YESTERDAY in “Politically Incorrect: Why Africa’s Cities Are The Dirtiest In The World, And ‘Village Food’ Is Bad For Towns (How It Began)”, we examined the controversial view expounded by Uganda’s sharp-tongued former Vice President Dr Specioza Kazibwe that the conventional toilet and garbage collecting trucks in African cities cannot cope with the fall-out from the “village” African’s eating habits.
On this, the garbage implications of African foods taking over the city now that we have come to town, Dr Kazibwe was spot on too. A typical garbage pile in an Africa city like Kampala has lots of soil from banana, potato, and cassava peels, and also other heavy objects that are difficult to recycle and clear away.
The chaps in Europe and Asia who make the garbage trucks, assume that the garbage will be light like in their own countries. They are wrong. Our stuff is seriously organic and heavy. Most modern garbage trucks don’t survive the challenge of African waste for long. In that sense the garbage trucks African cities import, an activist pan-Africanist might say, are “neo-colonial”.
Beyond the misery our feeding habits inflict on our cities and environment, there are other major social and historical factors that explain our abusive relationship with our cities.
To appreciate it we need to look at the case of Nairobi. In 2010 Kenya voted in a new quite progressive constitution. Partly to deal with the problems that led to the post-election violence of 2008, the constitution radically devolved powers to 47 new counties – the equivalent of South Africa’s provinces or Nigeria’s states.
Kenyans have immersed themselves with remarkable gusto in their counties. Governors will lead the counties, and right now it looks like the race for governorships might well overshadow that for president in the next elections (not a bad thing). There are several county professional associations and groups that have been set up by the various counties to discuss how to make them a success, and to fix local problems that been neglected by governments in Nairobi for decades.
There is only one county that, as far as is publicly known, has no professional associations to champion its interests. It is the richest, and the most populous. It is Nairobi! As one senior government official put it, Nairobi is in danger of becoming an “orphan” county.
Orphan county because, while it is very cosmopolitan, Nairobi really has no “owners” in the old-fashioned sense of the word. People from the rest of Kenya and the world converge in Nairobi, but they eventually go back “where they came from” – their upcountry towns, districts, villages, and foreign countries.
Nairobi is like most African cities; there are very few indigenous residents in it who are “born city”, as the Ugandans say. There are very few third generation “born city” indigenous Africans, i.e. fellows whose grandparents, and parents, were born in the cities. It is mostly Europeans and Asians whose fore parents came to the continent in the 1800s, who are third and forth generation “born city” Africans. The problem is that they are too few. They either don’t get involved in civic politics, or when they do we knock them out with tribal voting.
The result is that the majority of the populations of most African cities, and the folks who run them, are essentially from the village. When they die, their bodies are taken “back home” up-country where they are buried.
During holidays like Christmas or Easter, millions of Africans – much like the Chinese – scramble for transport to go for holidays in the village, and transport operators inevitably rip them by hiking the fares.
It is a shame if an African individual of public substance dies, and his body is taken back upcountry for burial and he/she doesn’t have a serious home there (never mind that they never lived there a day). Derogatory songs would be composed about them.
When elections come around, cities empty as residents go up-country to vote. Yes, people don’t vote where they live and work most of the year, but prefer to go up-country because that is where their hearts are and ancestors’ bones are buried.
That, then, is the problem. For as long as the majority of people in African cities go to vote up-country; have to be buried back in the villages; and holiday in the countryside, we shall never have sensible and clean cities. Our cities will remain secondary.
It is only when our cities become home; the place where our parents and grandparents are buried, that we shall treat them like our front lawns that we need to beautify because we can’t escape to another place. Then the potholes will disappear, the streetlights will work, and we shall grow the trees and grass to make them green; and clean up after ourselves.
Which takes us back to that list of the 10 cleanest African cities:
4. Asmara, Eritrea
5. Victoria, Seychelles
6. Pretoria, South Africa
What do they have in common? Some of the answers are uncomfortable. Cape Town, Windhoek, Victoria, Pietermaritzburg, Port Louis, have relatively large populations that are of mixed race or European and Asian ancestry. These are groups that don’ have villages. Their dead are buried in the city and town cemeteries, or cremated (in fact the day Africans begin to cremate routinely, then we shall have been truly “de-villagised”).
The cities and towns are home for them.
Kigali and Asmara, on the other hand, are capitals run by an elite that lived in exile or away from home for over 30 years, and returned only after fighting and winning a war of liberation of some sort. Most of them were either born abroad and don’t have parochial roots at home, or fled with their parents when they were toddlers before the village rubbed off on them.
Most of their parents, who had the strong ties to the village, died while they were in exile. This kind of elite comes with a more cosmopolitan mindset, and quite a few of them have no upcountry to return to, because their parents’ land was lost or redistributed decades ago. The only place they have space in, is the cities. These fellows will build modern cities. In East Africa, it explains why Kigali is ahead of the pack. Indeed one theory has it that because its streets and lands were once stained with the blood – and stench of bodies – of nearly one million who were killed during the 1994 Genocide, the near-obsession with cleanliness in Rwanda is partly a sub-conscious drive to clean away the smell and grime.
A good friend once told me when we were talking about a filthy African capital; “It’s a city Charles, it is meant to be dirty.” Yes, but precisely because it is a city, it pays to clean it. Soon many Africans too will smell the money.
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