NAIROBI, KENYA — Susan Wanjiru used to be a seamstress. For 12 hours a day in her cardboard shack, she would hunch over her sewing, earning just 200 shillings, or $2.50, to feed her four children. Her back always ached and the tips of her fingers were constantly scratched and bleeding. But since she changed jobs, training to be a stone mason in the Nairobi slums, things have improved.
"Ah, my body feel so much better now," she says, flexing her biceps proudly. "I work in the fresh air, get paid 300 shillings [$3.75] a day, and sleep soundly at night. It is a much better life."
Ms. Wanjiru makes an unlikely builder, even with her newly formed muscles. But mixing cement is part of a new kind of renovation program, one that gives slum residents some control over their lives. Last year, a group of Nairobi slum dwellers banded together and asked the city council to give them the land that they had been squatting on illegally. In return, they promised to build proper houses, schools, and community centers without any government money.
"We went to the council and said: 'We know this land belongs to you, but we have lived here for 30 years and if you help us, we will make it a clean environment with good security," says Peter Chege, secretary of the housing association. "In the end, they agreed to draw up title deeds to the land in our name."
The bold move by the fledgling association was part of a revolutionary plan imported from India. It's the latest example of what experts say is becoming a model for slum improvement around the world.
"We are seeing the urbanization of poverty," says Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of United Nations Habitat, which helps in housing issues for the world's poor. "We have to get people to realize that if we want to help the poor, we cannot simply focus on rural development, we must focus on cities, too."
Nairobi's slums are impossible to ignore. They sprawl on the fringes of the city, right next to the most desirable neighborhoods. Pickpockets and thieves melt into the slums after committing crimes, knowing that the police won't follow them into the muddy alleys and sewage-soaked streets.
The government has tried to address the issue. It built multistory blocks of apartments, but slum dwellers preferred to stay in their shacks, where they did not have to carry food and water up several flights of stairs each day. Other families who received free housing promptly sublet it and returned to the slums; in areas of high unemployment, the housing was the only income source for many families.
Last year, the newly elected government tried to rid itself of its slum problem by bulldozing shantytowns built on public land, but aid agencies complained that this heavyhanded approach would merely make 350,000 people homeless, forcing them to set up new slums in another part of town.
Nairobi's slum problems are not unique. Throughout the developing world, massive numbers of migrants move from rural areas to cities, looking for work. Unable to find affordable housing, they set up makeshift shantytowns at the edge of cities. Habitat estimates that almost 1 billion people - one-sixth of the entire world's population - live in slums.
Since the association met with the city council, the slum known as Kambi Moto, or Camp of Fire for the flames that regularly burn the cardboard and tin structures to the ground, has become a hive of activity. The muddy ground has been marked out into plots, where a ragtag assortment of men and teenage boys are raising three-story cement houses with two bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, and kitchen.
The houses are still tiny - each one measures just 14 ft. by 14 ft. - but they are mansions compared to the dwellings the residents want to leave behind. Each family sends one person to the building site one day a week to help with the work. A local housing charity, the Pamoja Trust, paid for some of the residents to train as stone masons and carpenters, and a microfinance charity has agreed to contribute 80 percent of the building costs if the residents raise 20 percent themselves.
The idea comes from Slum Dwellers International, an Indian pressure group that encourages people living in slums to find their own solutions to housing problems. In the 1990s, it helped slum residents in Bombay to claim the land they were squatting on and turn it into a proper residential estate with running water and electricity. The group has programs in Africa, Asia, and South America.
Here in Kenya, residents of the Camp of Fire have helped design the houses and streets. "The houses are designed to house an average family of two adults and three children," says Jack Makau, spokesman for the Pamoja Trust. He says that some people may sublet some of the rooms, "But we think most residents will use them as they are meant to be used: to provide a clean, safe home to raise a family."