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'Help Us Upgrade, Don't Evict Us': Sierra Leone's Slum Dwellers Battle for Homes

FILE - Kids jump on tires over a sewage in a slum in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

When floods struck several slums across Sierra Leone's capital last year, 55-year-old Amienata Bangura was forced to flee as her small shop, stock and years of savings were wiped out.

A year after her life was washed away, Bangura has reopened her business in Freetown's Colbot slum, and earned enough to send her grandchildren to school. But still she lives in fear.

Amid widespread criminality, the menace of disease and the perpetual risk of heavy rain, it is the threat of eviction from their corrugated steel and tarpaulin shacks that hangs heaviest over tens of thousands of slum dwellers like Bangura.

"I worry a lot about being evicted," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, perched on a yellow jerrycan outside her shop. "This is where I have built my home, and formed a family."

Living on stretches of state-owned land along the shore, a lack of land tenure for Freetown's slum residents mean they feel powerless to improve their homes and communities - wary that the government could kick them off the land without any warning.

Too poor to move elsewhere in a city where untouched land is scarce, many slum dwellers live in filthy, overcrowded conditions, far from toilets or clean water, and lack access to electricity, drainage systems and waste collection services.

Fearful of floods and epidemics like the Ebola outbreak, which ravaged the West African nation in 2014, the state has repeatedly threatened to evict slum dwellers in recent years.

But the government is now considering a new land policy, drafted last year, which would rule out forced evictions of slum dwellers and address their current lack of land security.

However, the state is wavering between two options: developing the slums or relocating its inhabitants, according to Francis Anthony Reffell, manager of the Slum Livelihood Project at the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in Freetown.

"The message from the slum dwellers is clear," he said. "Upgrade wherever possible, and relocate only where necessary."

Stuck in the slums

One of the world's poorest countries, Sierra Leone is still recovering from civil war and the world's worst Ebola outbreak.

Freetown's population surged during the 1991-2002 civil war, when people rushed there to seek refuge. Poverty and a lack of housing forced many to live in slums in a city where the number of inhabitants is set to double to nearly two million by 2030.

"It is a big challenge being a woman here - (and) not having any privacy," said Umu Jalloh, 34, a mother-of-three, explaining how women have to queue for hours to use the communal toilets and collect water from the few taps dotted around Colbot slum.

Yet most dwellers say they are unwilling or unable to leave, as their lives, families and jobs, often in petty trade or fishing, are tied to the slums they consider to be their own.

"If we leave, or are removed from the slums, frustration and pain will be a killer," said Colbot's female community chief Yo Thoronka, frowning as she watched pigs feed from litter-strewn puddles outside her home. "A lot of deaths would follow."

Torrential rains in Freetown in September 2015 killed four people, injured scores and forced thousands to flee their slums and seek refuge in the national football stadium. But with no other options, slum dwellers like Bangura returned as quickly as possible.

"They don't think about what is coming tomorrow ... they cannot afford to", said Jalikatu Cotay-Jalloh, director of the Centre of Dialogue on Human Settlement and Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA), which supports slum communities across the nation. "They think: 'Today I have something to eat, today I have a roof over my head'."

Slum lords rule

Navigating his way through Marbella slum's narrow and water-logged alleys, past a maze of flimsy, rust-covered shacks, school teacher Hassan Sesay said it was not only the lack of land ownership that prevented people from improving their homes.

They also fear eviction from 'slum lords' - self-proclaimed landlords who rent out the dwellings they have built or land that they have long claimed as being under their control.

"There are always problems between the slum lords (who account for around one in five people living across Freetown's slums) and tenants," 36-year-old Sesay said.

"They are always increasing the rent ... they have no sympathy," he added, explaining how this was driving more people to move closer to or even into the sea, to build homes on what little unclaimed land remains - a process known as 'banking'. Powerless to prevent slum dwellers from banking and building homes made of metal, plastic and cloth, groups like the YMCA are instead educating and training young people to help them find better work and to engage with the state on land rights issues.

However, not enough men are given such an opportunity, said 27-year-old Foday Icomara, who last year completed a mechanic training course with the YMCA and now works at a garage.

"I feel sympathy for most young men here, doing nothing," he said. "The only work is carrying heavy loads, bricks and construction materials on their heads to make a bit of cash. "Many become thieves, join gangs and rape women."

Government limbo

Sierra Leone has no system of land titling or mapping, and many records of land use and ownership were destroyed during the civil war, said Evidence on Demand, a U.K.-based thinktank.

Existing land records are mismanaged and difficult to access, while land allocation decisions by policy makers and community chiefs are often ridden with corruption, experts say.

A spokesman from the land ministry said there was a need for an entire revamp of the land management information system.

"Corruption is rife in Sierra Leone, and it is no different when it comes to land allocation and administration," said Doudou Mbye, U.N. Habitat's representative for the country. "Public institutions are fragile, inadequate. You can have the best policy, but a lack of enforcement will be the issue."

While the new land policy seeks to grant land security to slum dwellers, the government is torn between moving them out of Freetown and upgrading the slums, said CODOHSAPA and the YMCA.

Supporters of resettlement say people living in the slums are too vulnerable to frequent floods and rising sea levels.

"The slums have become an eyesore for the state," said Abdul Karim, planning officer at the Freetown City Council. "The city is chaotic, but there are areas with low-density housing, between high-rise blocks, where slum dwellers could be placed."

Yet many activists say that resettlement would be too costly for the state, and unfeasible due to a lack of available land. "There are lots of solutions out there ... before the state thinks about forced relocation," said Joseph Macarthy of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre, adding that plans to relocate dwellers outside of Freetown would leave most jobless.

"I support those working to improve the slums ... to bring hope to the lives of slum dwellers," Macarthy added.

In Colbot slum, however, hope is in short supply. "Whenever I think about the future for my grandchildren ... the threat of eviction ... I get a headache and have to lie down," Bangura said as she sold water to a passing customer. "Where would we go to begin a new life?"