Sunday, December 4, 2011

Homo Urbanus Africanus

In 1950, there were 20 million city dwellers in Africa. Today, the number has gone up to 400 million and in 2050 it is projected that there will be more than a billion people. This radical evolution is due to rural migration, economics, border changes and above all population growth.

To describe this accelerated urbanising phenomenon, sociologists have coined a new term: "Homo urbanus." After Europe, the Americas and Asia, Africa's own urban revolution has begun. The most urbanised regions of the continent are found along the coastal areas of North Africa, West Africa, the Nile Valley and Ethiopia. In the Southern Africa region, the coast connects Cape Town to Maputo. Whilst some 40 percent of citizens live in megalopolises such as Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa, Abidjan, Johannesburg, and Casablanca; the remaining 60 percent live in cities with less than 500,000 inhabitants.

A meeting place par excellence, the city is a melting pot of cultural and economic exchanges. It's also a space for individual expression where many easily escape social pressures. Eating habits have evolved in the city. In Dakar, like in Kinshasa, meals are being eaten more and more on the go; outside the traditional family setting. In Rabat and Casablanca, the middle class go grocery shopping in large malls while parents take their children to activity centers, have lunch at a restaurant and go to the gym for a boost of energy during the weekend. Costly pleasures far from the grasp of the less fortunate.

The city has also become the preferred place of expression for the younger generation (the average age of the African city dweller is 18) who are particularly affected by job insecurity, the failure of the education system and the end of the welfare state. While some are tempted by emigration, others are exploring new ways of affirming their identity by virtue of popular protests and economic resourcefulness.

Many have opted to become taxi drivers, tourist guides or resorted to touting on the streets. They exorcise their ill-feelings in slang) and music based on social realities. The youth's disquietness is also reflected in their struggle with marginalisation, the consumption of drugs and involvement in violent crime. A real challenge for African leaders.

More than ever, urban policies need to take into account citizens' needs in essential services such as drinking water and sanitation systems, electricity, medical access, education, sports and activities. Equally important is a continent wide economic policy focusing on the creation of jobs. This year, the youths were instrumental in the toppling of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and they have started turning up the heat on Sub-Saharan Africa. Homo urbanus africanus takes change seriously.

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