Readings on African Cities

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Although I still have much to learn (!), I would argue that there are few texts that successfully document, describe and discuss African cities’ development from a general, as well as specific, perspective. Excited to say I recently came across the African Cities Reader, “a biennial publication that brings together contributors from across Africa and the world to challenge the prevailing depiction of urban life on the continent and redefine cityness, Africa-style.” This is how I want to learn about African cities.

The African Cities Reader is joint creation of Chimurenga Magazine and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

The best part: both editions are available online for free 🙂 The discourse on African cities in the book, as in practice, is from a multi-disciplinary perspective, drawing on human rights, economics, “market”-analysis, urban planning, community development, architecture, photography…the list goes on. In my perspective, it’s what makes the text interesting as well as relevant. 

A Few Highlights
There are currently two editions of the Cities Reader that are currently available. In the seminal issue, Lagos-based author and consultant Jeremy Weate creates a fictional subway map for the city of Lagos, using landmarks as subway stops and describing an underground system that would make sense out of the ordered chaos in the city:

Back in July 2007, Lagos State had a new governor, Fashola, and there were rumours that he meant business. Lagos had been neglected and unloved for decades, with its modern infrastructure of bridges and flyovers becoming increasingly dilapidated and even dangerous. It was time for fresh ideas.

Using the iconic London Underground tube map as a basis for a Lagos mass transit system was never meant to be taken as a serious proposition. It was, rather, a device to stimulate the imagination to think again about what could be done with the city. Ultimately, Lagos is more like Venice than London – it’s a city surrounded by water. Any transit system for Lagos that doesn’t make major use of the creeks and lagoons would be a wasted opportunity.

…What the map does, I think, is make you realise what a great city Lagos could be if it was just a little easier to get around. It is also a celebration of place – all the nooks and crannies of the city, each with its own flavour. 

In the second issue, in an exerpt from his book Every Day is for the Thief, Nigerian author Teju Cole describes an everyday market experience. Perhaps what’s most interesting is his characterization of the market as a living entity, as a machine made up of the sellers, vendors and other participants and its centrality to Lagos life and identity:

One goes to the market to participate in the world. As with all things that concern the world, being in the market requires caution. Always, the market – as the essence of the city – is alive with possibility and with danger. Strangers encounter each other in the world’s infinite variety;
vigilance is needed. Everyone is there not merely to buy or sell, but because it is a duty. If you sit in your house, if you refuse to go to market, how would you know of the existence of others? How would you know of your own existence?

And the market’s unemotional, unforgiving reaction to thievery is what makes it a dangerous, tough place, but it is also a part of ensuring (or, compelling) civility order:

The market has seen everything. It must eat. It does not break its habits.