ONE DOES not tend to see many slums in Rwanda. There is a little recalled fact why this is so.
Prior to the 1994 Rwanda Patriotic Front liberation of the country, people could not always travel or live where they wished in seeking their economic salvation.
A World Bank report of that year laments how the "macroeconomic and regulatory framework had not been conducive to the onset of sustainable labor intensive growth [due to, as one of the leading causes, the pre-1994 government's restriction] of free movements of population and labour."
It was the economic policy of the then government that people in the rural areas should remain there and till the land for national prosperity. People could not change their residence without government permission, which was rarely given. This inevitably limited rural migration to Kigali and other urban areas.
The spin-off of this negative and oppressive policy was a lack of growth of slums in Rwanda, if any.
Not that slums are a good thing. The term describes low-income settlements in urban areas, usually characterised by poor human living conditions often with lack of clean water, electricity, sanitation and other basic services.
One of the reasons slums come about, among other factors, is rapid rural-to-urban migration; which the RPF liberation unleashed with the freedoms accorded the people to seek their fortunes.
It is thus that slums are a fact in Kigali today. The irony is that slums, despite their repute of squalor, are often a manifestation of economic opportunities in the informal sector that offers employment for many of the slum residents. Think of the ubiquitous Kigali motorcycle taxi operators, for instance.
The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) says that 78 per cent of non-agricultural employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is in the informal sector making up 42 per cent of GDP.
That the slums house a majority of the workers can be an indication of growing prosperity, such as witnessed in Rwanda's economic take-off.
So, how does a Kigali slum look like?
A lifestyle writer in this paper recently offered a glimpse, describing some of its residents as comprising of "house-helps, road sweepers, motorcyclists and barbers."
This he discovered as he jumped over open running sewage in the apparently insecure Cyahafi slums, where he was robbed of all his money before making his relieved escape.
He was describing some typical slum conditions. But the tone affected by the writer in relating the story was quite telling, suggesting the new-ness, if not alien-ness, of slums for him.
He gave a feel of the slum dwellers "shoe string budget": Residents, he wrote, pay Rwf 20,000 (US$ 30) or less for a one-roomed house, a plate of food goes for Rwf500 (80 US Cents) and a haircut costs 300 to 400 francs (40 to 60 US Cents).
The reputation of teeming slums in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, should have tempted the writer to make a comparison.
A Nairobi slum, say Kibera or Mathare, is perhaps not so different. Open running sewage between closely built houses, coupled with dire lack of sanitary facilities is common place. Insecurity is rife.
Renting a one room house made of mud walls can be as low as Ksh. 500 (US$ 6); a room made of iron sheets with smooth concrete floor can go for Ksh.2,000 (US$ 24). A meal can go for as low as Ksh.30 (US Cents 35) and a haircut for Ksh.30 (US Cents 35).
Though the lower Nairobi costs appear surprising, the comparison between the two cities is anecdotal, and does not necessarily call for any conclusions. It, however, will be worth bearing in mind UN Habitat projections that by 2030 Africa will cease to be a rural continent.
More than half of its population will be in cities and towns. It is doubtful the cities will adequately cope with the massive population influx, with the overwhelming majority in slums.
This should keep city planners in Kigali and on the continent on their toes with an eye on the Millennium Development Goal to manage the situation, and significantly improve the lives of slum dwellers by 2020.