Knowing Squat


In Kibera, Nairobi’s tin-shack slum that’s home to half a million squatters, journalist Robert Neuwirth discovered the phenomenon of “flying toilets.” Since there are so few latrines, he writes in his earnest new book,

Shadow Cities, people simply shit in a plastic bag and then throw it as far away from their dwelling as possible. While living in Kibera, one stop on a two-year tour of some of the world’s burgeoning slums, Neuwirth found several other hazards: almost inevitable robbery if you go out at night, exploitative landlords, sewage flowing around half-buried water pipes.

Still, Armstrong O’Brian Jr., who with three other people rents a 10-by-10-foot “cell” and only enough (stolen) electricity to run a single lightbulb, told Neuwirth: “This place is very addictive. . . . It’s a simple life, but nobody is restricting you, nobody is controlling what you do. Once you have stayed here, you cannot go back.”

Despite the horrific scale of the world’s housing crisis (by 2030, a quarter of the world’s population will be living in slums), Neuwirth is keen to move beyond the standard pity and fear of slum dwellers.

The squatter community (Neuwirth rejects the derogatory term slum) of Rocinha in Rio is home to 150,000 people and has everything a normal town would have: banks, video rental stores, grocery stores, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, even three health clubs and a postal service. Rocinha also has a small McDonald’s (ice cream only), credit card companies, loan shops, and a cable TV supplier. This is asfaltização: the gradual, probably welcome, gentrification of slums, a process that could happen anywhere—preferably brought about by the squatters themselves—if insecure governments accept and assist their neighborhoods rather than try to tear them down. Shadow Cities is chirpy and thorough, full of excellent myth debunking: People living by the road in Mumbai are fastidious about hygiene, and people in Kibera consider everyone else to be dirty; the crime rate in Rocinha—even though it’s Rio’s drug-dealing center—is lower than in legit areas of the city; and in Sultanbeyli, Istanbul, many squatters wouldn’t want proper title deeds to their land even if they were offered them—why go into debt to purchase the house that you built with your own hands?

It’s a shame, then, that a devastating topic and sprightly approach are hobbled by Neuwirth’s unbearable journalese, which saps the vibrancy of the slums that he is so desperate to convey. One wonders whether it was really worth him living in a tin shack for months to produce sentences like “The story of Sanjay Ghandi Nagar [a slum in Mumbai] is a story of despair, desperation, and triumph” and “Rio is a city of intense contrasts.”

These aesthetic quibbles are significant: Neuwirth’s surface dwelling prevents him from delving into the ideological and political muck of squatting, where we surely need to go to find the causes and consequences of this unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. The chapter “Proper Squatters, Improper Property” is promising: Neuwirth summarizes political scientists Hernando de Soto’s and Peter Marcuse’s surprising views on squatters. For de Soto, a free marketeer, squatters should be issued title deeds and ushered into mainstream economics immediately to release the “dead capital” that their property and exemplary entrepreneurship represent. Marcuse, looking at squatters from the left, blames them for ruthlessly and inefficiently pursuing their own betterment rather than that of their community (a perhaps unavoidable anti-socialism, amply illustrated by the “flying toilets”).

But Neuwirth is suspicious of political “heavyweights” who “slog it out.” He focuses on the practicalities—who could argue with that, when people lack clean drinking water and toilets?—but makes the tepid, unarguable conclusion that “More focus groups, more debate, more discussion, more conversation” are needed between squatters and authorities.

The situation calls for something more trenchant and traumatic. Forty percent of African slum dwellers live in what the U.N. calls “life-threatening” poverty. Eighty-five percent of the developing world’s urban population now lives in squalid, illegal mini-city-states, operating in an informal or illegal economy, with little or no relationship to their government. Despite mountains of detail, Neuwirth misses the two most important aspects: the neo-liberal conditions that will soon lead to a quarter of the world’s population being deemed surplus humanity—forced from the countryside, pushed aside in the city, impossible to integrate into the formal economic system. And he ignores the political conditions and opportunities that might emerge with this enormous new global cohort—or can they properly be called a class?