Diary from Mumbai: Part I


By: Ariana K MacPherson

**Cross-posted from the SDI blog**

Mumbai has a constant buzz. That is the best way to put it. The city is always moving, coming and going in all directions And full of light. I arrived in Mumbai three days ago, and immediately was taken aback by the vibrancy of it. Even as I made my way from the bustling airport at 1am to my hotel, taxi cabs lined the streets and pavement dwellers sit in front of their tin shacks, eating around fires.

I am here to visit the Indian SDI alliance, an impressive trio of organizations consisting of Mahila Milan (the women’s savings collectives, which are federated citywide as well as nationwide), the National Slum Dwellers Federation (a network of male-dominated slum dweller federations operating at the same scale as MM) and the support NGO, SPARC. I have heard tales of the dynamism, innovation and success of MM-SPARC-NSDF, but truly there is nothing like seeing it for yourself. The same goes for Mumbai, for Dharavi, for all of it: you can read all the books, see the movies, read the newspaper and taste the food abroad, but there is nothing like coming face-to-face with the life of the city, of the people, to make you really understand.

Yesterday was my first day in the field. Alongside a colleague from SPARC, I visited three of Alliance’s projects in Greater Mumbai. First we stopped at a housing project in Dharavi called Rajiv Indira, designed by the women of Mahila Milan. The building is light and airy, with children playing and riding small bicycles in the wide corridor. On the ground floor there is an open courtyard, where women congregate with their kids, chatting about the day. All but the top two floors of the building have been constructed with 14-foot ceilings so that families can build a mezzanine floor to maximize the 225 sq ft space.

The women make this happen through financing from various sources, but savings is a big part of it. Not only does money collected through daily savings go towards financing the actual housing projects, but it also serves as a means to organize, mobilize and unify the group around a common vision for the community. Even after moving into the building, the women continue to save in order to pay for maintenance and further improvements to their homes. It is not a project-based activity, but instead becomes the very core of their activities.

I have read so much about Dharavi. How residential and commercial uses co-exist. How many millions of dollars are generated there. How high the population density is. How poor some of the living conditions. How vibrant, and dynamic a place it is. But again, nothing compares to reality. It is not simply a slum – Dharavi is a town. The true essence of an informal city, existing right in the centre of the formal city, feeding into it minute to minute and day by day. We make our way to a community toilet project, turning off the main (4-lane) road and onto a crowded, winding side street. We pass a Hindu temple, painted bright with garlands and incense adorning the entrance, and are shaded by green canopies of tall, old trees. A white cow passes us on the right.

We arrive at the community toilet and it is bright, airy and clean. My colleague explains that it is used by 226 families (roughly 1,300 people), each of whom pays 20 rupees per month (about USD .40). Others pay 2 rupees per use. There is a caretaker who looks after the facility daily, closing it only from 1am – 5am. He has a room upstairs that he shares with his family, and there is a lovely roof terrace with a mosaic tiled floor that can be used by the 226 families for community events and meetings. There are basically two other options for toilets in Dharavi: 1) shit wherever you can find a hole, which often means holding it in until it is safe (especially for women), and of course causes numerous health risks; or 2) use one of the government-provided communal toilets, which tend not to be well looked after, and are often dark, smelly and unpleasant to use. By making this a community project, it has kept the toilet clean and pleasant to use. One of us even stopped to pay the 2 rupees to use it during our visit!

The last site we visit is a housing project called Milan Nagar, also designed by the women of Mahila Milan, located in Mankhurd settlement quite a ways from the centre of Mumbai. This group of women were pavement dwellers, perhaps Mumbai’s poorest population, and some of Mahila Milan’s oldest members. They lived in shacks along the sidewalks, crowding the streets near Bombay Central station. The women tell us that one of the biggest differences in their lives today is that they are no longer called “pavement dwellers” – that they are respected by others because they now live in formal housing. But pavement dwellers chose their spots on the streets to be close to economic activity, and the women say this is one of the challenges of their new home. It is further to go to work, and they cannot come home between jobs to spend time with their children. There are three different design options within the building, each one consisting of a mezzanine floor like the building in Dharavi. The homes are modest but beautifully maintained, with sparkling pots and pans and spotless floors. Children play in the hallways, and music pours down the stairwells as a family upstairs prepares for an upcoming wedding.

After spending the afternoon at the SPARC offices, housed in a beautiful old municipal building in South Bombay, another colleague whisks me off to a Mahila Milan function in honor of a Hindu holiday celebrating the beginning of spring. This is the real thing. There are hundreds of women, all dressed in colorful saris and their best gold jewelry. We are asked to come on stage, and are honored with flowers, and decorated with saffron and turmeric on our foreheads. We eat sesame sweets and listen to the women speak about their daily realities, from the importance of daily savings to their struggles with crime. Before the close of the evening, traditional music comes on and the women begin to dance. We are drawn into the crowd and a young women smiles and grabs my hand. We dance together, laughing and I doing my best to imitate her every move. It is infectious – the vibrant soul of this community. Empowered and real, dancing under the scaffolding of 900 new homes.

Negotiating the Right to Stay: A Community-Led Process in Old Fadama


**Cross-posted from the Shack/Slum Dwellers International blog**

The air in Accra is humid and full of dust. After spending days inside heavily air-conditioned conference centers and nearby hotels, you start to forget the realities of city life.  Luckily, I got a reminder.

I spent my last day in Accra in the centrally located settlement of Old Fadama. Old Fadama is an informal settlement occupying 31.3 hectares of land along the Odaw River and Korle Lagoon in central Accra. Established in 1981, its population of roughly 80,000 inhabitants is made up of traders and migrants from across Ghana as well as other neighboring West African countries.

The community has resisted threats of eviction for nearly a decade through use of tools such as enumerations, mapping and lengthy negotiations with the Accra Municipal Authority (AMA).  Most recently, the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GAFUP) and the Old Fadama Development Association (OFADA) have been in negotiation with the AMA around the clearing of structures from land around the Korle Lagoon in preparation for a large-scale de-silting project, funded by the Netherlands Government. Korle Lagoon has experienced decades of pollution serving as the main runoff for the entire city of Accra and its shores as dumping ground for much the city’s solid waste.

Initially, the AMA requested that 100 feet of land be cleared to make way for the project. GAFUP and OFADA members estimated that clearance of 100 feet would mean demolition of nearly 3,000 structures and eviction for roughly 7,000 inhabitants. They quickly entered into negotiations, proposing that the amount of land be reduced to 50 feet. Immediately, the community went to work enumerating the 50-foot area. Reducing the amount of cleared land to 50 feet meant a reduction to 1,192 residential and commercial structures and 3,000 people. Still not ideal, but certainly a marked difference.

Armed with their enumeration data, GAFUP and OFADA met with city authorities at the AMA and succeded in negotiating for their proposed 50-foot area instead of original 100 feet, reducing the number of people affected significantly.

The next step was a community led demolition and realignment of structures on right of access identified and negotiated jointly between the residents and the City Authorities. Members of GAFUP and OFADA led this process, first meeting with community members to explain the demolition and relocation process.

A federation member in Old Fadama

Getting the wider community on board has been key to the success of the process. I spoke with a woman whose structure is waiting to be demolished. She has been a member of GAFUP since 2008. However, she says she doesn’t know where she will go when her structure is demolished – that she will simply have to find a piece of vacant land and erect her structure there. Sadly, this means she will likely have to live on the edges of Old Fadama, where the dirt paths are riddled with rubbish and the harmattan hits harder against the shack walls.

Despite these inevitable hardships characteristic of any relocation, resettlement of displaced peoples to other locations within Old Fadama is a success story in and of itself. Most tales of relocation involve displacement to many kilometers outside of the city, far from social ties, employment, and opportunity. Thanks to the successful negotiations of GAFUP, OFADA and People’s Dialogue Ghana, this is not the case in Old Fadama.

In our discussions with GAFUP and OFADA, it became clear that a waste management plan will be crucial to the success of the imminent de-silting project in order to prevent continued pollution of the lagoon. This is a key time for GAFUP, OFADA and People’s Dialogue to put their negotiation skills to use. Waste remains a major issue in greater Accra, and the creation of a community-led waste management program for Old Fadama could serve as a key tool for income generation, community upgrading and negotiation with local authorities around the community’s capacity to engage in the upgrading process.

Farouk Braimah, director of the Ghanaian support NGO People’s Dialogue, stresses, “This whole exercise promises huge benefits and leverages. We anticipate capitalizing on this exercise to strengthen our hitherto weak relationship with the city authorities of Accra and to feed into [other projects] in Accra and Ashaiman.”

Bearing witness to the reality and determination of this community, alongside some of its key leaders, was certainly an experience no conference could compete with.

- Ariana

For more photographs of Old Fadama, check out SDI’s albums on Flickr and Facebook

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Crossing Borders: The Power of an Exchange


*Cross posted from SDI blog*

Espina stands. She tells us that she is positive – that she tells women in her community she is not ashamed, and that because she takes care of herself, she does not look sick, “Do I look sick?” she asks with a coy smile on her face. She breaks into song and the woman by her side stands as they begin to dance. They are strong, empowered, have taken control of their lives and ensured that their voice is heard. Espina is right – they do not look sick. They do not look like AIDS or anything close to death. Dressed in bright East African fabrics, they are vibrant and full of life.

These women come from Zambia and are gathered in Windhoek, Namibia to meet with fellow slum/shack dwellers from across Southern Africa to exchange learning around challenges and successes in their efforts to improve living conditions for urban and rural poor throughout the region.

Yesterday they gathered in a nearby settlement called Barcelona. Under the shade of low-hanging branches, members of urban poor federations from across southern Africa gathered alongside members of the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia (SDFN) to share knowledge and experience and find solutions to some of the struggles facing the local group here in Barcelona.

Lucia, a SDFN leader from Windhoek, described the challenges they have faced in collecting loan repayments and audit books from community members who have already obtained housing through the SDFN process.

We wait patiently for community members to gather. Slowly they appear, intrigued by the group of visitors waiting under the tree. Eventually, roughly fifteen members of the Barcelona group gather to meet with us, describing how they started their efforts in 1998, meeting on Sundays to collect and report on savings. It was in those early days that they set a goal of saving N$500 per person to put towards purchase of the land, so that someday they could own homes there.

Before long the group accomplished this goal. They purchased the land and constructed shacks on it, continuing to save money towards construction of their homes. In 2002, twenty-four of the group members had saved enough to build homes. Each contributed a down payment of N$750 and received a loan of N$15,000 for housing construction. To date, 31 of the 39 members have constructed homes in Barcelona settlement. Of these, four have paid off their housing loans and now own their homes outright.

Although the community is still participating in a group savings scheme, savings and collection of loan payments have been less regular since most members have acquired housing. It has been a challenge to keep track of owners and to keep up the momentum for savings. In addition, SDFN leaders describe difficulties they have had in obtaining audit reports to contribute to the Federation’s national reports. It seems as though the community has lost touch with the bigger picture of the Federation, and the power that they have as Federation members.

Gradually the community members opened up about some of the challenges they have faced locally. Some owners have rented their homes out to a ever-changing stream of tenants. Loan repayments are not being made by all members. The suggestion is made that tenants must be approved by the group, and members are reminded that until the houses are paid off, they are owned by the Federation. Local members are encouraged to remember their own power as members of a national federation – they can engage the police if necessary, as they are the legal owners of these homes.


A young woman speaks up. She tells the group that she is renting a room in one of the homes. She is paying towards the loan and for water, but she was unaware that the loan was acquired through the Federation or that there was a local savings scheme. She stays for the length of the meeting, taking responsibility for a bundle of savings books showing interest in becoming involved in the group.

An old lady is squatting at the front. She tells the group that she took out a loan for her home and was making her payments, but fell sick and has not been able to continue making full monthly payments, “I divide my money that I need for food, and the rest I pay towards my house, but still it is not enough,” she says. A Federation member from Swaziland suggests that perhaps she could rent a room out to increase her income. She needs help to make this work, and the group says they will help her. Another SDFN member reminds us that this is why savings schemes are so important – they maintain group unity, and keep people informed of what is happening, why individuals can or cannot make payments, and how the group can find solutions to these problems together.

Before the close of the meeting another woman raises her hand. She is very concerned about the situation in one of the houses. “A mama built this house, and then just disappeared!” she says. Apparently the mama’s son and a policeman are now living there, the policeman renting a room, and the homeowner is never seen. Repayments are not being made. It turns out her son is at the meeting. He raises his hand to speak. He tells the group that his mother is living in Khomasdal, another settlement in Windhoek. He has started paying towards the water, but has not been paying for the house. Marlene, a Federation member from the SDI Alliance in South Africa, asks him, “Do you understand that the house you are staying in does not currently belong to you, but to this Federation? Are you willing to take the necessary measures to make this house yours?” He says he is and the group decides to write up a contract right then & there, putting this agreement in writing with the hope of ensuring that loan repayments will now be made.

These solutions would not have been possible without the coming together of people from across the region, exchanging experience and ideas, and encouraging local members to open up about their experiences. This kind of exchange empowers not only the local Federation, but the visiting ones as well, as they share knowledge with others while gaining new knowledge to take back to the Federations at home.

- Ariana

An Update from the Field: Cape Town & Namibia

As some of you may know, I have had the wonderful opportunity to take up work at the Secretariat of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), “a network of community-based organizations of the urban poor in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, launched in 1996 when “federations” of the urban poor in countries such as India and South Africa agreed that a global platform could help their local initiatives develop alternatives to evictions while also impacting on the global agenda for urban development,” (SDI website). Based in Cape Town, South Africa, the work is right up my international urban planning alley, and it has been very exciting to be surrounded by people doing and breathing the work I have been writing and thinking about for so long.

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Windhoek, Namibia for a meeting with members of urban poor federations and their supporting NGO’s from across southern Africa. It was inspiring and I learned a lot about how the work of SDI actually happens on the ground. I am currently working on an article for the SDI blog, and will surely cross-post it on here once it’s complete. But for now, I will leave you with a few photos from our visit to the Barcelona community in the settlement of Katakura just outside of Windhoek.

- Ariana

On Informality

Taguig City, Manila, Philippines

I must apologize for my recent absence from posting. Luckily, it is due only to good things. As others have mentioned, the past month or so has been consumed with graduating from NYU Wagner’s Master of Urban Planning program, and for me, has also included accepting and preparing for a job in Cape Town, South Africa with Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a dynamic, innovative organization that is doing amazing work worldwide. Should make for some wonderful blogging, too! In the meantime, I came across this quote on The Polis Blog recently and thought I’d share it here:

“The splintering of urbanism does not take place at the fissure between formality and informality but rather, in fractal fashion, within the informalized production of space. Informal urbanization is as much the purview of wealthy urbanites as it is of slum dwellers. These forms of urban informality – from Delhi’s farmhouses to Kolkata’s new towns to Mumbai’s shopping malls – are no more legal than the metonymic slum. But they are expressions of class power and can therefore command infrastructure, services and legitimacy. Most importantly, they come to be designated as ‘formal’ by the state while other forms of informality remain criminalized.”

Ananya Roy, from “Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2011.

I am excited to explore these concepts further in my new job, and look forward to sharing thoughts on formality/informality in cities worldwide with you all soon!

- Ariana

Reimagining the Mother City: ‘Counter Currents’ in Cape Town

Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Center for Cities and editor of Counter Currents presents in this recent volume on Cape Town, South Africa “a radical project of optimism, bringing into collision the work of architects, planners, scholars, poets and sculptors to explore new possibilities for the city’s self-image.”

In Miranda Iossifidis’ insightful review of the book on Global Urbanist, she discusses Pieterse’s hopes that this volume can provide an opportunity for Capetonians to reflect on and experiment with solutions to some of the city’s serious challenges, ranging from memory and social justice to changing cultural values and the ever changing, often disturbing, realities of the Mother City in the years during and since apartheid. However, Pieterse asserts that Cape Town “can save itself” through “shifting public ideas and discourses about the kind of Cape Town we should be imagining and nurturing.”

Iossifidis concludes that the book manages to portray a rich, dynamic and hopeful picture of Cape Town as it is and its way forward into the 21st Century:

“This city–the ‘Cape of Storms and the Cape of Good Hope at the same time’–is a uniquely complex case study from the perspective of local thinkers and practitioners presented in a well-designed and richly illustrated manner. Perpetually probing for glimpses of possible alternatives, the book avoids stagnation through an innovative multidisciplinary approach, combining poetry, photo-essays, and policy analysis alongside practical and theoretical essays, creating a rhythm of careful optimism.”

I look forward to reading it myself soon!

- Ariana K. MacPherson

Cape Town: (Proposed) World Design Capital 2014

One of my favorite cities is Cape Town, South Africa. Tucked between the mountains and the sea, Cape Town sits at the southern tip of Africa and is a profound testament to the many cultures and peoples that have come upon the shores of that continent. The city has an active history of social change movements, dating back to the struggle against apartheid. In the years since the end of apartheid, Cape Town has grown increasingly rich with local design talent, bringing together the dynamism of the city itself with the artistry of this new talent. Increasingly, the city has become a backdrop for the art produced by its inhabitants. And that art continues to speak to the mix of peoples and cultures (black, white, Afrikaans, English, Indian, Cape Malay, and more!).

This year Cape Town was nominated for 2014 World Design Capital, a designation given to “cities that are dedicated to using design for social, cultural and economic development,” and I will be first to say that I am rooting for them! A powerful testament to the importance of design to urban spaces, the “WDC is more than just a project or a programme – it’s a global movement towards an understanding that design does impact and affect quality of human life.”

An article in the Cape Argus (5 April 2011) gave a beautiful description of Cape Town’s recently-submitted proposal:

“The 465-page bid book, which has been sent to the International Council for Societies of Industrial Design (Icsid) in Canada, has as its theme, “Live design. Transform Life”. The year 2014 marks 20 years of democracy in South Africa and is a significant moment for people to embrace such a theme.

The bi-annual WDC award is bestowed by Icsid on cities that use design for their social, economic and cultural development. The story at the heart of Cape Town’s bid theme is about the City’s use of design to overturn the negative legacies of its colonial and apartheid past that saw design dividing people, disconnecting the city, and relegating both people of colour and the urban poor to its fringes. This both denied these people equitable access to resources and opportunities, not least the opportunity of making their own contributions to a better city. It also made the country a pariah in the eyes of the world, and excluded it from many opportunities to engage in the globalizing economy.”

The designation would bring a year-long program of design-related events to Cape Town and bring even attention from the international design community. Although the city’s design community has flourished in the last 15 years, there has been no collective vision. Dr Mugendi M’Rithaa, a senior lecturer at the Department of Industrial Design at the Cape Peninsular University of Technology (CPUT), states of the WDC bidding process alone that it “gives us a common platform for acknowledging design as an asset and is a massive catalyst to align creative narratives. Cape Town’s bid is not about claiming that we are already an established ‘design capital brand’, but instead we are bidding to acknowledge that we are using design thinking as a tool for transformation. We want to show what design can do for us and that investment in design is an investment in our future.”

Design has already been a catalyst of change in Cape Town, allowing Capetonians to reposition and redefine their place in Africa and the world more every year. Let’s see what Icsid decides about, and hope that no matter what the outcome this bidding will do even more for the future of urban design on the African continent!

- Ariana K. MacPherson