(De)Constructing Urbanities: Opportunities and Challenges in African Cities

To encourage discourse on the challenges and opportunities facing Africans in the post-colonial context of urbanization, the African Activist Association at UCLA is hosting a symposium to examine new configurations of African cities.

Saturday, April 12, 2008
10:00 AM - 6:00 PM
314 Royce Hall
UCLA campus
Los Angeles, CA 90095


10:00 AM - 6:00 PM -- Panel Discussions

Lunch will be provided -- African Cuisine -- FREE to conference attendees

Conference Panels:

Saturday:  Panel I, 10 - 11:30 AM – Defining the City
Moderator: Dr. Ghislaine Lydon, Assistant Professor, Department of History, UCLA

  • Erin Pettigrew, African Studies, UCLA: “The Capital of Sand: Nouakchott as a Space of Negotiation in Mauritania”
  • Andre Wellington, African Studies, UCLA: “Space and Power Transformed: A Critical Social History of our Hillbrow”
  • Michal Singer, History, University of the Witwatersrand: “Rural Transformation and the Coal City: The Rise of the Coal Mining Industry in the Witbank Coalfields, Transvaal: 1860s – 1940s”

Panel II, 11:45 AM - 1:15 PM  --  Women in African Urban Space
Moderator:  Dr. Katrina Thompson, Assistant Professor in Residence, Linguistics, African Languages Coordinator, Chair, IDP in African Studies, UCLA

  • Katharine Stuffelbeam, Ethnomusicology, UCLA: “Women, Music, and Identity: The Role of Traditional Dagbamba Music in an Increasingly Urban Context”
  • Kim Foulds, Social Sciences and Comparative Education, UCLA: “Urban Women’s Political Participation in Nairobi: The Failure of Formal Politics and the Power of Informal Networks”
  • Thomas Harding, Executive Director of Art Aids Art, and Dorothy Yumi Garcia, Art and Education Director: “Bead by Bead, Brick by Brick: Community and Transformation in South Africa”

1:30 - 2:30 PM:  Lunch of African Cuisine (free and open to all symposium attendees)

Panel III, 2:30 - 4 PM  --  Art and Architecture of the City
Moderator: Dr. Steven Nelson, Associate Professor of African and African American Art History, Vice Chair, Department of Art History, UCLA

  • Michelle Huntingford Craig, Art History, UCLA: “A Cropped Shot: Scenes and Views of an Urban History from Fez, Morocco”
  • Erica P. Jones, Art History, UCLA: “Reflecting the Urban Fabric: Reality and Fantasy in the Urban Simulations of Bodys Isek Kingelez”
  • Dr. A. Sameh El Kharbawy, Art and Design, California State University, Fresno: “The ‘Other’ Modernity: Lessons Learned from Egypt’s New Urban Developments”

Panel IV, 4:15 - 5:45 PM  --  Planning and Development in African Cities
Moderator: Stephen Commins, Lecturer, Department of Urban Planning, UCLA

  • Charisma Acey, Urban Planning, UCLA: "Civic Participation and Service Delivery in the Urban Context: Opportunities and Challenges in Lagos, Nigeria"
  • Meghan Corroon, Urban Planning, UCLA: “The Political Economy of Sanitation in Sub-Saharan Africa: Urban vs. Peri-Urban vs. Rural Contexts”
  • Jared Sacks, Executive Director of CHOSA (Children of South Africa) and Mzonke Poni, Chairman of QQ Section Concerned Residents: "Autonomous Developments within the Urban Housing Struggle in South Africa"
  • Damola Osinulu, World Arts and Cultures, UCLA: “Painters, Blacksmiths and Wordsmiths: Building Molues in Lagos”

Abstracts (thus far):

  • Charisma Acey, Urban Planning, UCLA
    "Civic Participation and Service Delivery in the Urban Context: Opportunities and Challenges in Lagos, Nigeria"
    Between 1990 and 2004, Nigeria's urban population jumped to nearly half the population, while access to improved sources of water in urban areas dropped by nearly 15% during the same period.  At the same time, such statistics mask deep disparities within metropolitan areas. The literature on consumer demand for basic services such as water and sanitation has focused on "willingness to pay" while ignoring the quality of urban services and how social hierarchies affect their supply and demand in different areas. Moreover, the idea of the "strong society" and "weak state" in African countries and the continuous question of national identity in the face of intense ethnic identification in Nigeria have special relevance for understanding how communities respond to and cope with inadequate public services. This paper presents preliminary evidence on the relationship between neighborhood context, reported satisfaction with basic services and civic participation as gathered during fieldwork for my approved doctoral dissertation research project between October 2007 and February 2008. Evidence comes from a survey of 454 households in 12 neighborhoods in Lagos. This paper argues that inequality in access is due to a combination of political power and the coping strategies available to households as moderated by their neighborhood context, and that these factors are crucial to designing interventions that improve individual and population access to basic services.
  • Michelle Huntingford Craig, Art History, UCLA
    “A Cropped Shot: Scenes and Views of an Urban History from Fez, Morocco”
    This paper attends to a photographic archive as of the mellah, the Jewish quarter, of Fez, Morocco as a transmitter of urban history.  My scholarship takes the visual presence of Jewish architecture and concatenates it with an increased perceptibility generated by early twentieth century postcards. I focus on images of the violence that followed the March 30, 1912 Treaty of Fez.  The sultan’s troops rose up against the French imperialists and during the ensuing mayhem, they destroyed the mellah.  The violence amputated the previously fluid identities of Fez’ residents, the Fassis.  A postcard taken during those tense moments addresses the trauma of imperial violence through a reproductive trace that etches this violence into the urban landscape. Postcards document the displacement of the Jewish community and presage the eventual abandonment of the mellah in the mid-twentieth century.  These photographic images can be read as part of a larger discourse on how the already transcultural Fassi Jews aligned with the French ‘protectors’ rather than their Muslim Moroccan neighbors.  The rebuilt urban quarter visually asserted this new allegiance, and Fez’s built environment reflects the physical and social ruptures even today.  As such, my analysis of this postcard excavates the histories of Fassi populations prior to 1912 and projects the ways in which Fassi identities were irrevocably altered both physically and architecturally after 1912.
  • Meghan Corroon, Urban Planning, UCLA
    “The Political Economy of Sanitation Services in Sub-Saharan Africa”
    The current lack of adequate sanitation is devastating as roughly forty percent of the world’s population is unable to access basic latrines. A crucial aspect of understanding the massive gaps in sanitation coverage particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, is by examining the political economy of financing sanitation services through the lens of government budgeting processes.  The central questions regarding the political economy of financing addressed in this paper include: Where do sanitation-related budgets exist within government; who makes the decisions regarding funding levels; what are the sources of financing for sanitation and do these factors differ by area in terms of level of urbanization?  In addition to exploring how sanitation financing decisions are made, this paper also looks at external factors that play a significant role in financing decisions.  Some of the related factors examined include governance decentralization models, emerging innovations in sanitation service provision, and the role of international aid.  This paper addresses the questions and issues above at three distinct levels; the country level, the community and household level and the international level. The country level includes two specific case studies, Ethiopia and Malawi.  The community and household level of the political economy of sanitation is integral to any financing solution primarily because many governments, such as those of Malawi and Ethiopia, view sanitation as a private good to be paid for by households.  The international level details how donor lack of coordination and reporting of budget information hinders policy-makers’ accurate assessments of the state of sanitation financing or to project and plan for future needs.
  • Dr. A. Sameh El Kharbawy, Art and Design, Cal State University, Fresno
    “The ‘Other’ Modernity: Lessons Learned from Egypt’s New Urban Developments”
    This paper interrogates the structural link between modernity and urban development in the city of Cairo, Egypt. On the one hand, discussions of urban growth and modernization in Cairo in the past decade betray a heightened sensitivity among its architectural community to the city’s heritage and an almost pious deference to its rich architectural history. On the other hand, the magnitude of the projected growth of Cairo in the next decade presents a significant challenge to the careful stewardship and preservation of the city’s heritage. The primary object of this paper is to document the dialogue between those two forces beyond the deeply forged and simplistic reductions (“modern” vs. “traditional”, “east” vs. “west”) through which much of the complexity of the concept of heritage is habitually abstracted and simplified in contemporary architectural discourse. By examining some of the city’s recent “grand projects,” (in particular urban experiments in modern Cairo: the district of New Cairo and 6th of October City,) I will attempt to reveal some of the events that are shaping modern Egypt, moving across and mediating between different political and cultural domains in order to set up meaningful encounters between the forces of modernity and heritage as modes of developed cultural production.
  • Kim Foulds, Social Science and Comparative Education, UCLA
    “Urban Women’s Political Participation in Nairobi: The Failure of Formal Politics and the Power of Informal Networks"
    According to statistics, women’s political participation in Nairobi, and throughout Kenya, remains at a minimal level. Kenyan politics continues to be dominated by men in all levels of decision-making. A number of constraints prevent women from entering the political sphere, including Kenya’s patriarchal traditions, overwhelming domestic responsibilities, and access to education and capital. Affirmative action legislation and national women’s organizations also prove to be ineffective in women’s empowerment due to their relationships with the Kenyan government. Their political influence according to data and individuals in office, however, fails to include women’s participation through informal networks. To research this lack of recognition, published texts, Kenyan newspapers, government statistics, and women’s personal accounts are used to analyze women in office and the channels women have established and utilized to demonstrate their political force. Case studies examining the experiences of Wangari Maathai and Wambui Otieno illustrate ways that the women of Nairobi manipulate their environment to voice their political opposition, in spite of government and feminist resistance. These channels include individual efforts, self-help groups, occupational associations, NGOs, business enterprises, and social welfare activities. Additionally, the varying levels of effectiveness of these informal activities are discussed. Furthermore, the research demonstrates that in order to understand the women of Nairobi’s level of political participation, research must examine their efforts outside of formal political spheres. The positive developments women in Nairobi have made in challenging existing exclusionary policies and practices demonstrate that the women of Nairobi transcend statistics portraying them as politically inactive, comprising a powerful political strength.
  • Erica P. Jones, Art History, UCLA
    “Reflecting the Urban Fabric: Reality and Fantasy in the Urban Simulations of Bodys Isek Kingelez”
    The urban simulations of Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez have been oppositely labeled as works of utopian fantasy or social collapse. Kingelez’ work, Kinshasa for the Third Millennium, has been viewed as a work that embodies the desire for a utopian city.  The pleasing aesthetic of this work – the use of colors, regimented organization of the space, and hyper-modern appearance of the forms – all seem to suggest a utopian theme, yet when compared to contemporary Kinshasa one finds similar political and social influences lie at the root of the forms of both spaces.  With its crumbling physical and social infrastructure, Kinshasa has been labeled an urban heterotopia by anthropologist Philip de Boeck.  Kingelez’ work, while visually striking, emphasizes through deliberate hyper-aesthetic formal structure, de Boeck’s assessment of these urban problems. Through the use of semiotic and formal elements in his work, Kingelez emphasizes how external forces such as structural adjustment, neo-colonialism and war contribute to the problems of Kinshasa today. The influence of political, economic and social intrusion on the urban space of Kinshasa as reflected in this work is pivotal within the context of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s post-independence mentality. The exuberance of the moment of independence and the reality of the contemporary DRC whereby the central government is complicit in the intrusion of foreign bodies is precisely what makes these local and extra-local influences upon the society significant. Kingelez’ work, while specific to the Congolese urban context, can be viewed as drawing larger implications about how we think about what and who shapes the African city in general.
  • Thomas Harding and Dorothy Yumi Garcia, Art Aids Art
    “Bead by Bead, Brick by Brick: Community & Transformation in South Africa”
    Women in South African townships suffer the affects of several crises. The nation has the greatest number of AIDS cases in the world at over 6 million, with women disproportionately impacted. The rate of infection for young females in Khayelitsha is estimated at 30-40% (SA Dept of Health, 04). South Africa has also been called the rape capital of the world, as over 1 million women and children are victimized each year (The London Times, October 04). A young South African girl has a greater chance of being raped than of learning how to read (BBC News, April 02).  To add to the trauma, more than 90% of rape victims know their attackers (SA Press Association, June 05). In just 8 years, Monkeybiz Bead Project, a collective based in Cape Town, has grown to over 450 members, all earning a sustainable living through beadwork. Many have moved from tin shacks into formal housing, and have achieved a level of economic independence. Art Aids Art, a nonprofit organization promoting education and sustainable economic development through the arts, has collaborated with Monkeybiz since 2003.  Workshops discussed in this presentation – persona doll projects, oral history, storytelling, performing arts, photo documentation and literacy – represent an ongoing effort to provide expressive outlets to women with few opportunities to formally share their experiences. The presentation culminates in a description of a collaborative project involving local women, members of Art Aids Art, and a team of architecture students, all whom gathered in Khayelitsha in 2007 to design an innovative community center.
  • Damola Osinulu, World Arts and Cultures, UCLA
    “Painters, Blacksmiths and Wordsmiths: Building Molues in Lagos”
    The coastal Nigerian city of Lagos has received a lot of attention amongst urban planners, geographers, architects and journalists for its phenomenal and unchecked growth. The population is estimated to have grown to as much as 15 million people today from 230,000 in 1950.  The city’s growth implodes as much as it explodes, so that as it spreads it also becomes constricted.  As a result, movement within and without is continuously impeded. How does mass transit work in such an environment?  One answer is the molue— the large privately owned buses that ply the city’s streets literally overflowing with passengers and their possessions.  The intention of this paper is to discover and amplify the role of creativity in the tight urban spaces of Lagos as expressed through the construction and decoration of the city’s trademark buses.  I will show that even within the prescribed anonymity of the state-legislated paint schemes and despite the sheer numbers of buses on the road, individual drivers and owners attempt to express a unique sense of identity through the way they design, build and decorate their buses.  Furthermore, these expressions of individuality can be seen as a tactic of resistance against the strategies of the physical and spiritual systems against which the bus drivers and owners struggle.
  • Erin Pettigrew, African Studies, UCLA
    “The Capital of Sand: Nouakchott as a Space of Negotiation in Mauritania”
    This paper examines how the French administration, in cooperation with a nascent Mauritanian political elite, chose to build the capital, Nouakchott, and how the ensuing development of the city affected the country’s demographics.  First resisting a move to a barely-constructed skeleton of a city, Mauritanians quickly adapted to the possibility of an urban space and migrated en masse to the capital.  I argue that a myriad of problems arose with one-half of the entire country’s demographic living in Nouakchott but the creation of a capital also provided the country with a sense of national identity, which was to be defined in Nouakchott in the post-independence years. Inhabitants of Nouakchott have used street nomenclature, nomadic tents, architecture, and graffiti as tools to define their city and the cultural orientation of the country. Mauritanians have made Nouakchott a place for negotiating and contesting nomadism and urbanism, language, religion, ethnicity, and politics.
  • Michal Singer, History, University of the Witwatersrand
    "Rural Transformation & the Coal City: The Rise of the Coal Mining Industry in the Witbank Coalfields, Transvaal: 1860s – 1940s"
    This paper focuses on the changing conceptions of the environmental impact of coal mining in South Africa from the late nineteenth century until the mid 1940s, with a specific focus on Witbank, the 'Coal City'. How did local perceptions about natural resources inform the rapid transformation of the Witbank Coal fields from an agrarian community into one of the industrial hubs of the Union of South Africa, producing approximately half of its coal? While the negative effects of coal mining were becoming obvious, these were met with complacency and disbelief. With the introduction of the Electricity Supply Commission (ESCOM) in the early 1920s, South Africa entered the age of electricity, with Witbank as a 'model town,' thus altering the way in which the urban space was conceived. An exploration of these changes reveals the deeply entrenched racial prejudices that accompanied industrial growth. In the imperialist world of the Transvaal in the early twentieth century, progress was closely aligned with ideological conceptions of 'civilization' through economic progress and domestic sophistication. With the concomitant rise of ESCOM and the Iron and Steel Corporation (ISCOR), the popularization of deep underground gold mining, the oil-from-coal process, and the global dependency on South African coal during the Second World War, coal had become crucial to continued industrial development. This has become increasingly pertinent at a time when power outages, or 'load shedding', have become a seemingly permanent feature of the urban landscape.
  • Katharine Stuffelbeam, Ethnomusicology, UCLA
    “Women, Music, and Identity: The role of traditional Dagbamba music in an increasingly urban context”
    The Dagbamba people of Dagbon live in the Northern Region in Ghana West Africa.  Dagbamba musicians have traditionally held a semi-professional status; drummers come from drum families, which have a special role as the keepers of their oral history. Subjects such as warrior music, fiddle music, praise drumming, and traditional dance, have been studied by ethnomusicologists David Locke, John Chernoff, and Jacqueline C. DjeDje.  In the summer of 2006, I conducted a three-month fieldwork project in Tamale, a large city in Dagbon.  I lived with a drumming family, and focused my fieldwork on a set of traditional women’s songs.  Gender dynamics and issues of women’s roles in society became increasingly interesting as I observed many women in the family compound and in the city, singing, talking, eating, cooking, and dancing.  This paper primarily focuses on gender roles, and women in music in an increasingly modern Dagbon; both areas that have been largely overlooked. Through examining the life of Fuseina Wumbei, I will address the negotiations of gender and musical roles in an increasingly modern urban context.  There are many questions in this line of inquiry; How are women’s positions changing in the modern context? Does musical knowledge affect the status or lives of women?  Do women perform music publicly, and if they do when, and for what occasions? What is the role of traditional music in an increasingly global, urban context?  My presentation will include musical examples, video, and photographs.
  • Andre Wellington, African Studies, UCLA
    “Space and Power Transformed: A Critical Social History of our Hillbrow”
    This paper attempts to tell a short yet critical social history of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa. This section of Johannesburg was once home to white progressives (and sometimes their black companions), and white business. With the struggles against apartheid in the 1980s and the weakening of the apartheid apparatus and therefore its biopolitical inability to constrain urban immigration and migration from other African countries to South Africa, Hillbrow’s progression and commerce waned. Its demographic hues became distinctively black and increasingly foreign. I will try to read this as a tactical transformation by referencing Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. I will also discuss the reflection of this process in the transformation of the political climate (transition to post-Apartheid) and, most strikingly, in the spheres of legitimacy which inhere (and fail to inhere) therein. Mention will then be made of crime, neighbourhood disorganization and general social disorder as epiphenomenal to such changes in legitimacy and authority.

Conference participants will have the option of submitting, at a later date, copies of their presentations to be considered for publication in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies.  Copies of Ufahamu featuring the conference presentations will be available on a single-issue basis and through subscriptions to the journal. 

For more information visit the Ufahamu website




Special Instructions

Light refreshments will be served Friday evening. Lunch will be provided free on Saturday, April 12, to conference attendees. The lunch will consist of African cuisine.

Cost : Free and open to the public; pay-by-space parking is available in lot 3 and all-day parking is also available for $8.

For more information please contact:

African Activist Association at UCLATel: 310-825-3686



Sponsor(s): , UCLA Graduate Division, UCLA Graduate Student Association, UCLA Social Sciences Council.