Having Tea in a Casablanca Slum
By: Kimberly Sutherland
“Casablanca is a city of glaring social inequalities, where the rich live alongside the poor. It is a city of both high-rise towers and slums. It is a financial and business center as well as a center of misery, unemployment and so on.”
(King Mohammed VI, Oct. 11, 2013)
What King Mohammed meant became very clear to me and my Executive Masters of Natural Resources (XMNR) classmates while visiting Casablanca for our international residency in January 2015. We stayed at a hotel in Casablanca’s vibrant city center, not too far away from where hundreds of thousands of Moroccans are living in urban slums. I was overwhelmed from our first week in Morocco, so when a visit to a slum in the Sidi Moumen district of Casablanca was sprung on us, I was hesitant. I am glad we went though, as the experience turned out to be eye opening and well worth the time. It drove home the extreme complexity of social and urban development that results from rapid rural to urban migration in developing countries.
Mr. Boubker Mazoz founded the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center in 2007, and took us on a tour of a local clinic as well as one of the remaining shantytowns in the area near the cultural center. The tour felt rather controlled as we were led into one of the makeshift homes to meet a local family. I say controlled because Mr. Mazoz and his security guard strategically kept us from speaking freely with our hosts about their living circumstances. I believe he is very proud of the people in this neighborhood and wanted our group to leave with only positive impressions. The family graciously served us Moroccan tea and freshly made bread, and bid us each farewell with a kiss on both cheeks when our visit came to a close.
The home itself consisted of barely three rooms with a low corrugated metal roof, one small window, and no plumbing. What surprised me most was the satellite television in their family room, thanks to electricity wired from the adjacent building. Right next door was a relatively new apartment complex that was built under the social housing initiatives of the Moroccan government that began in 2004.
In May 2003, social unrest in Sidi Moumen led to suicide bombings in downtown Casablanca, killing more than 45 people. All of the bombers came from a Sidi Moumen slum. The government reacted by starting a program called Cities Without Slums in 2004, which resulted in Sidi Moumen being transformed into what appears to be a flourishing community, now connected to downtown Casablanca by a tramway completed in 2012.
Although the Cities Without Slums program has created extensive subsidized housing in the area, consisting of apartment buildings and some four-story multi-family homes, approximately 25 percent of the original informal settlements remain and many services and infrastructure are still lacking. According to Sawaid, a local NGO in Sidi Moumen, the community suffers from four main interconnected problems: analphabetism, poverty, unemployment and lack of infrastructure.
As we walked through the slum and then the newly built housing, I wondered whether the inhabitants were happier and felt they were better off in the new apartments. Unfortunately, we did not tour any of the apartment buildings, nor did we have a chance to discuss this topic with any of the residents; but based on a report from the Urban Revitalization of Mass Housing International Competition, many inhabitants still do not want to leave the slums to go live in the newly built social housing.
Mr. Mazoz also identified this issue during our tour. When they move to the new housing units, they leave the simple, individual habitats they or their fathers and grandfathers built, for a dwelling that someone else has created that may or may not suit their needs. The apartments tend to get overcrowded with extended family members and do not offer space for animals such as mules and chickens. Additionally, if the new housing is not close to the families’ original homes, their social network and support system is disrupted.
Another concern that was evident to me is sustainability of the new housing developments. Can the new owners keep up with repairs? Do they know how? Fellow students and faculty cited examples in India where the worst slums were not informal settlements, but rather dilapidated government housing. It left me unconvinced that forcing people to live in westernized apartment buildings is the answer to the eradication of slums in Casablanca.
Although my description of our visit to Sidi Moumen does sound a bit skeptical, I left the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center with some hope for the area and its people. The center’s mission and activities are producing new leaders for the community, and I believe these leaders will be able to voice the real needs of the inhabitants of Sidi Moumen. Successful urban development in this area will only happen through inclusion of these voices in the ongoing planning and implementation processes.