The Griot Introspect
Whose Utopia is it, Anyway?
In the days and weeks after [government sanctioned] “Operation Murambatsvina” (Clear the Filth) was launched on May 19, 2005, police burnt, bulldozed and destroyed tens of thousands of properties around the country. The destructions resulted in the mass evictions of urban dwellers from housing structures and the closure of various informal sector businesses throughout the country. According to the United Nations, 700,000 people — nearly 6 percent of the total population — have been forcibly evicted from their homes, made homeless or lost their source of livelihood since May 19. The evictions and demolition of houses and markets stalls, and the manner in which they were carried out, constitute serious human rights violations.
“Clear The Filth”: Mass Evictions And Demolitions In Zimbabwe”
The Implementation of Operation Murambatsvina (Clear the Filth)
Human Rights Watch, Sep 2005
A similar fate befell the vendors (though perhaps not on the Zimbabwean scale) in downtownJohannesburg with their mass eviction in 2013, Agbogbloshie June 4 market [Accra, Ghana] during the July 2015 demolitions; and the tenants of the Nakivubo Parkyard Market in Kampala, Uganda who, in March 2017 woke up to the bulldozing of the structures that were, for many, their entire livelihood.
Many African urban spaces remain oppressive in the 21st century, a legacy of colonialism on the continent. Emerging communities, economies and structures that should have taken hold in the immediate post-colonial era were and continue to be marginalised into informality by the ‘template’ that we continue to aspire to. This is reflected in our use of urban areas, with the hierarchical tension between spaces such as markets and malls, and between modern African hybrids such as Mobile Money kiosks, and banks.
Cities take the form of a rigid, insufficient mould, rarely meeting the needs of their fast growing, dynamic populations. The inhabitants, unphased by this rigidity, continuously move around and adapt, flowing through and filling the gaps created by imported urbanity, thus highlighting its failures, particularly in spaces where they are not allowed to flow.
As urban creatives living in and observing these spaces, we find ourselves with the unique opportunity for introspection. A new equilibrium must be sought.
The Age of Multiplicity
The urban dweller of the post colonial age goes through life straddling a razor thin line dividing the perceived modern — too often read ‘Western’ — and our inherent identity, a traditional, yet forever evolving, morphing, breathing identity. Every action is the result of a number of conscious and subconscious decisions based on this fluid identity and the global — and therefore no longer foreign — identity.
Nowhere is this multiplicity so clearly expressed as it is in our cities. We live out our urban lives in an infrastructure constructed and designed by and for a different age and inhabitant. The functionality of the Physical City must often be questioned as we face the violence of navigating this alien structure imposed on our reality by authoritarian figures, in the name of ambiguously defined modernization and development.
The Living City, on the other hand, tells a different story; the inhabitants act as fillers, flowing through rigid infrastructure and challenging all restrictions and channels, daily recreating and reinforcing more dynamic solutions to our needs. The street vendor at the intersection notorious for congestion ensures that commuters are watered. His colleagues provide everything from toilet paper, to airtime and chocolate. Thus the most marginalized [by design] of the populace become a living map of our needs in the hybrid state that is our existence.
With this wealth of dynamic information at our fingertips, our infrastructure should reflect the innovative nature of our inhabitance of space, yet we continue to import alien models in a misguided effort to prove ourselves worthy in the global urban development discourse. We label markets and public transport systems ‘informal’, instead building [then abandoning] parking garage markets in commercially dead zones and bus stops for inadequate bus systems, all of which will be altered and repurposed by those they were intended for, before being labelled as problem areas in the next wave of government mandated development planning. We invest in unconnected development plans but do not engage the communities they impact. We reject — in structure but not in function — that which
is truly representative of our needs, our way of life, identity, and take on outdated versions of models that continue to grow outside of us, thus guaranteeing ourselves a back seat in our own development.
In living this schizophrenic existence, in appreciating the innovative measures taken to ensure an [uncomfortable] equilibrium, one finds the opportunity to facilitate a more inclusive development dialogue that transcends generation, class and borders, for a manifested whole. This dialogue must be founded on a period of introspection, allowing all who engage a moment to reflect on space in all its embodiments, in the understanding that the Physical space can not be at odds with the Living, that for the Living space to manifest itself in intentional design, we must engage all aspects of our psychological, mental and virtual space, and that for us to truly engage, we must empower the primary informant in this dialogue — the citizen.
We must take the development narrative, and return it to those who live it.
Empowering the Interstitial
There exists a disconnect between the imported urban ideal and the lived reality. The world of the ‘informal’ is possibly the only mediating element, the organic space where the needs of the citizen take priority. These spaces are structured, sustainable ecosystems that dominate economy and serve the communities who build them.
What if we were able to use these spaces as platforms for development dialogue and implementation? What if communities were the driving force behind development?
To begin this process of recalibration we must engage, deconstruct and analyse African revolutionary thought, freeing it from the exclusive circles of academia and enriching it with the lived experiences of the majority. This is easily achieved, as the tradition of disseminating information and engaging in dialogue in shared spaces, beginning with the griot, continues to be manifested in, among others, mobile community radios, market preachers, singers and actors. Across the Continent, preachers effectively share their faith with commuters, quoting biblical texts and leading in prayer and song from within the matatus of Nairobi and Kampala, the danfos of Lagos, as well as the trotro of Accra.
An established dialogue in which all parties have a voice would allow the urban creative to explore, engage and record the interstitial that is the informal, setting the foundation for various expressions of collected observations, installations that are living maps of the reality — recorded space as installation. In mapping the experienced space, the creative is able to identify hierarchies, issues, gaps, potential; in the process creating and leaving visual traces of this mapping — installation as intervention. The more permeable our physical, psychological, mental and virtual spaces become
through this intervention, the more efficiently the greater community can engage with it, allowing the citizen, facilitated by the creative, to direct the development of their own space — intervention as space.
The Griot Introspect is an explorative intervention focusing on the African experiment in Western urbanity. It is an attempt to create a unifying platform for existing and new innovative efforts to centre the African lived experience in the development narrative; it is geared towards decoloniality - an attempt to create cities/buildings/spaces in which the African can thrive.