location:  Cambodia • kenya

“We just live there because we don’t have an alternative” 

When the ever-faithful monsoon season brings the rain, the dirt and litter congeal and form an unavoidable carpet of sludge. We drove through Cambodia along overgrown train tracks to a building that was barely that; four walls were now two with exposed beams holding up its steep roof. Yet a community lived here. Here, where sheets of dulled fabric hung from tangles of string and wire. The fortunate used wooden crates and planks to raise their home off the soaked ground. A stray dog sleepily walked, a few people sat silently on the edge of a track and the occasional naked child wandered by.

This train station in Battambang, Cambodia has been unused since the fall of the Khmer Rouge. It is the temporary dwelling of families who warily enjoy the shelter knowing they will soon be uprooted and moved on by the authorities. This happens within months, weeks or days. In an attempt to improve Battambang for the sake of tourism, the Sangkae River that winds through the province has been cleared of dwellers, meaning that the community was in need of another place to call home. Sometimes their possessions are gathered and burned when their dwelling is discovered as they are told to move on. The children raised in this lifestyle of instability are often unable to attend a school because soon they won’t live close by. These environments tend to be high-risk, exposing the families to sickness and disease/HIV, as well as to violence and abuse. 

The train station community in Battambang was just one of the examples we came across of land issues leading to displacement and perpetuated poverty. There are many others.  

Kibera slum is Africa's largest urban slum and is considered one of the largest slums in the world, nestled in the heart of Nairobi, Kenya. Whilst 10% of the people of Kibera are shack owners, the Government owns all of the land upon which the shantytown stands. Despite this, the Kenyan Government does not officially acknowledge the settlement, and this means that no basic services, such as schools, clinics, running water or lavatories are publicly provided. Because those that live in Kibera own no rights to their land, they have no security that their home won’t be destroyed if the government chooses to reclaim the land on a whim. We have heard stories of this happening not only in Kibera, but also in other slums in Nairobi as well as around the world. Land reclaimed for building a new road or a new structure is often accompanied with false assurances of alternative housing provided – promises that are never fulfilled.

We have met many people who pay regular rent for their slum property. The catch is that there is no accompanying paperwork and therefore no evidence that they have rights to stay on this land. For both the Cambodia community and those in Kibera, the threat of being moved on, or of their home being destroyed, looms.