‘Afropolis’: Cities of Africa stake a claim on the future

A book with the all-encompassing title Afropolis (Jacana Media) sets itself up for the usual criticism: it promises what it could never deliver. What is included is often largely representative, but what has been left out is compelling enough and seems to cry out for consideration.

Afropolis contains panoramic shots of the visual arts and histories, the literatures, sociopolitics and urban-scapes of five African cities: Cairo and Lagos — the biggest in terms of population — and Kinshasa, Nairobi and Johannesburg.

You might start quibbling about the under-representation of Francophone Africa. You will mention Kinshasa. Even though it’s a French-speaking city, it is actually a former plaything of the Belgians (if you strain your ears, those whimpers are the denizens of Dakar in Senegal and Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire bemoaning their exclusion but, to be fair to the editors, there are snapshots of Cameroon’s Douala).

In Afropolis’s defence, books of this nature normally ignore Arabic-speaking Africa, so the inclusion of Cairo must be applauded.

The book is a translation and revision of an original exhibition catalogue. The show took place in 2012, in Cologne, Germany, after a programme was developed by the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum — Cultures of the World. The current edition is edited by curators Kerstin Pinther, Larissa Förster and Christian Hanussek and is published in association with the Goethe-Institut.

According to the curatorial statement, the exhibition’s approach highlighted “the interconnectedness of scientific and artistic concepts, not only exploring urban histories and recent developments, but also presenting 30 artistic viewpoints on issues of urbanity about and from these five cities.”

The revised volume now features essays by an exciting array of scholars including Dominique Malaquais, Tom Odhiambo, Edgar Pieterse and AbdouMaliq Simone; there are works by visual artists Sabelo Mlangeni and Sam Nhlengetwa, graphic designer Emeka Udemba and photographer Uche Okpa-Iroha; and there are Q&A interviews with architect David Adjaye, curator Bisi Silva and photo-grapher Van Leo.

Paradigm shifts
In the introduction, the editors immediately set out the difficulty of the task: “How do you curate an exhibition on African megacities?”

There are a number of hurdles to overcome. There is a certain Western gaze that might wish to look at the African city as though it was a midget version of the European city. But movements and paradigm shifts within urban studies have resulted in a welcome realisation that what were seen as the shortcomings of the African city are perhaps not exactly that.

As millions of Africans stream to the cities and the populations of metropolises in Europe and in parts of the United States stagnate, there is a grudging acceptance that the city of the “third” world is going to be the prototypical city of the future.

Of the 30 megacities in the world, for example, “the Western industrialised countries only account for four of them — London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles”.

This provocative introduction is the premise for the book. The first stop is Douala where Hanussek and Salifou Lindou sample the watering holes of this Cameroonian city in a totally unscientific and idiosyncratic way.

It’s not just the quirky; there is a devotion to the scholarly too, as in essays by Pieterse and Simone that focus on Johannesburg. Simone’s essay begins by pointing out that Johannesburg is “about as far away as one can get from the popular image of the African village”; and yet even in these urban ruins there is a human infrastructure among those “immiserated by urban life”.

City, cinema and film
Next up, curator Marie-Hélène Gutberlet’s essay explores the relationship of the “city, cinema and film”. In her attempt to link the city and cinema, Gutberlet argues, somewhat tenuously, that “the city provides the external structure within which urban life unfolds, while the cinema accommodates the film in which ideas of a life in the city are processed and given concrete shape”.

One of the most fascinating sections of the book is the part about Lagos. Reading up on Lagos, it is easy to see why to the Western gaze it is a city of nightmares, a necropolis even. There’s everything to scare the faint-hearted: death-trap automobiles in lurid yellows; the habitual razing of whole mini-cities by heartless, punctilious bureaucrats; a do-it-yourself self-organisation that always appears to the external eye as chaos. (I remember a talk by writer Chris Abani a few years ago in which he said that one of the first signs you see when you drive into Lagos from the airport is: “This is Nigeria”, a statement phrased as a warning). This is the subject of Peter Probst’s essay, Lagos — Oshodi: Inspecting an urban icon.

Matthew Krings weighs in with an essay about Lance Spearman, a James Bondian Casanova detective figure created by Drum magazine in 1960s. The Spear is one of Africa’s first truly transnational heroes, a man whose every exploit was closely followed as much in Lagos and Nairobi as in Johannesburg.

Odhiambo’s write-up, Sketches of Post Colonial Kenyan Literature: Cultural Anthropology or Creative Fiction, concerns itself mostly with the legacy of popular writers such as  Meja Mwangi, Charles Mangua (teenage heroes of mine) and David Mailu.

Lurid catalogue of shenanigans
These writers didn’t just document the traditional livelihoods of “tribes-people” but were interested in what happened to them when they arrived in the city.

What resulted was a sometimes lurid catalogue of the shenanigans the Nairobians were up to at dusk in the city’s nooks and alleys, how they sped on the city’s highways and negotiated its byways.

It’s a mantle the city fictioneers have passed on to the Kwani collective, worthy descendants one might add. One of their recent and, I might add, grand projects is photographs of Nairobi, all shot in a few hours.

A standout essay from Afropolis is one by Malaquais. She writes a fascinating piece on the boxing match Rumble in the Jungle in the part about Kinshasa. Her question is why the city that hosted this momentous match, in which George Foreman and Muhammad Ali faced off in 1974, is largely absent from most narratives, most of which privilege the United States’s civil rights movement.

Noor Nieftagodien’s essay on the history of Alexandra township is a good read and so is Thomas G Kirsch’s piece on apartheid and power (not the thing politicians wield but the stuff that’s transported by cables) and who has access to it.

It begins provocatively with a satellite map of the world. As you might have guessed, Africa is indeed the Dark Continent. Yet the area we know as Gauteng is lit, even though most working-class people in Soweto don’t really have access to power — victims of neoliberal policies that dictate that people should only use the power they buy.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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