Review: ‘Living the City in Africa’

Editor(s) Birgit Obrist, Veit Arlt and Elisio Macamo
Publisher Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Afrikastudien (SGAS), LIT Verlag
Year 2014

Living the City in Africa: Processes of Invention and Intervention is a volume inspired by a range of scholars working in some of Africa’s most rapidly evolving urban centres, all of whom seek to delve into the critique of the dominant modernist archetypes that remain fixed in urban planning discourse and practice. The position taken by these authors is that more focused understandings of day-to-day life and what “living the city” means for Africa’s urban residents offers much potential to transform urban planning, embracing Africa’s cities as examples of contemporary urbanism. The overarching objective of the book is thus to achieve diversity in our thinking on the urban experience in Africa, “not with a Western gaze but with sharp, open and fresh minds” (p. 12).

In this light, the book encompasses an underlying critique of prevalent development discourses and the pragmatism with which the intricacies of the reality of urban life in African cities are too often simplistically reduced to realise approaches that intervene in urbanisation processes while failing to pay credence to the veracity of existent inventiveness which extends from residents’ need to deal with the dynamic, arduous challenges of daily life in these contexts. The fundamental message here is that there is a need to move beyond Western conceptualisations of what constitutes successful development if African urbanism is to be appropriately explored, contextualised and understood. The diversity of thought called for here comes not in intervening to “correct” this state of existence but rather in adopting a renewed perspective on living the city so as to recognise local action in the frame of inventiveness. Such a process embraces diversity, leaving behind the proverbial safety net of unrealisable rational control to explore the interplay between the varied forces that drive change; whether it be through determined intervention or change that is realised through lived experiences.

It is the duality of invention and intervention, supported by the conceptual framework of ordinary cities (Robinson 2006) that provides the common footing from which the various authors engage with processes of living the city in their individual contexts. For readers, the excitement of the book’s title elicits high expectations and from the first glance the incredible diversity of studies included in the table of contents becomes abundantly clear.  The book is classically structured, including an introductory and summative chapter, which appropriately provide the first and final points of reference, while at the core the contributors grapple with the concept of living the city, focusing on politics, transnational urbanism, mobility and creativity.

Easing the reader into the complexities of what living the city in Africa entails, Obrist’s prefatory chapter (pp. 9-21) facilitates an imperative point of departure in providing a well-structured overview of the book’s approach and clarity on the way in which the book’s central themes have been established.

The first core thematic, Urban Politics, explores processes of urban governance through the political dynamics at play within cities, focusing on the competing interests of private and state actors. Determining urbanisation as primarily a governance challenge, Beall (pp. 23-44) situates African urbanisation within the global development context and argues that an ideal form of governance exists where global economic actors realise the necessity to articulate interventions with the inventiveness of existing, often informal, institutional arrangements and where the State acts to effectively champion democratic values. Following this, Goodfellow (pp. 45-62) and Olaniyi (pp. 63-81) draw on cases from Rwanda, Uganda and colonial Nigeria respectively, highlighting local politics as a key determinant that works to either starkly facilitate or hinder planning while Philipps (p. 81-98) draws the section to a close, demonstrating how it is that youth gangs in the Guinean capital Conakry are both shaped by and likewise influence their functional contexts on the basis of proactive political positioning.

Closely linked to the topic of governance, the second set of contributions explores transnational urbanism: particularly how the flows of ideas and practices under processes of globalisation have impacted the development of African cities. From discussion on the efforts of international development agencies to implement decentralised cooperation in Burkina Faso (Söderström, Dupuis & Leu, p. 99-118) to mega-events and the opportunity that these global spectacles offer as a mechanism through which marginalised groups may achieve visibility (Celik, p. 119-134) and an analysis of contemporary art scenes in Nairobi and Luanda (Vierke & Siegert, p.135-152), this section makes use of diverse cases to show how translocal connections influence the agenda and functionality of local municipalities and how historical and political developments shape reflective representations of urban space.

Subsequently, Urban Moves, positions mobility as a central means through which cities are lived, both in terms of physical movement as well as in terms of virtual connectivity, considering urban mobility on a number of different levels. Gerold (pp. 153-170) illustrates the importance of maintaining connection to home villages for Dar es Salaam’s elderly as they continuously transition between rural and urban areas while Sollien et al. (pp. 171-194) and Manuel (pp. 195-212) turn to Maputo in seeking to understand the socio-economic and cultural ideals that influence the creation of “home spaces” and the shifting dynamics of gender and sexual identity respectively. Finally, focus shifts to the evolving strategies employed by Kinshasa’s traditional healers in maintaining competitiveness and enhancing acknowledgement of their practices in an age of medical pluralism (Liebs et al., pp. 213-234). The common thread on all levels relates mobility to the fluid nature and flexibility of the urban experience both in terms of physical presence and positioning but also in the creation of identity, as residents concurrently navigate and negotiate their cities.

Finally, in the last thematic section of the book, Förster, Siegenthaler, Hellweg and Kourouma delve into urban creativity. Adopting a theoretical perspective, Förster (pp. 235-252) reflects on the concepts of creativity and agency, denouncing creativity as an automatic response to heterogeneity and arguing that creativity demands particular forms of agency and social experience. This standpoint merges well with Siegenthaler’s (pp. 253-270) representation of the visible and invisible elements that contribute to the urban experience, drawing an example from Johannesburg to show how performance interventions analyse, reflect and influence urban imaginaries. The inventive creation of portable urbanity in terms of the development of the N’ko literacy and healing movement rounds this section off. Developed as alternatives to colonial urbanism, these movements exemplify responsive creativity and are representative of localised mobile urbanism (Hellweg and Kourouma, pp. 271-290).

The final chapter returns to the difficulties of defining the urban as an object of research, reiterating the necessity for new conceptual tools in the study of urban Africa (pp. 291-297). Here Macamo suggests Durkheim’s notion of collective effervescence as a potential means by which to explore Africa in a way that more effectively assesses the tension between invention and intervention and thus “honours the creative potential of its people whose major achievement may be their ability to make social life possible in the most unlikely places” (p. 296). Defining the volume as a methodological statement about processes of conceptualisation Macamo effectively elicits Living the City’s ultimate strength. Overall, however, the diversity of the cases presented that constitute this strength simultaneously contribute to the book’s singular weakness in that while each contribution is individually attention-grabbing the common thread is at times scarce. Despite this, credit must be given to the editors for having pulled these contributions together, as they are all engagingly written and remarkably easy to read despite the depth and breadth of the content. All in all, one must acknowledge the volume for what it is: an appreciated contribution to research on African urbanism, one that adds value to the ever-growing literature pushing shifts in development thinking, research and practice. Living the City therefore fills an essential space in expanding what we know about urbanism and urbanity in Africa and how we conceptualise and intervene in these processes.


Robinson, J. (2006) Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development, New York: Routledge.

Dr. Lauren Ugur is a South-African post-doc researcher currently based at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany where she manages the Erasmus Mundus funded M.Sc. programme “Mundus Urbano” in International Cooperation in Urban Development. Lauren’s research interests focus on urban planning and management, particularly the complexities of integrated planning, urban safety and violence prevention. As of October 2014 Lauren will take up a junior professorship at Frankfurt’s International School of Management.

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