May 19 2011

What can urban Africans teach Americans?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 3:16 PM

What can Africans teach us?

A lot.

My wife, a Nigerian from Port Harcourt, has taught my an infinite amount about the unmeasurable present. To be here now. Beyond the idionsyncacies of my personal experience, the answer is capacious: Africans teach the world about their own ways, and the world absorbs these lessons in complex fashion.

Because of “Africa” as a concept is constructed by Europeans and Americans in such a way as to epitomize victimhood, the very notion of Africa as a teacher strikes many as unlikely. Yet as the mother of humanity¬† — the birthplace of humans on this planet — Africa offers the student a great deal.

The trope of learning from African is contested. The French philosophy of negritude and its American variation, Pan-Africanism, remains a minor note in the global culture in which “Africaness” is too often equated with dependency, exploitation, abandonment and negativity.

Learning from Africa — existentially, politically and culturally — therefore remains subversive. In this spirit I wrote about what Africans can teach us in America about mass transit; specifically about what people living in northern California can learn from the experiences of ordinary urban Africans. As I explain to the readers of the current issue of Reason magazine, the Africa is home to the fastest growing cities in the world. The lessons from the rapid urbanization of Africa are many, and often surprising. While Lagos, the most populous city on the African continent, receives the most attention from global observers, my commentary is drawn from the experiences and history of medium-size African cities, mainly in the East and West, where innovations are plentiful and the problems of immense scale are less insistent. In Kampala and Nairobi to the East and Accra and Duoala to the West, lessons abound in the manifold ways that cities spawn new varieties of civilization.

Not all of these lessons are appropriate or welcome, perhaps. One colleague of mine at Arizona State University wrote this about the application of Accra’s free-wheeling, laissez-faire transit “system” to the problems of moving Californians about in large numbers:

“Nice piece-but I’d also want to argue w/ you about some of it.¬† For example, more developed Asian cities that still depend the type of transit that you describe for Accra are simply hells of congestion and pollution, so that’s what Accra may well be like in 10 years.¬† And I don’t see why the subsidies to public transport are always discussed but not the externalities of private transport (or the various intangible benefits of public transport–including keeping private transport less congested; or their value for getting money-spending tourists around) rarely included in the discussion.”

Good points all. And my own criticism is that I failed to remind readers that African governments can do more to invest in and manage transit activities.

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