May discrimination and urban exclusion pass through words and language?
How many terms, at first sight neutral, are discriminatory?
Everyone has heard about favelas, a term born in Brazil and entered, like the French word bidonville, in the common language in every part of the world to indicate a shanty town.
The origin of the word, however, has nothing to do with the urban environment or poverty: the favela is a nice white-flowered shrub in some South American regions and has taken on the current meaning because one of the first spontaneous settlements in Rio de Janeiro was built on a hill called “Morro da Favela“.
The word slum itself in the nineteenth-century London slang it simply meant “space“, while bidonville (city of bins) was designed by a French doctor to describe a district of Tunis.
These are the most used words to indicate urban informality but there are hundreds of synonyms in all the languages of the world.
We know for example that in Peru slums are called Tugurios, in Argentina Villas miserias, in East Africa Mabanda, while in Cairo Aashwa’i, an abstract term that in Arabic is halfway between randomness and confusion.
In each of the millionaire Asian cities there is a different way to indicate the slums: in Hindi we will hear about Jihuggi (hovels), in Karachi about Katchi Abadis (shack) and so on.
The fantasy prize probably goes to Istanbul, where the abusive settlements are called gegekondu which means “built in one night”, referring to an ancient law which allowed to officially recognize the houses built overnight.
All these words are generic, they do not indicate a settlement as much as a condition of poverty, confusion, the absence of rules; very often they are invented and used with disdain by the residents of the “high” neighborhoods to mark a difference, to feel part of the “good” city.
Sometimes the political power uses certain names to convey a negative view of some neighborhoods and facilitate evictions: this is the case of the Old Fadama slum in Accra, renamed by some media Sodom and Gomorrah, a name usually used from members of the government interested in the destruction of the settlement.
Can cities, neighborhoods or simply inhabited places remain nameless?
If they are living places, they will necessarily have a name.
Each slum, from the settlement with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants to the tiny group of a few newly built shacks has therefore a name.
In some cases they arise on areas already known and maintain the place names, most of the time, however, they are built on uninhabited areas, landfills, plots torn from the sea or swamps, lands forgotten by God and by men.
In these situations there is a surprising flourish of imaginative, angry, desperate or ironic names. Many toponyms refer to the physical characteristics of settlements, such as the Korogocho slum in Nairobi which means confusion, or to construction materials such as the Nylon neighborhoods in Douala or Carton in Khartoum.
The famous “City of the Dead” of Cairo, one of the largest slums on the planet, has this name because its residents have occupied the city’s ancient cemetery turning it into a unique neighborhood where shacks are side by side with ancient mausoleums.
Then there are names that are inextricably linked to politics, as the struggles for independence or against apartheid.
Many districts born all over Africa in the 1980s were called Soweto, in honour of the famous South African banlieue, while the myth of Bob Marley led to the flowering of dozens of settlements called Jamaica or Kingston.
In Namibia the township in which thousands of people were forcibly deported during Apartheid was called Katutura: “the place where no one would want to live”, in Luanda a neighborhood built during the civil conflict of the ’90s was called “Sarajevo“.
Sometimes the name chosen highlights the extraordinary self-irony of the residents: if the whole city points to informality focusing on poverty and chaos then the name chosen may be deliberately unsettling: Ajegunle, slum of Lagos, in Yoruba language sounds like “place of wealthy “, while the “Paradise” suburbs are dozens in all of Africa, finally the “city of God “of Rio de Janeiro has been made famous by a wonderful movie by Fernando Meirelles.
In some slums the religion or the bible inspires toponyms: in Nairobi we can get lost in the streets of Zion, dozens of Bethlehem are spread in South American or African metropolises.
The great tragedies of history have taught that taking away people’s names is the most effective way to dehumanize them.
To deny a name to a place where a community lives or to use generic and derogatory words, is an act of disintegration and exclusion.
On the contrary, discovering and using toponyms that the communities have chosen for their neighborhoods is an implicit way of giving back dignity to many residents who contribute every day to make the panorama of our cities lively, human and innovative.
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TaxiBrousse is a design and consultancy studio for international development, we works in the fields of engineering, architecture, urban planning and environmental protection.