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A snapshot of Sikoroni – Rights, development and NGO intervention

June 4, 2011

Sikoroni is, in many ways, picturesque. My favourite part of the day is walking down the hill from the office back towards Bamako – you can’t help but be struck by the immense colour – the roads of bright red soil, the orange, crumbling buildings, the green, blue and yellow water containers waiting to be filled, the pieces of bright clothing strung out to be dried, all framed by rocky outcrops of Sikornoni’s hills.

Sikoroni is however technically a ‘slum’. I don’t like the word ‘slum’ – too dehumanising, too many associations. People don’t think of the vibrancy, the colour, and the people who live there, but of the lack of services, the poverty, maybe even the crime. I often wonder if you didn’t tell people that it was a ‘slum’ area if their first impressions would be different – how much of what you see is already coloured by preconceived ideas?

The colour that I love so much however does serve to mask the many difficult realities of daily life, the reasons why the neighbourhood has in fact been categorised as a slum. The colourful containers waiting to be filled in fact represent the huge burden of water collection that fill each woman’s everyday life. The crumbling walls, vulnerable homes, not built to last. The bright red roads, the difficulty of transport access.

93% of Mali’s urban population in fact live in slums (UN Habitat) – areas categorised by a lack of safe, accessible water sources and sanitation facilities, secure tenure and durable housing.  As is typical of many slum areas, many residents originally migrated here from rural areas, ended up staying, and built temporary housing on land that they don’t own. Pressures on land continue – hike up to the top of the hills and you will see small plots already marked out with stones and chalk, ready for houses to be built on top of them.

The informal, and illegal, nature of settlements in the neighbourhood however also means that traditionally Sikoroni has lacked government services. ‘Slum deadlock’ arose out of a situation where residents refused to pay taxes because they were not receiving any services, and the government refused to provide services because they were not receiving any taxes. In reality this means that it was only a few years ago that public water taps were provided on the main routes. A minority of lucky households have access to a well for water, however for most days are spent collecting water from one of the public taps, or, when water shortages are experienced in the dry season, waiting for their share of water from one of the large tankers that makes its way up the hill each week. Others pay boys to cart tanks of water up the rocky hills to their house, but at up to 200 CFA a container (30p), this can represent a large chunk of your daily income.

It was only a few years ago that the main road became passable by vehicles, and in particular sotramas – the most common form of public transport in Bamako. The rocky cliff side roads, normally an everyday annoyance and difficulty, can however become something more dangerous in the case of medical emergencies and childbirth, when the nearest clinic is 4km away. Each morning, at 8am, these streets become filled with men, all walking in one direction – out of Sikoroni, and towards the economic opportunities that the rest of Bamako promises.

Sikorono is, in these senses a typical slum case study – an example of how a portion of a growing city is marginalised in terms of services, economic opportunities, and rights. And it is the latter that holds the key for the neighbourhood. The word ‘slum’, being in my mind in some ways dehumanising, easily glosses over the importance of those that live there in mobilising to claim their rights to improve the conditions in which they live.

Slums are areas in which the development and human rights discourses easily merge – a case of where the development needs, in terms of water, roads and health, are huge, but also where there is clear scope for residents to advocate to the government that the neighbourhood receives the services that other parts of the city does. In less than half an hour each morning I travel from a comfortable, but by no means exclusive, neighbourhood in which running water, good sanitation and access to health services are taken for granted, to one in which this is very much not the case.

‘Mobilisation’ for rights however, a nice word thrown around proposal documents, is a little trickier in practise. In theory such mobilisation should be ‘community driven’, actions designed, planned and organised by community members, according to ‘their’ priorities. Such mobilisation is difficult enough in a small rural village of several hundred with the challenges of competing interests, personal agendas, mixed education levels, lets not start on the marginalisation of women, let alone in a sprawling neighbourhood of 60,000-100,000.

As a foreign NGO it is particularly hard then to negotiate both the complexity of the area and your place as an external agent attempting to facilitate change. I had long been suspicious of foreign small charity start-ups; the potential for repeating what others are already doing, of making promising that can not be kept, a lack of expertise, and dangers of short-termism in their very existence. The Mali Health Organising Project however, admittedly falling under the heading of foreign start up, found its niche in Sikoroni, and is currently walking along a tightrope bridging the gaps between development assistance and supporting local rights mobilisation.

The development assistance comes in the form of the programme Action For Health, and a community clinic. The Community Health Center of Sikoro-Sourakabougou serves 35,000 people in under-serviced neighbourhoods of Sikoroni. Plans for the clinic had originally been approved by the government over 25 years ago, however it only opened its doors in 2010 after MHOP supported the community in securing government involvement, in addition to community member’s own contribution of $1,000. Similarly, in an attempt to address the needless high infant mortality rates within the neighbourhood, Action For Health trains members of the community to become health workers, each mentoring mothers and children; monitoring the child’s health, providing education on key health topics, such as how to prevent and treat diarrhea , and ensuring that a child receives medical care when necessary; a simple, yet remarkably effective system to prevent up to 91% of child deaths.

The ‘action’ in Action For Health, comes in the form of replacing tradition user fees for medical care, with Action for Heath family participation in community events, such as trash clean up days. Taking things one step further, MHOP is currently training selected community representatives in project and ‘action’ research, planning and evaluation, supporting the representatives, as well as already established local associations, to address the lack of key services and other issues in the community.

Finally, the radio programme Radio Sigida Joli hosts interactive programmes on key health and governance topics, from hygiene promotion to voting in the local elections. The radio programmes provides a rare space and opportunity for government officials and local residents to interact on issues that concern them. When a former mayor attempted to sell the public land on which the community clinic was being built for private gain, a public debate on the Radio pressurised the mayor to back down, leading to building work continuing.

It would be tempting to say that each programme is completely community driven – each programme has its heart the participation of representatives from different areas of Sikoroni, who are heavily involved in design and leadership, and who receive regular training and support in this process. Genuine participation however is a long, slow process that requires many ‘nudges’ and guidance from partners, with potential for clashes along the way. With both foreign and local NGOs there is always the risk that this guidance steps over a line and those driving the process change places. As an NGO it can be very difficult to know yourself which side of the line you fall on. Similarly, it can be difficult to know where advocating for rights from the government should stop, and community and NGO action on key development issues should begin; when to push and when to give, when to start building or providing a service, and when to wait.  Sikoroni and the Mali Health Organising Project however provide an interesting evolving case study in this relationship and balancing act, and what it can result in.

For more information on the Mali Health Organising Project please see


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