polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Sharing Stories of the Urban Poor

by The Age of Zinc

Workers repair electric lines after a fire destroyed hundreds of shacks in Nairobi, Kenya, in March 2011.

Poverty and inequality make for captivating drama. For centuries, novelists, academics, development professionals and others have ventured into the neglected areas of society to tell the stories of the poor and craft solutions for the problems they see. From James Agee to Emile Zola, the plight of the poor has served as the backdrop for many compelling tales. With few exceptions, however, creative representations of poverty tends to remain the purview of outsiders looking in — a perspective that can be called "Dickensian" after the novelist that dramatized divisions between rich and poor in a period of rapid urbanization.

There is an element of professionalism and expertise linked to the work of outsiders who aim to tell the stories of the poor. This is not unlike the professionalized assumptions of those who craft policies and technical approaches for solving the developmental “problems” of the poor. Today, concentration of poverty and exclusion exists most acutely in the growing informal settlements in much of the so-called Global South. Professionals and academics, mostly from the North, flock to these settlements hoping to research and craft solutions. Perhaps they are inspired to do this work by the multitudes of books written by a new generation of journalists and novelists who venture to tell of where “the other half lives.” Many are motivated by sympathy.

The challenges of transcending "Dickensian" narratives parallel the challenges for conceiving of a range of professional practices with respect to urban poverty. Just as it should not be rare for stories of and by the poor to reach a mass audience, the organizational capacities and leadership of the poor should be a central element in decision-making about the interventions that affect their lives. Just as so much "development" work fails because it is done in the name of the poor, as opposed to in partnership with the poor, so too are the creative works of outsiders often fundamentally limited.

A woman rebuilds a shack after residents were evicted in a settlement in Ekurhuleni, South Africa, in October 2009.

We have started a blog to explore how poor people can tell their own stories; it’s called the The Age of Zinc. The name was inspired, ironically, by the work of an outsider, Patrick Chamoiseau, who has penned some of the most inventive representations of urban poverty in the South. His novel "Texaco" dramatizes an interaction between an urban planner sent to raze the eponymous illegal settlement in Fort-de-France, the capital city of Martinique, and the founder of the neighborhood, a woman named Marie-Sophie Laborieux, who has traveled from the countryside to build her life in the city.

The book is ordered around a historical progression of the architectural forms in which Marie-Sophie has lived during her travels: “the Age of Straw,” “the Age of Crate Wood,” “the Age of Asbestos” and “the Age of Concrete.” As the planner talks with Marie-Sophie, he suggests a fundamental shift for how we can understand the role of documenting poverty:
People have only moaned about the insalubrity of Texaco and other such quarters. But I want to listen to what these places have to tell. I hear them spell out the urban poem at a new, disconcerting rhythm which we must decipher and even sing along.
With The Age of Zinc, we are creating a space to listen to these poems and songs. We do this in two ways: First, we construct a visual narrative that tries to move beyond the prevalent “poverty porn” of development literature and journalistic accounts of urban exclusion. The photos that we post are representations of everyday resilience in the face of hardship in the shack settlements of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

A samba band in São Paulo, Brazil, in November 2009.

Secondly, and much more significantly, we have begun publishing, in serialized form, a striking memoir written by a shack dweller from Durban, South Africa. An initial introduction from the author describes his arrival in a certain shack settlement in the city. He then recounts growing up in a rural town as part of a disintegrating interracial family in Apartheid-era South Africa.

The narrative is compelling not because it arouses sympathy; in fact, there is little sense that sympathy is something that the author desires. Rather, this story allows us to gain a sense of closeness and human understanding that is difficult to obtain from even the best depictions of social divides in the novels of Dickens and Chamoiseau.

Dusk falls in an informal settlement in Mumbai, India, in January 2010.

With The Age of Zinc, we are only beginning this journey towards alternative modes of documenting urban poverty. We are, of course, defined by the very same contradictions that we have outlined here. But as we compile more of these original narratives — of and by people who live lives of both harsh exclusion and inspiring resilience — we hope to challenge the fundamental assumptions that impede the work of “urbanists” who seek to provide poverty solutions or represent the lives of the poor. As Chamoiseau’s planner puts it,
On the outskirts, one survives on memory. In the center, all dissolves in the modern world; but here people bring very old roots, not deep and rigid, but diffuse, profuse, spread over time with the lightness of speech.
Our author from Durban, writing of his days in a juvenile reformatory in Cape Town, puts it in a different kind of language. Unsurprisingly, he seems more aware than are professional novelists of just how fraught the politics of representation can become.
I soon started my job of telling stories — half of them false half of them fiction — but all based on real life experiences. I talked about my survival on the streets and in the bush, and I became a hit. Naturally I hung out with the Durban boys but even the Josters (Joburg boys) enjoyed my company. I soon also started something I still do today: listening to other people’s pain and sorrow and extracting that and using it to heal myself and others. I started communicating on behalf of other boys who could not read or write. I still do this to this day.

A resident of Jinja in Uganda demarcates a plot of land in September 2010.

The Age of Zinc is a collaborative journal focused on alternative methods for documenting urban poverty. Its founders have chosen to remain anonymous.

Credits: All photos from The Age of Zinc.

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