Few think of slums as places where people have an interest in books, reading or education. Our stereotypes are locked in on the basic human necessities, such as shelter, food, water and sanitation, that everyday life there must revolve around. But in Kibera there is a reverence for education. Here, parents will sacrifice almost anything, even a life in a middle-class home with space, piped water and flush toilets, to send their children to good private schools, pay for extra tuition and buy books.

The above passage is from The Bookseller of Kibera by Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, her contribution to a new book of essays (in e-book format) called Writing Invisibility: Conversations on the Hidden City. Described as a journey into the spaces of the city often bypassed in public debate and public storytelling: the shipyard, the slum, the wall, the marketplace, the church, the mine, the rooms of sex workers and the ownership of public urban spaces, the book (which you can download for free) is the result of a collaboration between African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa.

The chosen writers and journalists (eight in all, from South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya and the United States) attempt to cover the subject of “The invisible city” and those who live in it. The writers were given the space to really explore the subject at length and the resulting essays are rich with detail and nuance, thought-provoking and a challenge to preconceptions.

We hear terms like “invisible city” or “invisible lives” and we think of poverty, of illegal immigrants and other disadvantaged groups hustling to survive in the informal sector, but as is pointed out in the introduction, “invisibility” is not the same as marginality, poverty or vulnerability, though it overlaps with them. As such, though the three-dimensional cast of characters we meet in the essay-like stories are not materially well off, this is not what defines them. For instance, the story of Khaleb Omondi, aka The Bookseller of Kibera, is as much about one man’s love of books and the economics of running a successful business in an unexpected location as it is about upward mobility and the pragmatism necessary to continue doing business with customers who were among the looters responsible for destroying the bookseller’s original shop during the post-election violence that shook the nation in 2008. Khaleb’s response to Caroline’s question about the latter: “Ni watu tu, they are just people. I am a business man, and they are also my customers.”

Writing Invisibility includes responses by academics to each essay, and Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University, notes in hers that often, when journalists write about slums and the people who happen to inhabit them, there is a tendency to exaggerate and sensationalise, and ‘focus on crisis, poverty and squalor, and on the ever-rising numbers.’  Caroline’s essay offers a refreshing change from all that.

In Migrant Nigerian sex workers and feminism, the award-winning novelist Chika Unigwe (author of the novel On Black Sisters Street) examines her own preconceived ideas about prostitutes as victims and the role of poverty in the transatlantic sex trade, and argues for the recognition of sex workers as feminists.

Writes Chika: I was also of the view that sex workers, by default, were unwilling, powerless, passive victims of a male-dominated society. I was certainly convinced, having been conditioned to be so, that every Nigerian sex worker in Europe was literally a poor woman who had been tricked into making the trip by a callous male pimp who then held her hostage. Then those strange squirrels began appearing, skipping through my preconceived notions and knocking them down, one after the other.

Chika continues: …why is there such strong opposition to expanding feminism to include sex workers? One reason, I suppose, is because we very often consider these women to be without will. They are passive victims of oppression. How could anyone imagine that they could be powerful enough to be feminist if the only image of them we are fed, from the media to literature, is of passive, powerless victims locked into a system of oppression? Tellingly, prostitution, especially where it involves African women migrating, is referred to as slavery. The women are depicted as having no agency and as only being able to be free when an outside force intervenes.

And: Poverty, despite what a Unesco report says, is not the sole driving force of this trade. It is a factor, but not as huge a factor as I had believed. Many of the women I spoke to were not working in order to be able to eat three times a day. The motivation was stronger than that. Roegler’s work follows four Nigerian ex-commercial sex workers from Benin City who have been deported from Italy. Even though all the women cite “wanting a better life” as their prime motivation for being voluntarily trafficked, all but one links the “better life” to escaping poverty. Their “better life” has a feminist ideal to it: independence. Far from being passive victims, many of these women are risk takers.

Referring to a couple of the sex workers she spoke to for her essay (and for the writing of her novel), Chika ends by asking: Is there no room in feminism for women like M? Like Felicia? She is financially independent, refuses to be subdued by men (and patriarchy), gives other women a chance to be independent, and looks after her family and more. She is making sure that her siblings get an education, the same education that eluded her, so that they have more options open to them on their road to empowerment. It is precisely the lack of viable options that makes this brand of migration, even with its attendant horrors, attractive to many young Nigerian women.

Sometimes these women have access to other options that could keep them out of poverty but would not pay them as much as servicing the sex trade. What one sometimes hears is: “Why would I work as a cleaner for 6 euros an hour when I can earn 100 in that amount of time as a prostitute?” Yet 6 euros an hour is more than the average Nigerian earns in Nigeria, but then their dreams, like Felicia’s, extend beyond satisfying hunger. They are all aiming for independence, the kind of financial independence that is empowering, that makes it possible for them to transcend their gender by taking on roles culturally reserved for the male.

In a few deft lines in ‘I get money, now I get trouble’: Tanzanian women in Durban, Emily Margaretten vividly captures the way private businesses like the hair salons run my Tanzanian women in Durban operate almost like semi-public spaces:

Kombi drivers enter to charge their cellphones. Panelbeaters take it a step further and lay down extension cords, drawing electricity from overloaded outlets when theirs fail. A homeless man waits patiently to collect glass bottles from the dustbin. Representatives of burial societies make their rounds. A woman runs into the salon and heads to the back. She begs Paulina to push the sink to the side, exposing a drain age hole. She lowers herself in relief; her kanga collects around her legs. More women follow, taking turns to stand in front of each other, blocking the view of pedestrians looking in.

A client gets a perm at a hair salon run by Tanzanian migrant women (Photograph by Oupa Nkosi).
A client gets a perm at a hair salon run by Tanzanian migrant women (Photograph by Oupa Nkosi).

The essay is about patterns of urban survival among Tanzanians in the Durban Point area, and Emily describes how new Tanzanian immigrants in South Africa begin their ascent of the economic ladder, and explains what happened in Tanzania in the 1980s to restart the migration trend to South Africa after Nyerere had withdrawn most of the previous Tanzanian migrants in the 1960s. She also explains why some salon owners deliberately keep their operation small, and the opportunity cost of expanding your business: your growing wealth can draw resentment from those closest to you, so if you choose to expand your business in visible ways, best not to have real friends but treat your customers as friends.

The xenophobic attacks on immigrants from elsewhere in Africa was frontage news across the world in 2008, and Emily touches on the the legacy of that eruption of violence: “Shanuo baya pale linapokuchoma.” [A comb becomes bad when it burns (hurts) you.] Paulina presents me with this proverb when she pulls too hard while plaiting the hair of a friend. Wincing, the friend recognises the proverb and calls out: “I’ll remember this [the pain]!” Although the friend is joking, the proverb draws attention to the intricacies of maintaining good social relationships in South Africa. As Paulina explains, the comb is useful until it pulls too hard, upon which it becomes an object of hate. Similarly, the slightest mistake or provocation can hurt an otherwise amicable relationship. These mistakes often occur between people who are in contact with one another every day — friends, family members and lovers. As with the comb, they are brought into a network of physical and emotional connections that provides opportunities for support but also for abuse and pain. Thus Paulina tends not to worry excessively about the threats of strangers, for she keeps them at a distance.

Other stories in this interesting collection include SpaceWarz in Cape Town, by Taryn Jeanie Mackay, about skateboarders and graffiti artists in the area known as District Six, and how the current legislative position in Cape Town is effectively criminalising ways of life to which many young citizens have gravitated in pursuit of a self-sufficient, creative life of meaning; It should have been Little india, by Jackee Budesta Batanda, about how one Moroccan immigrant, Abdeslam Ahmed Habiballah (who arrived in South Africa with $20,000 to invest and was promptly robbed of it all), managed, with the help of other immigrants, to turn an empty Durban square into a vibrant flea market, the Fordsburg Square Oriental Flea Market; and Prophets of the City, by Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, about immigrant alternative healers in Johannesburg and why they are popular with other immigrants: “Jo’burg has many challenges of job,” explains one such healer, “People need luck to get jobs. That’s why there are many false prophets … When we’re in Jo’burg we are all foreigners.”

For a while, people worried that long-form journalism was going to die as our tendency for bite-sized snacking on the internet threatened to shrink our attention spans. But the opposite happened, with some magazines and newspapers (like the New York Times) actually expanding their long-form coverage. Thinking about all the other subjects that could benefit from the long-form treatment, you finish your reading of this collection of essays hoping that this collaboration is not just a one-off, or at least that this one encourages other universities and newspapers in other African countries consider doing something similar.