shadow the slum

Julia Garc'ia, 22, is the mother of four small children. She hasn't seen their father in two years. The slum she lives in, which climbs the slippery mountainside above Bogot'a, Colombia, has the optimistic name of Buena Vista. The view of the emerald-green valley far below, and the glittering city at its edge, is indeed picturesque. The view of the invasi'ones -- the name given Buena Vista by the authorities who see its inhabitants as invaders with no right to be there -- is not. Buena Vista is a filthy sprawl of squatters' hovels made of corrugated tin, cardboard, and cinder blocks. Violence, rivalry, alienation

Julia's one-room house of earthen bricks has no running water. About a block down the muddy, garbage-strewn ``street'' is a public tap that serves more than 300 families.

Julia used to send her seven-year-old daughter, Juanita, to fetch water every morning. But the routine was interrupted when the child came home bruised and crying with a deep cut across her face. A man who lives between Julia's house and the water tap, and who is perpetually drunk, had attacked Juanita. Now, Julia must go to the water tap herself each morning with her four children in tow. She is afraid to leave them alone in a house she cannot lock.

As in Buena Vista, slum life all over the world is congested, competitive, often violent.

Still, women in developing countries are moving to the cities at an increasing rate, because of economic and social pressures in the rural areas and the usually illusory hope that life will be easier in the cities.

But in the slums, public services, if they exist at all, are usually minimal. In many slums in the developing world, water is supplied for only an hour or two in the morning and evening. Because the demand for water is so great, and the points of supply so few, women often wait in line for hours before their turn comes. Defending their places in the water line becomes a source of rivalry and aggression for women who, in their home villages, used to find conviviality and relaxation at the communal well.

Also in short supply are shelter, sanitation, electricity, and transportation -- to say nothing of access to jobs and schools. In Buena Vista, electricity is obtained by illegally siphoning off power from municipal power lines. Blackouts, often lasting for days, are frequent.

Julia attended school for only three years and is barely literate. The only job she ever held was as a domestic servant. She needs a job now, but she cannot get down the mountain to look for work, since there is no public transportation in Buena Vista. A few city bus drivers earn extra money by making trips to the invasi'ones, but they charge much more than the regular fare -- much more than Julia can afford.

She is also worried about where to leave her children if she finds a job.

There is no school near her home, and her sister, who used to live close by, ran away from her husband because he beat her. Doesn't she have any friends or neighbors who would look after her children while she is at work?

Julia glances up and down the dirty, crowded street. During the half hour or so we have been talking, not one of the many passers-by has exchanged a word with Julia, smiled, or even looked her way. Angry shouts are coming from the house next door. Down the street, a fight is going on. No. She has no friends in Buena Vista. There is no one she can trust. Congestion and entrapment

The sense of entrapment Julia feels is common among women in developing countries who have abandoned traditional life in the rural areas and migrated to the cities.

It is felt on the other side of the world as well, by Saebah and her husband, who came to the slum of Kampung Sawa in Jakarta from their village in central Java 10 years ago.

Kampung Sawa was originally built by construction workers hired to erect a luxury hotel nearby. With the leftover building materials they could salvage, the workers built a settlement that now houses 1,500 families.

The torpid, yellow-green water in the canal that runs through Kampung Sawa hardly moves. The atmosphere is heavy and acrid with moisture, heat, and exhaust fumes from the nearby toll road. Smoke from burning garbage fills the air. On one bank of the canal, a rickety wooden structure hangs over the water, looking as if it might collapse at any moment: It is Kampung Sawa's only ``toilet.''

Saebah is 38 and has had six children, one of whom died in infancy. Her husband is a construction worker, unemployed most of the time. Because Saebah is the main breadwinner in the family, her husband puts up with constant teasing from the neighbors. Most working women in Kampung Sawa are either vendors or prostitutes. Saebah chose the former occupation.

Every morning at 5 o'clock she rides a bus to a produce market an hour from Kampung Sawa. She buys as much rice and vegetables as she can afford, and returns home. From 7 o'clock on, Saebah sits in a narrow, dusty, congested alley, selling the produce. Her profit is usually about a dollar a day -- enough to buy more rice and vegetables the next morning. She feeds her family with what she doesn't sell.

What most concerns Saebah are the dangers built into living in Kampung Sawa. In 1982 the toll road was constructed through the settlement, slicing it in two. The government promised to move the slum's inhabitants to new housing, but bureaucracy , politics, and corruption have caused continual delays. Saebah's house and hundreds like it -- flimsy, two-story dwellings built of wood -- look out past a high, barbed-wire fence to the road.

The slum is so congested and the alleyways so narrow that if a fire should break out, escape would be virtually impossible. Saebah and her family would most likely be trapped between the flames and the barbed wire, which literally and figuratively define the limits of their lives.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.