CAIRO, 28 June 2011 (IRIN) – Madiha Abdel-Salam lives in a small room with her six children in Manshiet Nasser, an Egyptian slum perched precariously on sandstone cliffs on the outskirts of Cairo.
When the children squeeze her out, the 42-year-old mother spends the night with neighbours. In the morning when one of the children gets up, she gets into that child’s bed and takes a two-hour nap before going to work.
“Sometimes, I feel accustomed to living in this slum even though we lack the most basic needs,” Abdel-Salam told IRIN. “Other times, I pray to God to make me die. These are times when I lose hope of living like other humans.”
However, thanks to a government-backed campaign to raise funds to provide better homes, clean drinking water, sewage systems, schools, hospitals and jobs, things could soon begin to improve for the country’s millions of slum-dwellers.
“We all have this duty of doing whatever we can to improve the living conditions of the residents of these slums,” said Niazi Salam, an Egyptian businessman and one of the advocates of the initiative, known as the One Billion Pound Campaign. “As we rest in air-conditioned rooms in our homes, millions of other countrymen and women suffer in slums that lack the minimum standards for a decent living.”
There are hundreds of slums in Egypt, including 420 “unsafe” ones, according to the National Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, the government’s research arm.
The agency recently tried to survey some of these “unsafe” slums, according to Chairman Abu Bakr Al Guindy, but its research teams were hampered by sewage-filled alleys, the mass of tiny rooms, and a hostile reception from residents.
Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, recently paid a visit to Manshiet Nasser slum where Abdel-Salam lives and works.
“Although Egypt may be in a transitional period, that cannot reduce the urgency of addressing the needs of those struggling to live in dignity and provide for their families,” Shetty said.
In 2008, a rockslide in Manshiet Nasser killed dozens of slum-dwellers and attracted the world’s attention to the pitiful conditions in Egypt’s shanty towns.
During Shetty’s visit, residents recalled the deaths and explained that they felt powerless and neglected.
Amnesty estimates the number of slum residents in Egypt to be 12 million, but accurate figures are almost impossible to obtain because children like Abdel-Salam’s do not have birth certificates or anything to prove they are legally in and of the country.
“A large number of residents in areas like this one do not have any kind of papers,” Abdel-Salam said. “This means that to the state, these people are almost dead.”
The government campaign has so far collected the equivalent of US$17 million, one tenth of its target. It will first target slum-dwellers in the five governorates of Cairo, which account for 47 percent of the nation’s slums, according to Ali Al Faramawy, head of the state-run Slum Development Fund, then move onto Giza, Alexandria, and Minya in the south.
In a separate project, the Egyptian army has promised to build 6,000 housing units within the next six months to enable residents in slums like Manshiet Nasser to move out.
“When we talk about shanty towns, we talk about millions of people who have for years suffered extreme neglect,” said Hussein Gomaa, an independent housing expert. “The project to improve living and housing conditions in these slums will have far-reaching social, political, and economic effects.