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The African City

“Even at their best, African cities seemed to me miserable improvised anthills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisers of cruel scams. Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves […] I swore that I would never return to the stinking buses, the city streets reeking of piss, the lying politicians, the schemers, the twaddlers, the crooks, the moneychangers taking advantage of weak currency and gullible people, the American God-botherers and evangelists demanding baptisms and screaming “Sinners!” – and forty years of virtue-industry CEOs faffing around with other people’s money and getting no results, except Africans asking for more […] Perhaps that was why I liked rural Africa so much and avoided towns, because in villages I saw self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture. In the towns and cities, not the villages, I felt the full weight of all the broken promises and thwarted hope and cynicism.”

– Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

“Throughout the world, urbanization, with all of its promises, has drawn people by the millions into squalor.”

– Wade Davis, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

“Cities that barely deserve the name have spawned plagues of poverty on a scale never known in earlier times, or even dreamed of.”

 – Basil Davidson, The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State

“We live in the age of the city. The city is everything to us – it consumes us, and for that reason we glorify it.”

– Onookome Okome, Under Seize: Four African Cities – Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos

Curse the African city! Curse these rank monsters, shrines to everything obscene about “modernity.” Curse the crime, corruption, consumerism, elitism, inequality, ostentation, rapacity, ruthlessness, xenophobia, and Westernization. Curse the homophobic bible-pounders, murderous drivers, incompetent bureaucrats, and overpaid foreign “advisors.” Curse the traffic jams, gaudy architecture, low wages, high rents, and never-ending power cuts. Curse the complete destruction of traditional nomadic and pastoral lifestyles. Curse these graveyards of culture.

Yes, I generalize, for generalization is necessary when writing on broad themes. Yet one cannot deny that large sub Saharan African cities generally share many traits in common. These “sick, monstrous cities,” as Ryszard Kapuściński called them, are at the heart of so many of Africa’s problems. To me they seem like dystopian versions of the Western cities they’re attempting to ape, Manhattan-manqués. They are Gotham Cities without Batman. What a stark contrast they provide to the magnificent African countryside and the gracious, crime-free villages.

Droves of villagers flock to bursting cities in search of a better life, but they seldom find one. Many of the poor, rootless men are then often recruited by warlords to join their militias. Idi Amin and Samuel Doe both came from the ranks of the urban poor. Women often turn to prostitution, an often hazardous occupation.

So many of the working poor, constituting the majority of people in most sub Saharan cities, have been denuded of their sense of rural propriety, the ancient customs dictating how to treat a fellow human being, formed over centuries and millennia to foster social cohesion. It has so often been deposed by a sort of brutishness, indifference, and impunity.

Kapuściński called this race to the cities “Africa’s biggest problem.”

“[There are] tens of millions who have abandoned the countryside and migrated to the monstrously swollen cities without securing adequate housing or employment. In Uganda they are called bayaye. You will notice them at once, because it is they who form the street crowds, so different from ones in Europe. In Europe, the man on the street is usually heading toward a definite goal. The crowd has a direction and a rhythm, which is frequently characterized by haste. In an African city, only some of the people behave this way. The others are not going anywhere: they have nowhere to go, and no reason to go there. They drift this way and that, sit in the shade, stare, nap. They have nothing to do. No one is expecting them. Most often, they are hungry. The slightest street spectacle — a quarrel, a fight, the apprehension of a thief — will instantly draw large numbers of them. For they are everywhere around here, idle, awaiting who knows what, living who knows how — the gapers of the world.

The principal characteristic of their stance is rootlessness. They will not return to the countryside, and there is no place for them in the city. They endure. Somehow, they exist. Somehow: that is how best to describe their situation, its fragility, its uncertainty. Somehow one lives, somehow one sleeps, somehow, from time to time, one eats. This unreality and impermanence of existence cause the bayaye to feel himself in continuous danger, and so he is increasingly tormented by fear. His fear is amplified by his condition as a stranger, an unwanted immigrant from another culture, religion, language. A foreign, extraneous competitor for the contents of the cooking pot, which is empty anyway, and for work, of which there isn’t any.”

During the latter half of the twentieth century, health improvements caused populations throughout Africa to erupt. The continent’s population tripled from 1950 to 1980. Never-ending waves of migrants doubled the size of cities every ten years. Between 1980 and 2010, the proportion of urban Africans rose from 28 to 40 per cent, overwhelming public services. Urban growth rates are almost double the world average, at nearly four per cent. Dhaka, Kinshasa, and Lagos are now approximately forty times larger than they were in 1950.

In 1945, there were a mere 24 towns with more than 100,000 people in sub Saharan Africa. Most people living in these filthy urban abysses lived in crowded slums with no running water, basic sanitation, paved roads, or electricity (villages also lacked these amenities, but they weren’t needed, since rural areas weren’t suffering the scourges of overpopulation and pollution). These new urban dwellers’ homes were made of tin, sheets of plastic, and cardboard. Ethnic rivalry and tribalism became a significant problem in these new cities. Unemployment was a constant menace. By 2030, the UN predicts half of Africa’s population, 760 million people, will live in already-overflowing towns and cities, which is double the current number. Local governments do little to manage this uncontrolled urbanisation and often don’t formally recognise slums, which aren’t provided with public services such as electricity, sewerage systems, or waste management. Hundreds of millions of Africans live in these miserable shantytowns, which are growing at twice the rate of the cities themselves.

It seems to me that crime and development go hand in hand in urban Africa. Kigali and Addis Ababa are quite undeveloped, and two of the safest cities below the Sahara. Kigali’s beauty lies in how comparatively undeveloped it is, its skyline as yet relatively untarnished with soulless office towers. It’s a clean and safe city. Crime in Addis seems to be going up as it develops. Nairobi, the perverse ideal of African cities, after which so many strive to model themselves, strikes me as a simmering cesspool of depravity. Cape Town and Johannesburg are also highly developed and festering with violent crime. Dar Es Salaam is more developed and crime-ridden than Addis or Kigali, yet not as developed or dangerous as Nairobi, Cape Town, or Johannesburg. Are these really just coincidences, or is there something going horribly wrong with urban development in Africa? Some say these are inevitable outcomes during the course of development, but perhaps the form the development is taking is problematic?

Urban planners seem to be desperately trying to recreate their own versions of Dubai. That city is itself a dubious example to follow, a monument to excess, inequality, and cultural destruction. “This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Dubai is a living metal metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history,” writes one commentator at The Independent.

These new urban plans usually involve little or no public consultation and exclude local architects. New developments are commercially-driven, and targeted at middle and upper income level residents who already have homes. Urban development seems more geared towards trying to impress foreign investors by trying to resemble Dubai, Shanghai, or Singapore, rather than serving their residents in the best way possible.

Tower block complexes are often described as “self-contained,” emphasizing their isolation from the unwashed masses. They amount to nothing more than giant gated communities. They’re also often built on pre-existing slums, resulting in countless forced evictions.

Vanessa Watson, an African urban planning expert at the University of Cape Town, recently wrote a scathing critique of these new urban designs, especially in regards to their exacerbation of inequality.

“With the majority of urban populations living in deep poverty and with minimal urban services, the most likely outcome of these fantasy plans is a steady worsening of the marginalization and inequalities that already beset these cities,” she writes. “The spatial separation of rich and poor that these new urban fantasies will entrench opens up the prospect of urban spatial and social inequalities at an unprecedented scale. At the same time, the hope that these new cities and developments will be “self-contained” and able to insulate themselves from the “disorder” and “chaos” of the existing cities is remote.”

Satellite cities outside of African capitals are being built for tiny rich minorities. Examples include Cité le Fleuve outside of war-ravaged, massively poor Kinshasa; Kigamboni City outside of Dar Es Salaam; and Tatu City, Konza Techno City, and Machakos City outside of Nairobi.

Luanda already has a number of satellite cities, including the notorious Chinese-built “ghost towns,” – towering condo blocks costing at between $150,000 and $200,000 each, while most Angolans live on under $2 a day. It’s already proven a massive disaster trying to find residents for them, and most are almost empty.

Angolan anthropologist Antonio Tomas calls Kilamba, one such development, “more of a vanity project to give Angola a chance to show off to other countries what it can build, rather than a planned response to solving social problems like housing.”

There’s even a plan to essentially rebuild Kigali, a city where 90 per cent of the population lives in “informal” housing. Evictions have already begun.

I don’t wish to romanticize village life, and poverty certainly exists in rural areas as well as urban. However, in every African village I’ve visited, people seem so much happier and relaxed than in cities. Crime rates are low, there’s a strong sense of community, and people take care of each other. Young people often complain of boredom, but what will they do in cities that’s so much fun? Go to shopping malls, multiplexes, night clubs, and brothels? Do these things really increase the quality of life? Health services certainly do increase the quality of life, so why not focus more on rural development, bringing small well-staffed facilities to rural regions, rather than trying to build rich capitals based on foreign models? Why the elitist attitude of so many urbanites towards villagers and nomads (“They live like animals!”)? Perhaps Africa should look to its villages for inspiration, rather than to scorn or be embarrassed.

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