“Sure it’s got no natural light, but the water supply is good, and look, you even have your own toilet!”
A potential landlady was showing us a room that was available for rent. We had just moved back to India from Australia and were getting back into our old roles doing community development in a slum. We’d deliberately chosen to live in the slum, so as to be near to our neighbours and understand their problems. We were also welcoming another housemate soon and needed more space, so we were looking for a new place to rent.
We’ve done this style of thing – living in slums – for a couple of decades, moving house many times in the process. As we’ve done so, my wife Ruby and I have developed a clear sense of what’s important in our accommodation as well as the factors on which we can compromise.
The room we were now being shown, as the landlady pointed out, had the advantage of having its very own toilet. This is not something to be taken for granted and is indeed a big selling point in a slum. Many rental places here don’t have their own toilet, renters instead needing to share between several families. That can make life pretty tough, especially in the morning ‘rush hour.’ (In one of our previous rentals, there was one toilet for 13 people!)
Independent toilet notwithstanding, for us, the lack of natural light was something on which we weren’t prepared to compromise. We’ve found over the years that having natural light is important to our emotional health. Perhaps it gives us a connection of sorts with the natural world outside the brick and concrete that characterises so many Asian cities. If we’re lucky, the natural light may also offer a glimpse of a tree or even a bird, which is helpful for our feeling of well-being and for our connection to God.
After natural light, perhaps the next most important factor on our wish-list is not being on the ground floor. Many people in south Asia actually see the ground floor as an advantage, being as it is cooler in the punishing South Asian summers. The storeys above do indeed keep the sun off the ground floor.
However, a major disadvantage of the lowest level for us is the lack of privacy. As foreigners, we tend to attract quite a bit of attention, so people will readily poke their head inside a ground floor room or have a good look through the windows just to ‘view’ us. When you like a little privacy, as I do, that’s not fun. We find that a 2nd (or 3rd) floor place offers enough disincentive (needing to walk up the steps) that it keeps the number of ‘casual observers’ down. Those upper floors are also obviously better for natural light.
After natural light and being off the ground floor, a reliable water supply and an independent toilet/bathing area are perhaps our next most important factors. While in the West we take our own water supply for granted, for millions in the developing world, it is a daily drama needing to line up at public taps and then haul the precious commodity home in buckets. In middle class neighbourhoods with multi-storey apartments, often the water pressure is not sufficient to get the water to upper levels, necessitating a pump to get the water to a storage tank on the roof. We’ve recently had such a pump installed at our place which has saved us many trips hauling water up the stairs.
Then there’s the toilet/bathing area – the feature our potential new landlady was pointing out as the big selling point of that room. While many of our local friends share a ‘common’ toilet and bathing area with other tenants, this level of sharing is beyond most of us as foreigners, liking as we do to have access to ‘the facilities’ when we want, and allowing us to perhaps keep it a little cleaner than other users.
Finally, we consider the particular area of the neighbourhood where the potential apartment is located – preferably being away from the nosiest parts, and thus being a little more peaceful. Access to a park for extra green space is a bonus.
Interestingly, as I look at my wish-list, one factor is conspicuous by its absence – the actual rent. With most places in our poor neighbourhood being affordable to us, my not having the rent on my list is a stark reminder of the incredible privilege I have of being able to choose a place on the basis of ‘luxuries’ like light, water, and a bathing area.
After considering all of these factors, we decided not to take the ‘toilet’ room, but instead to advance several months’ rent to our current landlord to build another smaller room atop our existing one, leaving that room to our new teammate. Being top storey, the new room, while small, has great natural light, is two levels away from inquisitive eyes, and even gives us a view of some trees beyond our slum! Together with the addition of the water pump and being in a relatively quiet area, our new room actually satisfies most of our slum home wish-list!
Everyone’s context is different: some of us are in crowded slums, some in sprawling suburban settlements, some in rural areas with few facilities but lots of greenery. And within those contexts, we all have unique personalities, leading to different preferences in our accommodation. Some of us need natural light, whereas others just need a decent water supply and our own bathroom. Some need lots of connection with neighbours, whereas others need more personal space.
In whatever context you find yourself, and whatever your personality, I hope and pray your home satisfies the most important features of your wish list, and that you (and I) have the grace to accept the imperfections of our surroundings, whatever they are.
Jacob and his wife Ruby (names changed) have lived and worked in the slums of India with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor for almost two decades. There they seek to understand the difficulties their neighbours face, partly by experiencing those difficulties themselves. Those choices have led Jacob, Ruby, and now adult son Joseph, to respond in a variety of ways – ranging from assisting neighbours to access government identity documentation, pensions and hospital care, to helping challenge an eviction for an entire slum.