Crossing Borders: The Power of an Exchange

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*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.

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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

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