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A surprising side of slums

Entrepreneurs abound, but so do threats to homes.

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First–time visitors to slums are often shocked by their economic vibrancy. Outsiders expect helplessness, but what they find is promise. To understand this, we need only look at why people came to slums in the first place.

Most residents of slums – estimated in the tens of millions in Africa – have migrated to cities from rural areas. They leave their families and homes in search of opportunity.

For these newcomers, cities provide hope that with hard work they might free themselves from the dead end of rural poverty.

These migrants don't want to live in slums, but that is where they find affordable housing. So they decide that settling in a slum – at least for the time being – is better than where they came from. And they know that if they want to seize the city's opportunities then they must work hard.

That helps explain why the main roads in slums are lined with bustling businesses. Slum residents are tailors, carpenters, hair stylists, and food vendors. They repair mobile phones, collect and resell scrap metal, and run movie theaters and maternity wards.

Community savings groups are behind some of this economic activity. One such group in Ghana's Ashaiman slum, Together We Build, has 800 members and $7,000 in savings, a respectable sum for a country with a per capita income of about $400.

Members have personal log books in which they record their savings, which could be as little as 10 cents a day. Fifty-dollar loans are granted to members to jump-start small businesses. The debtors form four-person solidarity teams to ensure that they repay their loans, usually over a three-month period.

But all is not rosy in slums, as the cliché images of destitution and squalor attest. The biggest problem – and what strikes the heart of any visitor – is the tragic state of their basic infrastructure.

Seldom is garbage formally collected, and mounds of rubbish grow into seas on their outskirts.

Devoid of drainage systems, waste–water cuts across dirt roads and accumulates around houses, attracting mosquitoes and emitting stench. If it rains hard, communities are flooded up to ankle-height or higher.

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