Five more people have died in the wake of the oil leak inferno that burned through the Sinai squatter community in Nairobi. The disaster is mind-boggling and awful. But it has left me wondering about a simple but little remarked fact: As the picture of Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga touring the community shows, Sinai was built mostly of corrugated metal--a cheap and incredibly time- and labor-saving building material. A stick frame and some rolls of steel and a community can be created in minutes. Older squatter communities -- Kibera, for instance -- feature homes built mostly from mud, which must be dug, and mixed with water to the right consistency, and built up by someone who knows what they are doing. Mud is a better insulator--keeping homes warm during cool seasons and cool during warm times. Steel, by contrast, conducts the heat--and metal homes often become overheated in sunny weather. I'm wondering if a community made from mud or brick would have fared better in warding off the flames, and how many of the burn injuries were from the flames and how many were inflicted as people attempted to flee their superheated sheetmetal houses.
I spent most of the past four years hanging out with street hawkers, smugglers, and sub-rosa import/export firms to write Stealth of Nations, a book that chronicles the global growth of System D--the parallel economic arena that today accounts for half the jobs on the planet.
Prior to that, I lived in squatter communities across four continents to write Shadow Cities, a book that attempts to humanize these vibrant, energetic, and horribly misunderstood communities.
My articles on cities, politics, and economic issues have appeared in many publications, including Harper's, Scientific American, Forbes, Fortune, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Metropolis, and City Limits. Before becoming a reporter, I worked as a community organizer and studied philosophy. I live in New York City and do most of my writing on manual typewriters.