Rasna Warah, Kenyan Journalist
Rasna Warah, Journalist and Author, Daily Nation (Kenya)
There is an image of Africa etched in the Western psyche that is hard to erase. It is the image of the helpless African dying of starvation or poverty against a backdrop of clear blue skies and scarlet sunsets — an Africa whose people can only be saved through Western goodwill, donor aid and charity. It is this hopeless and helpless Africa that fuels the imagination of writers, journalists, filmmakers and even rock stars.
To his credit, director and producer Landon Van Soest has shown another side of Africa in Good Fortune. In this film, Africans themselves organize and mobilize to protect their livelihoods, homes and environment. This film takes an intimate look at how large-scale development projects in a rural and urban setting in Kenya threaten to destroy the livelihoods of two Kenyans, Silva Adhiambo and Jackson Omondi, and the underlying theme of the film is that large-scale development projects — in this case, mass slum upgrading and large-scale modern agriculture — can be detrimental to the livelihoods of the people who are supposedly the intended beneficiaries.
One of the two stories in Good Fortune focuses on Kibera, a shantytown in Nairobi that the United Nations wants to demolish. While I am not convinced that the Kibera slum upgrading project is a success story that should be replicated, as suggested by the UN-HABITAT program manager shown in the film (a woman who admits that she is “not clear” about the impact the slum upgrading project will have on the community), I do believe that slums are a symptom of a bigger problem related to lack of political will, inequitable distribution of resources, ill-conceived development projects, paternalistic notions about “what is good for Africans” perpetuated by the globe-trotting development set (epitomized by the government official who urges the Kibera residents to “follow what we are advising because we are experts in development”) and an unjust international economic order that keeps the majority of Africans in a perpetual state of poverty and dependency.
But why do slums like Kibera exist in the first place? Various factors, such as rapid urbanization and the impact of the World Bank/IMF-led structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s that eliminated subsidies for basic services in urban areas (which in turn increased levels of urban poverty on the continent), contribute. There is another fact: Cities such as Nairobi would not function without the labor provided by slum dwellers (in factories, at construction sites and elsewhere). Slum dwellers, in turn, need the employment generated by cities to survive, and they need affordable housing (provided by slums) to be able to compete in a job market where labor is cheap and where rents for better housing are unaffordable.
Slums epitomize the failure of government institutions and an economic system that has a high tolerance for inequality. Any attempt to improve the lives of slum dwellers must employ an integrated, multi-sectoral approach (not focused exclusively on housing) that looks at slums as a system sustained by economic, social and political forces. To improve the lot of slum dwellers, governments must ensure that economic growth is linked to eliminating corruption, distributing resources more equitably, increasing subsidies to the poorest and most vulnerable groups and intervening in housing markets to ensure that housing is made more affordable, especially for the poorest groups. Unfortunately, the Kenyan government is unwilling to take this approach, because current economic liberalization policies imposed on the country by Western donors state that government intervention in markets and the provision of subsidies would be “anti-free market” and detrimental to economic growth.
Unfortunately, we don’t learn about any of that in Good Fortune. Rather than placing urban and rural poverty in the context of the social, economic and political realities of Kenya, or examining the various reasons for deepening poverty and inequality in the country, the filmmaker portrays the problems plaguing the protagonists through very narrow lenses. He appears to suggest that Adhiambo and Omondi not only have a “right” to continue living the deprived lives that they lead, but that they must defend this right, even if it means fighting back the forces of progress, industrialization and modernization — the very forces that helped countries such as China, Malaysia and South Korea to improve dramatically the standard of living of millions of people.
There is no doubt that “land grabbing” in Africa on the part of foreign multinationals and foreign governments is having a negative impact on the continent’s ability to feed itself and is resulting in the displacement of thousands of people from their ancestral lands. It is also true that slum upgrading projects, as envisioned by UN-HABITAT, have failed to incorporate the views and expertise of the people most affected by these projects. For instance, there is little recognition of the fact that slum dwellers such as Adhiambo move to the city primarily to earn an income, and that their major concern is not housing, but employment. (Nice houses mean nothing to them if they lead to losing their jobs.)
But by portraying Adhiambo and Omondi as “victims of development,” Good Fortune subconsciously reverts to the stereotypical image of Africa that is so common among Western liberals — an image that tends to romanticize African poverty by portraying Africans as innocent victims of development whose pure, traditional ways are being corrupted and destroyed by outsiders, rather than addressing the really difficult questions about why the continent is in a perpetual state of under-development.
Rasna Warah is a respected columnist for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper. For several years she worked for the UN-HABITAT as a writer and editor. More recently, she edited an anthology entitled Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits that critiques the development industry in East Africa. She is also the author of Triple Heritage, a historical memoir that explores the role of Asians in Kenya’s politics and economy. She currently lives in the coastal town of Malindi with her husband.