A few miles from the centre of Accra is one of the most notorious slums in West Africa. Locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah. Set on the edge of a lagoon, the squalor spills everywhere. The smell of faeces is omnipresent. Discarded plastic bags and rubbish pile up, never to be collected. The river that empties into the lagoon is one disgusting sewer. Mosquitoes come in clouds.
Sodom and Gomorrah has a reputation as a den of thieves and prostitutes. This is a place where few people are safe. As one resident put it: “Sex is nothing here; rape is normal. Few things surprise few people. Sleeping outside in the night is an invitation for a predator to strike. Most of us sleep with tight protective underwear — especially tight worn-out jeans — because you could wake up in the middle of the night to find somebody crawling on you to do his own thing.”
No wonder they looked to that infamous story in Genesis to find a suitable name for this terrifying place. The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, much misused in recent times, is actually one about abuse, violation and the abandonment of hospitality.
When I saw the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, I could not help reflecting on the ease with which the hero found his way out of the slums of Mumbai. Of course, it was a feel-good film, and not supposed to be realistic. And, yes, there were some gruesome moments in the story, too. But the thing about slums that is not captured by the film — apart from the smell — is the sheer desperation. Who would pay to go and see that?
Yet, for me, Sodom and Gomorrah is a black hole of human misery, sucking in everything that comes within its orbit. I want to use words of hope and tell stories of triumphant escape — that is what my faith calls me to say — but they just do not ring true there.
Sodom and Gomorrah is a place of stagnation, where my faith seems at its least convincing. The only form of prayer that seems appropriate — and it is woefully under-used in the Church of England — is lament. No game show will help these people. The United Nations says that a billion people on the planet live like this.
Yet when I feel so despairing about all of this, I need someone to give me a shake. Of course, there is something we can do. We can give money. We can advocate for change and for a more just world. We can tell others and get them involved. My favourite charity is Christian Aid, which works alongside partners on the ground in places like this to make a genuine difference.
Fantasies of easy escape are of no use to those who work for the improvement of Sodom and Gomorrah. Nor indeed are those who throw up their hands in despair. Both are simply varieties of sentimentality and ways of avoiding the tough challenges that have to be met. And avoidance is passing by on the other side of the road.
(c) Giles Fraser is Anglican vicar of Putney, and a widely read writer and commentator on religion and society.
This article is adapted with acknowledgements from Giles' column in the Church Times newspaper.