How Africans Are Building The Cities Of The Future

The bright Addis Ababa skyline

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Source images via Steve Paulson. (TTBOOK)

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player
Original Air Date: 
December 14, 2019

Africans are moving into cities in unprecedented numbers. Lagos, Nigeria, is growing by 77 people an hour — it's on track to become a city of 100 million. In 30 years, the continent is projected to have 14 mega-cities of more than 10 million people. It's perhaps the largest urban migration in history.

These cities are not like Dubai, or Singapore, or Los Angeles. They’re uniquely African cities, and they’re forcing all of us to reconsider what makes a city modern. And how and why cities thrive.

To find out what's going on, we go to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to talk with entrepreneurs, writers, scholars and artists. In this hour, produced in partnership with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) — a global consortium of 270 humanities centers and institutes — we learn how the continent where the human species was born is building the cities of the future.

Children in Addis Ababa.

Dagmawi Woubshet and Julie Mehretu were both born in Addis Ababa and then moved to America. They wonder what the city's explosive growth will mean for its unique character — one rooted in Ethiopia's history as the only African nation never colonized.

Lending a helping hand.

Historian Emily Calacci says the massive migration into African cities isn't following the Western model of urban development. Instead of an infrastructure of roads, railways and electric grids, many African cities rely on "people as infrastructure."

Photo Gallery

When you’re visiting a new city, it helps to have a guide. Dejene Hodes took Anne and Steve on a tour of Addis Ababa, from the Mercato to the financial district. He says the city is bursting with entrepreneurial energy and ambition.

A village in

Kenyan literary scholar James Ogude believes "ubuntu" — a concept in which your sense of self is shaped by your relationships with other people — serves as a counterweight to the rampant individualism that’s so pervasive in contemporary cities.

Art of Julie Mehretu

The families of Dagmawi Woubshet and Julie Mehretu fled Ethiopia because of the brutal Communist regime that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. The violence and corruption in the post-colonial era decimated the hope and idealism of many Africans.

A moment on the street in Addis Ababa.

Ghanaian post-colonial theorist Ato Quayson thinks a lot about globalization, diaspora and transnationalism. Because he’s a literary scholar, he decided to "read" a single street — Oxford Street in Accra — as a study of contemporary urban Africa.

Teju Cole

Teju Cole grew up in Nigeria and then moved to U.S., joining millions of others in the African diaspora. He became an acclaimed novelist and photographer, and now celebrates the cosmopolitan culture of global cities, including Lagos and New York.

A building at the Zoma Museum
Photo Gallery

In Addis Ababa, curator Meskerem Assegued and artist Elias Sime have created Zoma Museum as a visionary model of an urban future, using ancient Ethiopian building techniques. They say modern development can be much more than concrete high-rises.

Show Details 📻
December 14, 2019
September 26, 2020
July 17, 2021
March 26, 2022
January 07, 2023
Professor of African American literature and art
James Ogude
Professor of African Literature and Cultures, Author
Professor of English
Writer and Photographer
Curator, Zoma Museum
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps, and today, we're going some place special with someone special, my husband.

Steve Paulson (00:08):

That's me, Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (00:16):

This is the sound of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. It's after midnight and we're wide awake. It's our first night here, and we're standing on our hotel balcony. We can smell eucalyptus smoke in the air, and something sweet and kind of musty, which turns out to be frankincense.

Steve Paulson (00:40):

Then we remembered it's January 6th. In the Ethiopian Orthodox church, that's Christmas Eve.

Anne Strainchamps (00:49):

Ethiopians practice one of the world's oldest forms of Christianity. It goes all the way back to the fourth century.

Steve Paulson (00:55):

So these songs and chants are ancient.

Anne Strainchamps (01:07):

A couple of days later, we're driving around downtown Addis.

Steve Paulson (01:11):

There is major construction going on everywhere.

Dejene Hodes (01:16):

We're actually in the financial district right now. As you can see, a lot of big buildings being constructed.

Anne Strainchamps (01:22):

All these high rise buildings covered with scaffolding.

Dejene Hodes (01:26):

The one in front of us, the tallest one, is going to be the head office for the National Bank that's being built by the Chinese.

Anne Strainchamps (01:32):

Everything's being built by the Chinese.

Dejene Hodes (01:37):


Anne Strainchamps (01:37):

Here's the thing. This kind of rapid, almost explosive urban growth is happening all over Africa. The continent is home to the fastest growing cities in the world. In 30 years time, it's projected to have 14 mega cities of more than 10 million people.

Steve Paulson (01:57):

Lagos, Nigeria, that one city, is growing by 77 people an hour. It's on track to become a city of 100 million.

Anne Strainchamps (02:07):

Urbanization at this scale and speed is historically unprecedented, so Addis is part of a much larger story. The continent where the human species was born is building the cities of our future.

Steve Paulson (02:23):

These cities are not like Dubai or Singapore or Los Angeles, they are uniquely African cities, and they're forcing all of us, westerners, Africans, global citizens, to reconsider what makes a city modern and how and why cities thrive.

Anne Strainchamps (02:40):

We're in Addis for this amazing gathering of African humanities scholars and artists that have come from all over the continent.

Steve Paulson (02:47):

This is the first episode of a brand new series, Ideas From Africa. Produced in partnership with CHCI, a global consortium of 270 humanity centers and institutes. This hour, thinking about and thinking in African cities.

Anne Strainchamps (03:15):

So it's our first time here, but we talked with people who were born in Addis, people who come back all the time. And the first thing they all talked about was how fast this city is changing.

Dagmawi Woubshet (03:27):

I was here last December. In one year alone, the number of really tall buildings that have gone up, that's in the past 10 years coming back here almost every year. It's extraordinary how fast the cityscape has changed. It's been exponential.

Anne Strainchamps (03:45):

That's Dagmawi Woubshet. He's a cultural studies scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, and he's here with his friend, Julie Mehretu, a MacArthur Award-winning artist.

Julie Mehretu (03:55):

Something that became really clear to me today as I was driving actually to my aunt and uncle's house was how much of a different city it is.

Steve Paulson (04:04):

How so?

Julie Mehretu (04:05):

It's just so much busier, it's on another level in terms of its infrastructure. The kind of buildings that are being built, the speed of which those buildings are being built, the number of people who are here, the traffic and population, it's just in a different time.

Steve Paulson (04:18):

We're sitting with Julie and Dagmawi at the Hilton Hotel, which is something of a legend, because the African Union is based in Addis, and this hotel is where the members used to stay.

Dagmawi Woubshet (04:31):

Addis Ababa used to be a city where you would have, in a single neighborhood, in a single street, people from different social backgrounds, different social class living together. Now, in fact, what you've seen in the past, I don't know, 10, 15 years, the poor being displaced into the periphery of the city, residential segregation along class lines. That wasn't the case in the Addis Ababa we grew up in.

Julie Mehretu (04:57):

Addis Ababa is unique in Africa for being that kind of city that was organically non-colonial city.

Steve Paulson (05:05):

That uniqueness that Julie and Dagmawi are talking about, it's because Ethiopia was never colonized. In fact, it's the only African country that was never colonized.

Anne Strainchamps (05:14):

Although Mussolini did try, and fail.

Steve Paulson (05:16):

Right, which is a point of pride for the Ethiopians.

Dagmawi Woubshet (05:20):

The late critic, [Salamudaresso 00:05:21], says about Addis Ababa is the only African city designed by Africans, meant for Africans, to lead a traditional African life. If you go to, say, Johannesburg, or Cape Town, or Nairobi, where you have a white elite who live in a very excluded part of the city, and then the black masses who reside elsewhere in different quarters of the city, that's not the case here. But I think increasingly, what you're getting is like other cities that are witnessing a kind of rapid urbanization. Things being divided along class lines.

Julie Mehretu (05:59):

But I think we have to be really clear that this is progress, this is evolution in a way. The city, what's interesting-

Dagmawi Woubshet (06:05):

You can't freeze it into where it was when you were kids.

Julie Mehretu (06:07):

You can't freeze it. Yeah, but there are really interesting ways to deal with something so unique and special as an indigenous city on the continent.

Emily Callaci (06:26):

I think that there's been this misperception, based on a kind of, I think, older colonial arrogance that what's happening in African cities is that they are catching up to the rest of the world, rather than recognizing they have their own forms of organizing. They're not necessarily on the singular path towards a singular modernity.

Anne Strainchamps (06:44):

This is Emily Callaci, a historian of modern Africa. So let's shift our focus and talk not just about Addis, but about African cities in general. A lot of Emily's work has focused on Dar es-Salaam in Tanzania, which is currently the second fastest growing city on the planet.

Steve Paulson (07:02):

Emily says the massive urbanization that's happening all around Africa today actually began in the post-colonial period.

Anne Strainchamps (07:10):

That's when young people started leaving their villages to make new lives in the cities, which then began to grow. But not in the way people in the west were used to seeing cities grow.

Emily Callaci (07:22):

When you think about how urban planners and social scientists have typically understood the conventional path towards modern urbanization, we think about, for example, Victorian London. You have the Industrial Revolution, people moving to the city as jobs expand. We have people coming to the city to work. Alongside that, you have the expansion of urban infrastructure, and housing and employment, and economic growth becomes the major impetus for urban growth.

But for many cities in the second half of the 20th century in Africa, these two things don't go together. You have massive urban migration and urban growth without economic growth, without the expansion of state-built infrastructure. In fact, oftentimes, urban growth happens in the context of economic decline. So it's a very different kind of model or trajectory that I think people have typically thought of, then thought about how cities grow and why they grow.

Steve Paulson (08:09):

So I guess the question is, is that a sign of success for the way a city grows, or is it problematic?

Emily Callaci (08:16):

That's a good question. One concept that I found really interesting is developed by this urban theorist, AbdouMaliq Simone, who's worked in a lot of African cities, people as infrastructure. What he means by that is, conventionally when we think about what is infrastructure, we think about roads and pipes and wires and railways. But in many of the cities where he's worked, that hasn't been the dominant form of infrastructure.

Instead, he argues that we should see people as infrastructure. Looking at cities that are largely growing from the grassroots, in this kind of informal way, from people that are migrating to the cities for the first time in these large numbers. The thing that allows a city to be productive, to have networks and systems where things can move is people having relationships with one another.

Steve Paulson (08:59):

Which is fascinating to think about, because that's not the way at least I think about infrastructure. It's a totally different way of connectivity to just human relationships.

Emily Callaci (09:10):

Maybe a way to talk about that is to talk about an example from Dar es-Salaam as well. One of the kind of slang words for describing Dar es-Salaam is to call it Bongoland, and there's a genre of music from Dar es-Salaam called bongo flava. Bongo in Swahili means brain, and the idea of Bongoland and bongo as a kind of adjective is basically suggesting it takes a kind of street smart to live here. Living in this kind of city where the economy's unstable, where politics are unstable, where things change day to day, requires agility and flexibility and intelligence that's different from book learning, that's different from the traditional way you become an economic success in life, that one has to be comfortable in instability, that one has to be good at that.

Steve Paulson (09:54):

And yet, we tend to think, well, I tend to think of a city as needing physical infrastructure. Electricity, electrical grids, good water systems, transportation, housing stock, all of that stuff, not to mention functioning local government.

Emily Callaci (10:11):

Yes. Well, certainly need those things too, you know? I don't want to suggest that we need people as infrastructure instead of electricity, clean drinking water, roads. Obviously, those are really important things. One of the dangers of overly romanticizing informal network, people as infrastructure kinds of urbanism is to kind of let us off the hook collectively for having parts of the world where we don't have things like piped water, and cannot think about the systemic causes of why.

Steve Paulson (10:37):

Obviously, there are going to be problems if you don't have that kind of physical infrastructure, but you're also suggesting that there are different ways to build a city.

Emily Callaci (10:46):

Certainly. One of the examples that I find really interesting is the case study of the matatu industry in Kenya. There's been a recent really fantastic book about this by Kenda Mutongi, it's called Matatu. If you go to Nairobi today, there's a massive, extremely well organized public transport system, buses called matatu. The vast majority of the city gets around. Poor people, middle class people, it's how you get around the city. It goes to every part of the city.

And yet, this started out as a kind of innovation by African entrepreneurs. Nairobi is a city that, unlike many other African cities, it really was a colonial invention at the start. As such, the infrastructure of that city was meant to serve a white settler colonial population. The transportation networks for example were meant to take wealthy, white, colonial administrators and farmers from downtown back to their wealthy suburbs. So there wasn't really an infrastructure built for African workers who were the majority of the people living in the city.

So in the second half of the 20th century, you have African entrepreneurs basically realizing we can build a system that actually serves the African population of the city. So they start to repurpose used vehicles, vans and buses, as a kind of innovative entrepreneurial public transit system that becomes the system that the vast majority of the city uses to get around.

Steve Paulson (12:03):

You're to some degree talking about a different path, a different process, for how a city can grow in Africa, and I'm wondering are there any lessons to be learned elsewhere?

Emily Callaci (12:14):

I think that there's a tendency of thinking of Africa as a place that needs western intervention. But I think we se instances of these incredible industries, these economic successes, that are homegrown. Matatus have never had a penny of western investment, and yet it's by far the most successful transportation system in Kenya. So I think that any kind of talk about, whether it's economic development, or anything of that nature, needs to be directed by Africans who are actually building the cities themselves, and not from outsiders coming to tell people what needs to be done. I think it needs to be directed by all of these incredible successes that are already happening there on the ground.

Steve Paulson (12:59):

Speaking of on the ground, we're back in Addis Ababa.

Anne Strainchamps (13:03):

So where are we now?

Dejene Hodes (13:04):

We're by the stadium, but we're going to go downtown. [Amharic 00:13:11].

Steve Paulson (13:14):

When you're visiting a new city, it helps to have a guide, and here is ours.

Dejene Hodes (13:20):

Dejene Hodes, Ethiopian entrepreneur, I guess. I do tourism and art right now, but more things coming.

Anne Strainchamps (13:29):

Steve and I spent a morning driving around Addis with Dejene. He's in his early 20s, the median age in Africa is 19 by the way. Dejene grew up in Addis. He went to college in Boston, spent a year or so working at an investment firm, before coming back here, where the financial prospects, to him, seem better.

Dejene Hodes (13:49):

Any industry that you want to look at, there's a lot of room for growth. In the US, I would be probably in a cubicle, working somewhere. Right now, we're about to get to Merkato, which is our biggest market. You can find everything from literally foods to cars to anything you want. Individual people selling backpacks, carts, small kiosks, taxis, people negotiating. It's crazy. Police people walking round, not really doing anything, just talking to themselves. Donkey carrying, I don't know what it's carrying actually. You know, chaos, but it's moving chaos. [Amharic 00:14:37].

Anne Strainchamps (14:37):

Is it more than a mile? How big is it?

Dejene Hodes (14:40):

I don't know, it's huge. We would not be able to cover it by driving around.

Anne Strainchamps (14:44):

Wait, is that somebody carrying a pile of mattresses?

Dejene Hodes (14:48):

Yep. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10.

Anne Strainchamps (14:53):

He's carrying 10 mattresses on his head.

Steve Paulson (14:56):

Walking in front of traffic, we might add.

Anne Strainchamps (14:57):

He just crossed five, six lanes of traffic.

Dejene Hodes (15:01):

That's the life of a merkato.

Anne Strainchamps (15:04):

For visitors like us, it's tempting to notice the poverty first. Piles of rubble and broken sidewalks. People selling stuff out of strollers and wheelbarrows, or tarps on the ground. Children begging. You could label this, as the UN and the World Bank did for decades, under development, or you could think of this street as a story, a text, that maybe you just don't know how to read.

Dejene Hodes (15:34):

Especially understand how they interactions, who's buying, who's selling, everything. It's cool to come, I usually come on Sundays sometimes to take pictures and tell small stories for posting on social media.

Anne Strainchamps (15:47):

What kind of small stories? What's an example?

Dejene Hodes (15:49):

I mean, even just the shoe shine boys. A lot of them, they live at home, and they're trying to support their families. Every time I get my shoes shined, I try to ask them, "How long have you been here? Where is your family?" Usually, it's like, "Oh, I'm doing this, school off period so I can pay for uniform, because my parents can't afford it," or, "I can pay for schooling."

I mean, the stories are just as varied to people who don't have family in Addis, they just came here thinking, Addis, they can do anything. It's like people around the world saying, "I want to go to America and I can be anything." Coming to Addis for people in the village is a big deal, and then they can't find support, and then also, it's a city, so life is harsh, and then they end up doing whatever they can. Somebody will buy them a kit for the shoe shine, and then they start doing that.

Anne Strainchamps (16:35):

How much can they make as shoe shine boys?

Dejene Hodes (16:37):

They can make a living, a few dollars a day. There's a few kids around my house that I used to watch, they've done well. They do it together. There's 10 of them. Now, they've got a small car and stuff. So they're innovating together, which is pretty cool. Now, they've become taxi drivers, and they're moving up. Okay, so we're going towards the old stuff. [Amharic 00:17:06].

Steve Paulson (17:13):

It's interesting, Dejene Hodes and Emily Callaci both were talking about very different kinds of African cities. Dar es-Salaam, Nairobi, Addis Ababa. But they both singled out a common core characteristic, social networks.

Anne Strainchamps (17:28):

Imagine a city held together not just by networks of streets, fiber optic cables, and steel tracks, but by an invisible web of social relationships.

James Ogude (17:38):

In South Africa, they call it the black tax. The first thing you do when you arrive in a city in another place, you go to your next cousin, and you stay with him until you get a job, and then you can move on. We always have this responsibility to our siblings. You finish the university, and you have to educate your cousin, not just your brothers, but you also educate your cousins. So these networks persist, and they persist precisely because of the awareness, the awareness that you have a moral obligation to support those around you.

Anne Strainchamps (18:18):

This is James Ogude. He's a native of Kenya, and a professor of African literature and culture at the University of Pretoria, and he's also a scholar of a profoundly humanistic African philosophy known as Ubuntu.

Steve Paulson (18:31):

Archbishop Desmond Tutu actually used this as a way of formulating South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid.

Anne Strainchamps (18:40):

But when Steve and I talked with James Ogude, he said Ubuntu has an even deeper history on the continent, as both a communitarian ethos, and a way of knowing.

James Ogude (18:50):

Ubuntu is a southern African concept. What it means, Ubuntu is rooted in what I call a relational form of personhood, meaning that you are because of the others, in relation to other people.

Steve Paulson (19:06):

So this is totally different than the western notion of the self, which is rooted in individualism.

James Ogude (19:11):

Yes. It is different. Although, one is to qualify that. There's always this tendency when we talk about African communitarian ethos to argue that it deletes individuality. It doesn't. People will debate, people will disagree. It's not like there are no tensions. The myth that people share everything, there are no selfish people, no. That's not what communitarian ethos is. It is basically about you come together as a community, build a consensus around what affects the community, and once you have debated and it is understood that this is the best for the community, then you have to buy into it.

Steve Paulson (19:56):

There's empathy built into this process.

James Ogude (19:58):

Empathy, yes. There's empathy, there's trust that is built, and that for me is the moral obligation that sometimes, is absent in this undue emphasis on individualism and the self. Some of these values, they're not written, but you feel them in your day to day practice. You are not just your father's child. You also belong to the community. When we were growing up, you could eat anywhere. You go to the neighbor, the neighbor would take care of you if you're starving. If there's birth, a baby has been born, the whole community brings what they have and people celebrate. It's a way of affirming life.

Steve Paulson (20:37):

It also sounds like if then, someone has trouble, or a family has trouble, there's this sense that the neighbors, the village, will pitch in and help.

James Ogude (20:45):

Yeah, certainly, yeah. Without being dualistic, there are also deviants. You deviate from the norms of the society. For example, you're selfish, you get ostracized, people talk about you, they say, "So and so is very selfish." They even say, "This one isn't a human being."

Anne Strainchamps (21:05):

So this is a system and a philosophy that goes way, way back. So many cities in Africa now are really focused on a rush to become hyper modern. Are you concerned at all about Ubuntu as a philosophy being forgotten? Or do you feel like there's a way it could be revived, and work in a hyper modern society?

James Ogude (21:31):

This is a very interesting and complex question, because one of the arguments that we have against Ubuntu, or many African writers for that matter, is that in the post-colonial moment, we are cosmopolitan, the society has become increasingly very individualistic, you go into a city and it's a site of survival of the fittest. How do you practice all this if you yourself does not even have a roof for yourself? How do you survive?

And yet, to the contrary, one of the most fascinating things, the way that they reproduce some of these networks of support, they come from far, they move into the city of Ethiopia, or Johannesburg, or Nairobi, and they realize this acute sense of alienation, so what do you do? You build a network of support among yourselves.

Steve Paulson (22:22):

So we've been talking about Ubuntu as a philosophical idea and how it plays out in various communities. I'm wondering how this plays out in your own life? Those specific things that have happened to you or choices that you make, that you do because of this tradition of Ubuntu.

James Ogude (22:40):

Yeah. Not so much, because I had Ubuntu as a concept in the back of my mind, but because I was brought up in a network, where I was supported by others. I was sent to school by my brother. My father passed away when I was not five. It's my brother that took the responsibility to send me to school.

Steve Paulson (23:01):

What did your brother do?

James Ogude (23:03):

He moved me away from the rural area and took me to the city where he was staying, paid for me fees in a private school, which is a lot of money to be paid monthly, and I always look back and say that if it was not for his intervention, perhaps I would just be some herd boy around the village, looking after cows and being paid, and doing manual work. But that also meant that I also had a responsibility. I've had to also educate those around me. My brother's kids, my sister's kids. Thank god I had this space. I had a big house at that time. I could afford it. If I tell you that we're using over five liters of milk per day, you would not believe me. But if my kids are taking cereals, I can't tell them that they won't take cereals, you know. I don't know whether that happens in the west.

Steve Paulson (24:03):

It happens, but maybe not to that degree.

James Ogude (24:06):

That's why I say that some of these values cut across cultures. Fundamentally, deep down, we have an element of Ubuntu in us.

Steve Paulson (24:22):

James Ogude is a scholar of African literature and culture at the University or Pretoria.

Anne Strainchamps (24:29):

So if Ubuntu teaches us anything, it's that interconnectedness is personal, but with 4G and good WiFi, you can feel connected anywhere. Coming up, we'll make the jump from networked cities to networked identities. Diaspora, cosmopolitanism, the new meaning of home

Ato Qyayson (24:48):

What does it mean to not be at home, but to think of home and feel home and homesick on a daily basis? I began to see that perhaps I had held an overly romanticized idea of what going home might mean.

Anne Strainchamps (25:06):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge.

Steve Paulson (25:07):

From Wisconsin Public Radio.

Anne Strainchamps (25:09):

And PRX. Hi, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (25:24):

And I'm Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (25:25):

And we are starting a new project today. Ideas from Africa. It's a collaboration with CHCI, a global consortium of 270 humanity centers and institutes. Right now, we're back in Addis Ababa at the Hilton, where the dining room staff is setting up for dinner. We snagged a table in the back with a couple of people we met earlier.

Julie Mehretu (25:51):

I'm Julie Mehretu.

Dagmawi Woubshet (25:52):

I'm Dagmawi Woubshet.

Steve Paulson (25:54):

Julie's the MacArthur Award-winning artist, and Dagmawi's the cultural studies scholar and writer.

Anne Strainchamps (26:00):

And we were talking before about the epic growth rate in cities like Addis, which is happening all over the continent. Tens of millions of people moving from rural areas to cities in one of the largest demographic shifts in human history.

Steve Paulson (26:13):

And those numbers would be even bigger if you included the continent's shadow population. The several hundred million people in the African diaspora.

Anne Strainchamps (26:21):

Some of them were born outside their home countries, some left as children or to go to school. Some, like Julie and Dag fled political repression.

Steve Paulson (26:30):

No matter why they left or where they live now, most Africans in the diaspora feel profoundly, permanently connected to their homeland.

Julie Mehretu (26:39):

I was born here in 1970. My father's Ethiopian, he was a professor here at the university, and my mother was here from the US. They had just finished building their house, they were really making a commitment to here, and it was home. And then that summer of 1977, as things were really taking hold, and the Americans were asked to leave. My mother, because we had American passports, she was able to take me and my brother be sister, and we left. Thinking it was a temporary decision, my father was able to leave a few months later, but they weren't able to come back until 1992, was the first time they came back.

Steve Paulson (27:13):

And Dagmawi, what was your history?

Dagmawi Woubshet (27:16):

I was born in 1976, and I left when I was 13. There was a week when school was suspended. My parents decided that, I have an older brother, it was time for us to move to the states.

Steve Paulson (27:28):

And just for our listeners who are not familiar with the Derg, can you briefly explain what that did to the country?

Dagmawi Woubshet (27:33):

Yeah. It's the military communist junta that came into power 1974, having toppled Emperor Haile Selassie. For 17 years, it was a brutal regime. I grew up under curfew. I remember times when we would come back from say an aunt's house or an uncle's house, and we just missed the midnight hour, and we would be stopped by soldiers who have machine guns drawn. It's a police state, absolutely.

Julie Mehretu (28:05):

We got searched coming back and forth from school. We got separated from our families at times. There was moments where there was a lot of violence in the streets at that time.

Dagmawi Woubshet (28:14):

Yeah. This is also a time where you had the civil war between Eritrea. So boys especially of a certain age were confiscated and sent to the war zone, so we used to hide. I remember hiding with my cousin for about six months. I remember my father was in prison for two days, and still life went on, in spite of that kind of regime that tried to stamp out life, people still lived and loved.

Steve Paulson (28:45):

So both of you, your lives, your families totally were uprooted from Ethiopia, moved to the US for years. Was it a long time before you first came back here?

Julie Mehretu (28:57):

For me, it was a long time. My first trip back was in 1999, or 2000.

Steve Paulson (29:04):

Do you remember what that was like? I mean, the first time?

Julie Mehretu (29:06):

Oh yeah, I remember everything.

Steve Paulson (29:07):

Tell me about your return. What was that like?

Julie Mehretu (29:10):

I just remember the smell of the air the minute you come off, and I think it's super unique, because of the eucalyptus trees burning everywhere, and the smell of the spices. In our narrative, in our family narrative, Ethiopia and those days were the golden days. Those were the days of all possibility and seeing the hills, seeing the sunset, hearing the sounds. Everywhere you go, everyone's wearing this white cotton shawl. All these beautiful faces staring at you from every side of every street. It was just so affirming to see all that again.

Steve Paulson (29:42):

Well, though, you're pretty nostalgic about a lost way of life, I guess we could say. Is that fair to say?

Julie Mehretu (29:47):

Yeah, I think, I think. But I think in a way that most people are about their childhood, or about an earlier time.

Steve Paulson (29:47):

It's true.

Julie Mehretu (29:52):

But I think for a lot of Africans, and I don't think it's just for Ethiopians, especially if you're a child of the '70s or late '60s, there's a type of nostalgia for possibility that got really eclipsed in the late '70s, all over the continent. It was a decade of real possibility and hope, and post-colonial ambition, and pan-African projects. That really got devastated. I think there's always that form that lingers in any of us whose parents were involved in those projects also.

Steve Paulson (30:20):

So it's like there might have been an alternative history that didn't happen?

Julie Mehretu (30:23):

Yes, yeah. And then I think we really moved into a dystopic '80s. The entire continent went into a really different place.

Anne Strainchamps (30:35):

Political violence, popular protest, urban destruction. These are themes Julie Mehretu returns to again and again in her work as an abstract artist. She and Dagmawi have career trajectories that are common for many African scholars and intellectuals. Leave home, head to the west. Get a job in Europe or the US.

Steve Paulson (31:01):

People who follow this path have a unique perspective on African and western cities of kind of double lens. And they also live with a recurrent question, where's home?

Ato Qyayson (31:12):

I used to feel torn, especially at the start of my career. I always used to think of, I need to take early retirement from the western system and go back home. However, the idea of home also began to shift.

Anne Strainchamps (31:26):

This is the Ghanaian literary scholar and post-colonial theorist, Ato Qyayson.

Ato Qyayson (31:31):

I went back to Ghana many times to have collaborations and so on, but more and more, my friends were abroad. The idea of home began to change. So like 15 years in, I began to see that perhaps I had held an overly romanticized idea of what going home might mean. One of the ways to address that was to write a book about Accra.

Steve Paulson (31:56):

Not just about Accra, but a single street in the heart of the city's most vibrant and localized commercial district, Oxford Street. And by the way, you're listening to it right now. Remember earlier when we were talking about standing on a street corner and trying to read a street?

Anne Strainchamps (32:15):

Well, Ato Qyayson is a major figure in African studies. He writes and thinks a lot about globalization, diaspora, transnationalism. And because he's a literary scholar, he decided to make Oxford Street his text.

Ato Qyayson (32:29):

I have a really, really dear, dear friend who also loves reading. He never left the country. He lived not far from Oxford Street. When I go back to his place, we're going to have lunch, I tell him that, "You know," his name is [Jiba 00:32:50], it's in the book. "Jiba, you know [inaudible 00:32:53], Oxford Street is where globalization is at," and Jiba laughs, he has a very infectious laugh, he laughs very loudly, and he says, "Ato, you're problem is that you think that Oxford Street is a street in Romeo and Juliet."

So he says that, and the thing throws me a bit, and I start thinking about it that what does he mean by it's a street in Romeo and Juliet? Two things then come to mind. First is that I actually know more about Shakespeare than I know about Accra. I taught Shakespeare at Cambridge for the 10 years that I taught there. I actually every year taught a course on Shakespeare. But the second thing is that I had an overly romanticized idea of globalization. So that's how actually the germ of the book, that's how it started.

Steve Paulson (33:40):

There's a lot of talk these days about global cities and certain African cities are mentioned in this discussion of global cities, Accra being one of them. Lagos being another one. Where do African cities fit into this discussion of what is a global city?

Ato Qyayson (33:56):

Technically speaking, the global city debate has to do with finance and financial instruments. New York, London.

Steve Paulson (34:06):


Ato Qyayson (34:07):

Tokyo. These are clear global cities, because they are the nodes and hubs, they're the clearing houses of finance capital worldwide. However, there's another aspect of globalization which has to do with connectivity. It also has to do with cultural exchange. Circulation is culture, circulation of different ideas of what it is to be in the world and so on and so forth.

Steve Paulson (34:33):

If you're walking down the streets of Accra, does it feel like a global city?

Ato Qyayson (34:38):

Some parts of it feel like global city. First of all, everyone is now connected via their cell phone. You can have conversations where to to be very detailed about things happening elsewhere in the world. But you also see lots of brands. This is at the level of boutique cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitanism of style. There is almost nothing you cannot find if you want it.

Steve Paulson (35:03):

That's an interesting definition. You're almost suggesting that globalization is maybe another word for a commercialized city. The forces of capitalism have made it a global city.

Ato Qyayson (35:15):

Not just the forces of capitalism, but the forces of diasporic circulation. What has happened is the increasing travel, and the to-ing, and fro-ing, and so on. For example, both Accra and Lagos have been responsible for a lot of diasporic Ghanaians or Africans who have a particular link to Lagos or Accra, or indeed Nairobi. And who carry multiple worlds with them in any space they traverse. Now, these people, the way they think about Accra is not the same as those that have never left.

Steve Paulson (35:53):

So where is home for you now? How do you define that?

Ato Qyayson (35:57):

I have to answer very carefully. Home is where my wife is. Home is where my wife is.

Steve Paulson (36:03):

That could be in Ghana, it could be in New York.

Ato Qyayson (36:03):

It could be anywhere, yeah.

Teju Cole (36:10):

I consider Brooklyn home, because that's where my wife is, my brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there, so that's home.

Anne Strainchamps (36:23):

This is writer Teju Cole.

Teju Cole (36:25):

I consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It's where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. It's a place where the two most spoken languages in Lagos, Yoruba and English, are languages I'm fluent in. But home is also wherever there's good WiFi. That's home. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world.

Steve Paulson (36:57):

Actually, Teju Cole recently moved again. He now lives in Boston, and teaches creative writing at Harvard. He grew up in Lagos. Went to college and grad school in the US, and he's built a career as a novelist, a critic, a photographer, and he's also spent a lot of time thinking about diaspora and urban identity, and what it means to be a cosmopolitan in the world today.

Teju Cole (37:24):

I certainly did not arrive in the US as a kind of desperate and eager immigrant. We had no money, very little, but the privilege of choice was there. I could go to the US, or I could stay in Nigeria. I came to the US, I got some scholarships, I got some loans. And then I had to start learning what it meant to be here. As an American who is Nigerian, it was almost as if, for the first time, I was also learning that I was black. Did not need to be stated in Nigeria, because everybody else around me was black. I'm in the US now, I had to learn the racial politics of the US.

There are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I'm strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down, and someone shouts the N-word at me? I had to figure out what to think about that.

Speaker 10 (37:24):

America. America rules.

Teju Cole (38:34):

But also, what does it mean if I'm in a social space in a university setting, and somebody says to me, "Oh, you're not like those other blacks"? I'm an American African, but I'm also an African American. I feel very invested in Nigeria's future. It's something I mentally go back to all the time. There's a book I've been working on for a long time about Lagos, and I'm American. America's in crisis at the moment. I feel invested, I always have. I feel invested in what this country ought to be. How do we treat other people? Whose rights should be defended? And, you know, answer everybody's.

Cities are places where you more easily find the people you can have these conversations with. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me. Restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic. Crazy people on the street. High fashion. Cities as a kind of problem solving technology. If there's 60 million of us in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space. Lagos is the capital of Africa. Don't let people in Cairo, Johannesburg, tell you different. It's all lies. Lagos is the place.

Steve Paulson (40:10):

This is the home guy talking here.

Teju Cole (40:12):

Yeah, but Lagos is the place. Where the pop culture of Africa is being made. Certainly a great deal of the fashion and attitude. Lagos is the capital of Africa, but New York is the capital of the world. And the way that facilitates this expansive, complex togetherness conversation, it is stated in New York in a way that is inescapable, so that New York is almost not an American city, it's a city that's a vision of what does a world look like if these borders are not as they are right now?

Steve Paulson (40:57):

Coming up, if Africa is building the cities of the future, what should they look like?

Anne Strainchamps (41:03):

We're going to take a quick break, and when Steve and I come back, we'll talk about visionary African architecture. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Steve Paulson (41:24):

And I'm Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (41:26):

And we've been talking this hour with African artists, writers, and intellectuals about cities and urban life. As I hope we've made clear, Africa is a place that is abundant in ideas. It's a continent with a long and rich history of producing knowledge.

Steve Paulson (41:43):

For example, let's head back to Addis Ababa. In an old, industrial quarter across town, an artist and a curator have built a visionary model of an urban future using ancient Ethiopian building techniques.

Anne Strainchamps (41:57):

Proving that modern development doesn't have to come in the form of reinforced concrete high rises.

Meskerem Assegued (42:04):

I came to Ethiopia to travel. I was living in the US, and my father died, so I came back to Ethiopia, and I took my children, and we traveled around the country.

Anne Strainchamps (42:15):

Meet Meskerem Assegued.

Meskerem Assegued (42:21):

We went to see the historic sites, like the Lalibela and Gondar, and all these incredible buildings, but right next to them, there are all these ancient buildings that people are living in. Stone buildings with maybe earth mortar, thick walls. You see them everywhere. Oh my God, these buildings, does anybody know how valuable these are? How much we can learn from them? Buildings that were made like that have been standing for thousands of years. Then I thought the only way to convince anybody the importance of these buildings was by doing a museum.

Anne Strainchamps (43:03):

So that was the vision?

Meskerem Assegued (43:04):

That was a vision. And I had nothing at that moment. I honestly didn't have a clue but a dream. I don't know how, I don't know where, something has to happen.

Anne Strainchamps (43:17):

20 years later, Zoma Museum has happened. Zoma is tucked away in a corner of the city, behind a maze of small streets. Our taxi driver got lost a few times trying to find it, but eventually, we came to a corrugated metal gate and picked our way through dust and cracked concrete, and into an oasis of green. What an extensive garden. What all are you growing here?

Meskerem Assegued (43:45):

Either medicinal plants or vegetables. We are [crosstalk 00:43:51].

Anne Strainchamps (43:51):

Terraced gardens spill down a hillside. There's a small stream, little waterfalls, there are birds everywhere. And singing.

Meskerem Assegued (43:59):

Yeah. [inaudible 00:44:03].

Anne Strainchamps (44:02):

It was the day before Timkat, Epiphany, one of the biggest holidays of the year. The whole time we were walking around, we could hear this continuous singing and chanting in the background. It's all very festive.

Meskerem Assegued (44:14):

No problem, so do you want to start from...

Steve Paulson (44:17):

Zoma isn't like any museum we've ever seen before. It's a living environmentally sustainable compound with a café and a kitchen. All the food is grown here.

Anne Strainchamps (44:27):

And are these banana trees?

Meskerem Assegued (44:28):

These are false banana trees.

Steve Paulson (44:29):

There's also a kindergarten.

Meskerem Assegued (44:31):

It's a very wildly active kindergarten. We have the kindergarten garden, it's an edible schoolyard. We have cows who they milk.

Anne Strainchamps (44:42):

You have cows too?

Meskerem Assegued (44:43):

Yeah, we do. We have goats, we have sheep here. I can walk you around.

Anne Strainchamps (44:48):

Zoma also makes its own electricity.

Meskerem Assegued (44:50):

There's a biogas system here. The cows' manure comes through here and it goes into the tube, and it creates gas, and we use the gas for lighting and all that.

Anne Strainchamps (44:58):

And they've even figured out how to purify the streams that come from the nearby polluted river.

Meskerem Assegued (45:03):

We grow reeds to detox the water, or we use the sun by opening the channels to kill all the bacteria.

Steve Paulson (45:14):

What's most amazing are the buildings themselves. They're built by hand out of coffee-colored mud molded into sinuous, voluptuous, almost biological forms, and they look like they've been baked.

Meskerem Assegued (45:26):

That's called wattle and daub. There's a wood frame that's stitched with string. The wood frame is where you throw the mud and straw, and you have to ferment the mud and straw.

Anne Strainchamps (45:37):

it has to be fermented?

Meskerem Assegued (45:38):

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, you always have to use subsoil. You add straw, and then you add water. You mix it every three days. Then eventually, after about a month, it will start smelling like wine. It becomes kind of gluey. And it becomes like rock. It's an ancient technique, and these buildings that were made like that have been standing for thousands of years.

Anne Strainchamps (46:04):

Talk about indigenous, natural, organic architecture.

Meskerem Assegued (46:08):

So why are we abandoning this technique? Why can't we take this into the next step instead of using cement buildings or concrete buildings, that are so environmentally bad. Our dream is to build a four story building using mud, and make it contemporary at the same time, and make it very modern.

Anne Strainchamps (46:29):

Meskerem's partner in this project is Elias Sime.

Meskerem Assegued (46:32):

This is Elias.

Anne Strainchamps (46:33):

This is amazing.

Elias Sime (46:35):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (46:36):

He's an Ethiopian sculptor and collagist. His work is in dozens of international museums, but here on these grounds, he's turned the museum itself into a work of art.

Meskerem Assegued (46:47):

You know what he tells the workers sometimes?

Anne Strainchamps (46:50):


Meskerem Assegued (46:51):

Pretend you're touching your girlfriend or your wife. So you're touching the mud, you're touching her. So just feel that as you're working on that.

Anne Strainchamps (47:01):

Create out of love.

Elias Sime (47:02):

Yeah, yeah.

Anne Strainchamps (47:06):

Everywhere you look, things seem to be coming to life. Turtles and lizards are chiseled into walkways. Dry-set stone walls are shaped like peacock tails. Entire buildings molded into patterns of waves and spirals and insects. Everything morphing from one form of life into another.

Meskerem Assegued (47:24):

And the cows are here if you want to see them.

Steve Paulson (47:27):

Oh, wow.

Anne Strainchamps (47:27):

Sure thing.

Meskerem Assegued (47:30):

[inaudible 00:47:30].

Anne Strainchamps (47:33):

The cows! Oh!

Meskerem Assegued (47:36):

We have to milk them, so they're not machine milked.

Anne Strainchamps (47:39):

Oh sweetie.

Meskerem Assegued (47:41):

Sorry I didn't bring you carrots.

Anne Strainchamps (47:43):

I was just thinking I suppose there are people that would say, "Well, it's all very well that you have a barn and you have cows and everything, but that's not art."

Meskerem Assegued (47:50):

Oh, that is art. Life is art.

Anne Strainchamps (47:55):

Now that you've done a museum, do you want to move on to building a village?

Meskerem Assegued (48:00):

You know, I'm getting older now. What I'm doing is I want to motivate people, I want to see young people get motivated.

Anne Strainchamps (48:09):

Is that why the kindergarten and all the work with young artists and apprentices?

Meskerem Assegued (48:14):

Absolutely, absolutely. Kindergarten particularly, because you've got to get them young. What you see here is really, this is the earth that gives you food no matter what we do to it. No matter how much we destroy it, it continues to feed us. So here, you have kids, and you know, I'm a mother, a tree that's grown crooked, you can't straighten it. A child, you can actually plant the seed there. So the vision that you're talking about, it's love.

Anne Strainchamps (48:50):

If you can't tell, we kind of fell in love with this place too.

Steve Paulson (48:53):

It was incredible.

Anne Strainchamps (48:55):

It's Meskerem Assegued, she founded Zoma along with Elias Sime. The museum opened earlier this year.

Steve Paulson (49:08):

So this was our last day in Ethiopia. We left this little patch of paradise in the middle of Addis Ababa, climbed in our cab and drove back to our hotel through the busy streets, and the holiday festivals. Past the street vendors and all the people out talking and congregating. We came away with a vision of what the city of the future might look like, and how Africa will play a central role in that history.

Anne Strainchamps (49:35):

We'll have more stories about contemporary thinking in and about Africa in the months ahead. Featuring scholars, writers, and artists, whose work is helping all of us imagine the future. This hour is dedicated to the memory of one in particular. Teju Olaniyan. A great thinker of African life and culture. He left us too soon, but his work will continue to inspire.

Steve Paulson (50:04):

That's it for our show today. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Charles Monroe-Kane, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Angela Batista, and Mark Riechers. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hartdke. I'm Steve Paulson.

Anne Strainchamps (50:19):

And I'm Anne Strainchamps. Today's show's part of a new project, Ideas From Africa. A collaboration with audio producer Craig Eley and the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes. Special thanks to Sara Guyer and the staff of CHCI. You'll find extended interviews and more information about the project at, and at

Speaker 13 (50:41):


Last modified: 
January 06, 2023