By Alexactus T. Kaure
One of the striking imprints of poverty in Namibia is eloquently expressed in dwelling homes in both urban and rural areas.
A little more keen tour around the less affluent part of the capital, for example, finds a woefully appalling situation. There has developed a situation of the so-called ‘buite-kamer’ phenomenon. (‘Buite-kamer’ literally translated from Afrikaans means ‘outside room’.)
This is not your typical outside and self-contained flat-let at the back of your house in one of those posh areas of Windhoek, nor are we talking about the so-called ‘informal’ settlements on the outskirts of the capital.
This is a situation where a person approaches someone owning a house and requests the owner for space to “build” a structure in the back yard. The person would simply set up a zinc structure, or worse still, just a shack – usually just one room that will serve as the bedroom, kitchen and sitting room and sometimes the bathroom if there is no outside toilet. Most people actually prefer the old Katutura homes because most have outside toilets and that makes things a little easier.
The CEO of the Windhoek Municipality, Nilo Taapopi, however, says that such structures are illegal. However, he is quick to point out that they cannot stop people from setting them up unless the municipality has an alternative plan in place.
But from the look of things, they do not seem to have one in place. Taapopi says they have a plan to transform the informal settlements into formal ones – but the specifics are also lacking here.
So, the building of the ‘buite-kamer’ continues unabated. Even those landlords without outside toilets allow these types of arrangements where the tenant can still share the inside facility with the owner.
Mind you, this is big business. One such structure can give the owner a cool N$300 per month. So, the more you have in your back yard the better.
Therefore, it is not unusual to find three or even four of these structures huddled together in the most un-hygienic conditions with each of these improvised “houses” accommodating a family of three or even four. Things like space, privacy, security, lighting and proper ventilation are luxuries here.
The national agency tasked with providing housing to middle and low-income groups, the National Housing Enterprise (NHE) says it is hamstrung by the prohibitive prices of land especially in Windhoek, as well as lack of sufficient serviced land. The NHE puts the blame squarely at the doorstep of the Windhoek Municipality.
The CEO at NHE, Vincent Hailulu, says that if you make land cheap then you have more people accessing land and more people means more ratepayers and more ratepayers means a much more expanded revenue base for the municipality.
According to Hailulu, the Windhoek Municipality in particular has been too slow to capture that philosophy. He says other municipalities have been supportive and have made a number of plots available.
The strategy now, according to Hailulu, is for the NHE to service land, divide it and then build the houses itself because many of the small towns do not have enough resources to do so by themselves.
This seems a mammoth task because the NHE is required, under NDP3, to build 8 000 houses in five years. Mind you, the NHE only used to put up, on average, 350 per year, which fell far short of national demand and expectations.
Both Hailulu and Taapopi, however, agree that unlike many other cities around the world, Windhoek does not get a subsidy from the central government and so the residents sustain the city.
And that, partly, explains the high land prices in the city – land then becomes the only main milking cow. However, by doing so, one is squeezing many people out of the system. Recently the Prime Minister, Nahas Angula, warned that most cities are simply making it difficult for the poor to afford land.
And Taapopi seems to agree with that, saying the municipality has to satisfy the needs of the affluent residents who pay their rates and in turn the city would use such revenue to look after the needs of the less affluent by, for example, turning the informal settlements into formal ones.
The NHE boss, however, says Government needs to provide other sources to municipalities in order to make land cheaper or even free.
But in the absence of either cheap or free land, Windhoek and other towns will continue to build more shacks than houses.
And the headache and nightmares for both Hailulu and Taapopi will continue.