African architectures: Cazenga and urban redevelopment

What should a contemporary African city look like, and what kinds of practices should it cater for? This question lies at the heart of discussions about the redevelopment of Cazenga, one of Luanda’s most well-known musseque areas. While planners argue that they will improve the quality of life of Cazenga’s inhabitants, the residents are worried about what they consider to be an architectural threat to their habitos e costumes (habits and customs).

The plan for the redevelopment of Cazenga has been officially underway since at least November 2010, when President José Eduardo dos Santos established the Gabinete Técnico para a Reconversão Urbana do Cazenga e Sambizanga (Technical Office for the Urban Redevelopment of Cazenga and Sambizanga/GTRUCS). The project began in earnest in late 2011 with the contracting of a Singaporean building consultancy firm to develop a master plan for Cazenga and other zones of the city. The planners, in an attempt to incorporate community feedback, presented the preliminary plans to residents, with mock architectural drawings of apartment blocks. The response was one of concern.

At the figurative centre of most Angolan homes is what is known as the quintal, usually an enclosed yard, which serves multiple uses, including as a cooking area, a space for sleeping, and for receiving guests. Many people also run small businesses such as stores, literacy classes, and traditional healing centres from their quintals. In short, this architectural feature of urban Angola is the fulcrum around which everyday life revolves.

However, in the GTRUCS drawings, residents only saw high-rises, causing concerns about whether the project considered the practices of the inhabitants. “Inside my quintal, I have a small business,” complains one resident of the municipality. “My wife sells things in front of our house; we cannot put a stand in front of our house in an apartment block. How will we work and eat?”

The response from some state officials and planners, who view the musseques as harbingers of rural practices, is that residents of Cazenga need to “learn” how to be urban. The quintal, one planner linked to the project explains, is a rural architectural feature, not an urban one. If residents want to stay in the city, they will need to adapt to what he views as real urban living: nuclear family apartment blocks. Quintals were not part of the picture, but if they were not, were their users?

The debate over the quintal is one about the meaning of “the urban” in contemporary Africa, and in that debate lies the place where the boundaries of social and political belonging intersect. African cities and their residents have long been portrayed as stuck on a journey between rural tradition and urban modernism. It is this discourse which is being reproduced when planners dismiss the quintal as rural. However, when residents demand a quintal they are arguing for recognition of the value and dignity of their way of life, for acknowledgment that they have created the city known as Luanda through years of construction, work, and sweat.

The debate over architecture is not a superficial one; it goes to the heart of who has the power to define the notion of a worthy urban life, and what kind of urban dweller fits that image. For those who fall outside the defined limits of “the urban”, the results of redevelopment might be less than desirable.

Claudia Gastrow is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago. She is currently finalising her thesis, “Negotiated Settlements: Housing and Citizenship in Luanda, Angola”


This article is part of UrbanAfrica’s reporting project


image credit: Cindy ZM


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