, and spatial disparity make it all too common. In addition, raising entire neighborhoods from the most absolute poverty also creates inconveniences such as difficulty in accessing roads, health centers and schools or the most basic emergency services, such as ambulances or firefighters. They are also overpopulated areas, since almost two thirds of the African population lives in these slums. “The reality is that since these sites are not officially recognized, providers of essential services, such as water or energy, cannot even work there. Other factors, such as the materials used to build the houses, compound the problems, ”says Joseph M. Macarthy, executive director of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Center (SLURC), a local body that aims to generate research initiatives in Sierra Leone cities focused on the well-being of residents of informal settlements.
The SLURC indicates that, in Freetown alone, there are 72 informal settlements (the local government puts them at 67) and that 30% of the capital’s population lives there. Macarthy also affirms that the problem in this city, which is where most of the studies of the organism are focused, comes from afar. He says: “Until the 70s there was urban planning, but in the 80s and, above all, in the 90s due to the civil war, everything changed. Professionals who knew how to do it had to leave the country. In addition, after the conflict, many people began to live crowded together in some specific territories. Now the city has a very high population density and that makes everything difficult ”.
And since these characteristics can be extrapolated to the vast majority of suburbs in large African cities, fires are not an isolated phenomenon in Freetown or Sierra Leone. The busiest cities in sub-Saharan Africa, whose population is growing at an exceptional rate (the continent is expected to have doubled its inhabitants by 2050 going from the current 1,200 million to 2,500 million) and flees from rural areas because there he does not find opportunities (only 15% of Africans lived in urban centers in 1950, while by 2050, 60% will), informal settlements are gradually filling up.
When the fires come, they devastate everything. The examples are numerous and geographically widely distributed: in 2019, a fire in Kibera, maybe the biggest slum of Africa, located in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, where more than a million inhabitants live, hundreds of residents are homeless. And last January, flames scorched more than 300 houses in Khayelitsha., a shanty town in Cape Town, South Africa, and home to nearly half a million people.
Diseases and crime
Joseph M. Macarthy says that if nothing prevents it, fire is going to be one of the most recurring problems for African informal settlements in the future. A setback that will worsen what for him are the other great challenges to face in the slums: diseases and crime. “There have already been very serious cholera outbreaks here. Unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and living conditions are allies of epidemics. And there is also the issue of crime. Unemployment is often high among young people in these districts (in Sierra Leone, the youth unemployment rate stands at 60%) and this causes robberies, robberies and other crimes to occur very regularly. These areas and the surrounding areas are usually very unsafe, ”he says. Still, the current coronavirus pandemic has not caused the predicted havoc in Sierra Leone, as the country barely reports 120 deaths in total from covid-19 and about 6,400 positive cases.
Umu Kamarah is 26 years old and has six children. The last two, twins, are barely a couple of months old. The flames also scorched his Susan’s Bay home and he was left on the street. Now he waits for a solution in a shelter that the Salesian NGO Don Bosco Fambul has enabled in Freetown for some of the families affected by the fire. “I was at home when I saw it coming. I had to run. It cost me a lot; people were very nervous, everyone was screaming, and I had to be careful that my children were not left behind ”, he says. Only a few weeks after all that, Kamarah was passing through the hospital to give birth to the two little ones that she now holds in her arms. “When everything happened, we had to sleep in the street for a few days, with everything full of dirt and mosquitoes. Some nights we get cold. Now I don’t know what will become of us in the future. We have been left with nothing ”.