News - March 5, 2009


Life in a slum is dominated by the fear of losing everything and everybody that matters to you. When slum dwellers seek contact with people from outside the slums, they do so hoping not just for material benefits but also for recognition as human beings. This is the conclusion of anthropologist Martijn Koster, who spent a year and a half in a slum in Recife, in Brazil.

Koster has not yet seen the Oscar-laden film Slumdog Millionaire, so he can neither confirm nor deny the image of slum life portrayed by the film. But he has experienced for himself what life is like in a slum in the Brazilian city of Recife. He talked to inhabitants and local leaders, as well as to people from outside the slum.

Slum dwellers are stigmatized by the middle classes, and seen as dangerous criminals, and as dirty and lazy. In short, as the antithesis of the civilized world. This comes out, too, in aid programmes for slum dwellers. Such programmes are well-intentioned, but they subtly convey the idea that slum dwellers need to be taught norms and values, says Koster, who is attached to the Rural Development Sociology chair group.

In reality, the inhabitants are not nearly as criminal and dangerous as they are believed to be, he says. They are above all afraid of becoming invisible and of disappearing for ever into the margins of society. That is why they try to establish contacts with people who are better off, people from outside the slum. In doing so, they are not just after material things, but they seek recognition as people.
The bridge between the slum and the outside world is mainly built by local community leaders. Officially, these leaders don’t exist, but unofficially they are seen as a lifesaver for slum dwellers. They establish contacts with civil servants, politicians and others from outside the slum, giving inhabitants access to resources they need as well as a feeling that they are visible.