by Ruth Aine - 08 September 2014
Photo credits : Andy Kristian
I have taken an interest in my neighbors of recent. This is because they are mostly women. I do not have an 8-5 job and so I move around the neighborhood at rather odd hours, explaining why the boda boda [motorcycle taxi] guys at my stage think that I am a student at Makerere University. I live in an area that has both “high-end” and low-end housing. For a 2-bedroomed house, 2 bathrooms and toilets with small servants quarters we pay $180 per month. There are houses that go up to $400 a month as well. A small room will cost up to $60 a month. Bathrooms and toilets [if any] are communal.
So, Fatma [not real name] lives in a small 1-bedroomed house. It is part of many rooms put up by a landowner who has no idea what planning for housing is all about. I see her every evening bathing her young ones by the roadside, she has two and one is on the way. For a long time when I passed by her little room, I saw a sewing machine peeping just near the doorway. So about four weeks ago I decided to take some sewing to her. She did it pretty well and quickly too. I asked her how much, she said: 500/=[$0.4]. I asked her whether she was sure but gave her 1000/-[$0.5] and asked her to keep the change. I wondered if she knew what she was worth. A few days later my father had three items that he needed to be sewed up. She did it for 2500/- [$1]. My father laughed when she charged him that. He said, “Do you know how much this would have cost me elsewhere”?
Every time I took the footpath leading to the main road, to and fro home, I noticed a lady plaiting hair. Now for all of you who don’t know what the African female obsession with hair and extensions is, you may want to check out this link. So, I walked up to her once and asked her if she could come plait my hair from my home. She asked to come and see where I live. “I always see you passing by, but I do not know where you live.” We did so and the next day, she came to help me with my hair. Within three hours she had finished, even after talking 30 minutes, before she was off to take food to her daughter who is in school across the road. Her handiwork was amazing. When I told my friends that I had paid 13,000/-[$5.2] for that, they could not believe it. It is the kind of work which you pay 40,000/-[$16] for when you go to a salon anywhere in Kampala and its suburbs. But she is able to put her children through school with this small home business that she runs.
Nansubuga is one of the very few people, if not the only, that lives in her own property in my neighborhood. She lives with her husband of over 20 years and a few dependents. Her home is not big but she has the luxury of keeping indigenous poultry for eggs and when she feels like eating chicken. She too, recently started a vegetable stall. She goes to the market every day in the early morning and brings with her: Yellow bananas, green-pepper, egg plants, tomatoes, cabbage, [matooke green bananas] fingers and bitter tomatoes. Her little stall supplies the neighborhood. I realize that Ugandans are so retail-oriented, especially for food. We buy wheat when we are going to consume it.
Getrude is a stay-at-home grandmother.[I have written about her before]. I know this from the very many children that she houses. She sells charcoal at her little 1-bedroomed place. Of recent, she started making pancakes and cassava and selling them. I was very skeptical to try them out, then one morning I decided to taste her pancakes and they were heavenly. A great reminder of my childhood. They are Ugandan pancakes, by the way, made from the small ripe bananas and cassava flour. The two are mixed and then the dough shaped into small circles about 10 centimeters wide and half a centimeter thick and then deep fried till golden-brown. Very organic – healthy and super tasty, I highly recommend them if you ever get to visit Uganda.
My neighborhood is a classic example of what is going on in our societies in regard to urbanization. A report on cities by the Institute of Futures states that the explosive growth of cities is an economic opportunity with the potential to lift billions out of poverty. However, the speed of change and lack of pro-poor foresight has led to a swarm of urban problems. They include poor housing conditions, inadequate education and health care, and racial and ethnic inequalities. My little neighborhood reflects that, poor housing being top of the list. Poverty has been defined in economic terms, and aid programs have sought to bridge the economic gap by modernizing systems and practices among the poor to bring them “up to the standard” of the rest of the world. Many of these efforts have failed, often because they didn’t take into account existing knowledge in poor communities. Our cities have very complex systems and so have the slums in these cities.
That I have decided to give these different women business is a sign that there is an informal structure that exists to support the needs of the poor. Question is: do the authorities and the planners acknowledge the existence of these structures? We cannot solve our differences if we do not keep this in mind.