Traffic in Lagos  

Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanising region in the world. According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an American think tank, the region’s share of the world’s urban population is set to increase to 20.2 percent by 2050. By 2030, cities will be home to half of the region’s population, according to the World Bank.

This change is viewed, almost universally, as a good thing, the only qualification being that it must be handled properly. The World Bank reckons that increased urbanisation in Africa can “lead to economic growth, transformation, and poverty reduction.” In a 2016 McKinsey urbanisation was identified as one of the main factors likely to underpin the region’s future growth.

This is not wild speculation. It is not a secret, as the Centre for Strategic and International Studies contends, that “urban centers play a critical role in fighting poverty and sustaining economic growth, and are often considered the future of prosperity in the developing world.” To prove it, Sub-Saharan Africa’s 143 cities currently account for half of the region’s GDP.

Even more, across the world and across history, urbanisation has been associated with the nobler instincts of man. Yes, the grime and crime of impersonal metropolises have often been the butt of great literary lamentations, but there is a reason that the word “civilisation” is derived from “civitas,” the Latin word for an urban area.

Cities are the medium of human development and culture. Urbanisation unleashes the full powers of human creativity and productivity. It fosters greater access to resources, better jobs and a higher quality of life. Development, as we understand it, is indistinguishable from urbanisation.

Of course, this is not the full story. The optimists are wise enough to temper their bullishness with some rational caution. Urbanisation, if not properly managed, can also lead to great social ills. The World Bank acknowledges that it is associated with “increased inequality, urban poverty, and the proliferation of slums.”

This is nowhere truer than in the global south, of which Africa is the centre. Our cities, despite their virtues, are famous for sprawling slums, atrocious infrastructure and horrible air quality. The constant din of generators in Lagos, endless jams in Nairobi and open sewers in Luanda reveal failures in Africa’s modern urban experiment (I make the distinction because the concept of urbanisation is not new to Africa, which has some of the world’s oldest cities).

Moral pollution is also more easily spread, driven by a globalised culture of hedonism that not only breaks down traditional restraints but is used by the “development” elite to achieve population control.

In this way urbanisation in Africa threatens a much more sublime thing. It does not feature in the analyses of scholars and development agencies. Yet, of all the typical African institutions, it is hard to find one that is more important. I speak of the African extended family.

Families are a vital feature of virtually all African communities. In practically no part of the continent has the nuclear family been an ideal until recent times. It is in the extended family that our ancestors found the source of both identity and security. It gave form to all aspirations and provided contours to daily life.

The notion of the extended family powered the independence era ideals of African socialism and helped propel the push for continental federation. In fact, Julius Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania, made a valiant effort to make all of Africa one big family, with institutions like the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union).

In their attempts to develop a distinctly African philosophy, thinkers often find themselves falling back to the extended family. The famous concept of “ubuntu,” distilled in the pithy expression “we are, therefore I am,” resonates with the African consciousness because it speaks to a deep truth, a truth that defines our very conception of ourselves.

However, urbanisation is chipping away at the foundations of the extended family. From the advent of European colonisation, the separation and dispersal of the extended family has become the norm. For the most part, it took the form of men moving from the villages to work in European homes and businesses. These men would send their earnings back to the village for the upkeep of their families and, periodically, would travel upcountry to be with their kin.

There are still many stories that mirror this classic arrangement. Over time, though, more people have moved their entire families to the cities. There are also many urban natives, people who have been born and raised in cities, far away from their ancestral lands, and from the institutions and families that connect them with everyone back there.

Of course, the extended family is not giving up without a fight. Some of the peculiarities of urbanisation in Africa are directly attributable to its struggle to survive. For instance, it is a common thing for urban Africans to maintain two homes. The urban dwelling is considered temporary, a bedroom from which to access work and school. The village home is for leisure and for carrying out the activities that really matter.

The village home is also where most are eventually buried. In my country, Kenya, there is a general aversion to being buried in a public cemetery. That ignominious fate is reserved for rootless non-native communities, like Goans and Europeans. The typical first-generation urban African is never really uprooted from the call of his fatherland. There is always a home somewhere, a place to which to go back if everything comes crumbling down.

Sadly, this is unlikely to hold for long. As the share of the urban population expands, and as more urban natives come of age, the structures that have historically knit the extended family together are losing their sacred status. Things like traditional marriage ceremonies and big communal feasts might survive, but they are slowly headed for the peripheries of normal life.

It seems fatalistic, but I foresee a time when the African extended family will be a peculiarity, interesting only to historians. And as we lose the extended family, it behoves all Africans to find alternative sources of the identity and security that it has so far provided. Otherwise, we will be swept away by whatever trends the outside world thrusts upon us.

It is my hope that we will have the humility to bring along the values that have formed the heart of the extended family.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.