Hubs of innovation, art and culture; these are the hidden treasures of Africa's slums

People in the slums of Africa's cities sometimes live on the extreme of poverty; and often their response is extreme mind-blowing innovation.

AS part of the BBC’s “A Richer World” season, renowned Swedish statistician Hans Rosling recently discussed how West Africa managed to contain the Ebola virus.

It is a fascinating presentation, and part of it illustrates how the trajectory of things tend to change dramatically when they arrive in an African slum.

Sometimes it is for the worse, as in the case of Ebola. Other times, it is for the better, as with culture.

So it is with Semba, the type of infectious music that is always sure to snag the usual body wigglers in the room. Its rhythm combines a delicious mix of lively African beats, smooth samba tones and fast-paced Caribbean Zouk flavour to produce a sound that will keep you hip-locked for hours. 

It’s easy to understand how this music got its name; semba comes from the singular Masemba, meaning “a touch of the bellies”, a move that characterises the appropriate semba dance stance. 

Semba’s roots

Semba originated from the slums or musseques of Luanda, Angola, in the early 1960s. Urban Angolans began to take advantage of reforms in colonial policy and began to improve their daily lives, which included the creation of new cultural spaces. The production of semba, a local form of urban popular music, was at the forefront of this process. 

Today the music is as alive and popular as it ever was, with new artists emerging every year. In fact, any conversation about contemporary Angolan music must always begin with semba. It has also achieved international popularity, particularly in Lusophone countries and across West Africa.

It goes to show, you cannot judge a book by its cover. 

When looking at the conditions of slums across Africa with a naked eye, the conditions are wretched, but dig a little bit deeper and you find soul, innovation and vibrancy like nowhere else in the city. 

One example is the great genres of music, like semba, that came of Africa’s labour-driven informal settlements that cropped up around colonisation, under repression, and which continues to come out today. 

In South Africa, the underground musical culture started with marabi, a style of township music usually played with a keyboard, with traits of American ragtime and blues. Marabi rhythms found their way into the sounds of the bigger dance bands and, more contemporarily, its swing style developed into early mbaqanga, the most distinctive form of South African jazz.

Graffiti in Nairobi

In some slums artistic expression comes in the form of writing or drawing which can transform the settlement into a buzz of elaborate wall paintings. In Nairobi’s Korogocho slum, for example, youth have take to expressing themselves in mural art. They paint messages of hope and change, seeking to inspire their community by drawing positive images which could change their society. 

Graffiti for peace also became popular in Kibera, Kenya’s biggest slum, culminating in a youth art project known as “Kibera Walls for Peace.” This project encouraged unity and cooperation between different ethnic and political groups ahead of presidential elections in 2013, a movement which resulted in the spray-painting of a 10-car commuter train, which goes through the slum, with peace messages and icons. This was maybe the first train in Africa with officially authorised graffiti! 

Slum festivals 

Art is a well-recognised form of treasure that can be found in slums and its role is being increasingly institutionalised. 

In Uganda for example, the Kampala slum festival is building on the creative skills that can be found within settlements. It targets groups within the slums who are particularly economically deprived, focusing on communities in over 10 areas of the city. For one day each year, these communities are treated to an arts festival filled with music, street poetry, art exhibitions, street art, handicrafts, film screenings and workshops.

While in Kenya, the annual Slum Film Festival, founded in 2011, also celebrates creativity. It is a community-based annual film event which features stories from, by, and about people living in urban slums. It is both a celebration of the creativity of filmmakers living and working in slums, and offer an opportunity to promote – through a week of outdoor screenings – a diverse range of films within communities with limited or no access to cinema.

These types of initiatives are a demonstration of the increasing innovation happening within Africa’s slums, allowing residents to become agents of change, transforming the society from inside out and becoming places to pilot some of the city’s most incredible urban adaptation programs. 

Innovation

In Dakar’s Yoff slum for example, residents combined efforts with a branch of Environment and Development Action (a development NGO based in Senegal) to design and implement a sustainable, gravity-fed wastewater system.

Yoff, an urban area bordering the Atlantic Ocean, had in recent years suffered from huge inward migration, and like many urban areas, the infrastructure had not kept up. Narrow streets prevented access for water and sanitation trucks to properly dispose of wastewater and it became common for Yoff’s residents to dump used household water on the beach.

The system the residents implemented collects household wastewater in small settling tanks before sending it “downstream” to larger collection basins, or lagoons, where it is treated and purified with aquatic plants. The recycled water is then efficiently used for irrigation, urban agriculture, and toilet systems - an extremely valuable resource in a water-scare region. The community successfully established a committee to manage the system, and signs painted by community members educate others on proper disposal of used water in the system.

In South Africa another innovative move has great promise in the country’s second largest township, Khayelitsha. Even though this settlement lacks virtually all urban planning, public amenities and even a recognisable city centre, South Africa’s Cape IT initiative (CiTi) has just opened the Barn Khayelitsha incubator, the second branch of Cape Town’s popular incubator Bandwidth Barn

The Barn aims to support technology-based innovations, key to solving local problems and encouraging job creation. To begin with, the Barn Khayelitsha will run programmes focusing on general business development and support; women in business, youth in technology, ICT skills development, tourism (leveraging business via the internet) and “agritech” – encouraging smallholder farmers to use technology. 

Treasures in themselves

Lastly, in some countries, slums are treasures in themselves. Historical institutions that co-exist with the formal city, fuelling the cities’ growth despite obvious challenges.

Take for example the floating slum city of Makoko in Nigeria, a groundless area along the Lagos lagoon which, for over 100 years, has been home to a community deeply entrenched and proud of their fishing culture. Even though they’ve been threatened by the government with resettlement, the majority of the Makoko community are fishermen, market traders and fish-smokers who prefer to live on the water. 

Every house has a canoe, with the larger ones used for deeper ocean excursions and the smaller ones used for inshore work. The community supply Lagos with their catch at their markets, popular with the more flashy city residents and satisfying the cities’ fish demands. At the Makoko-Asejere market, the most popular market in Makoko, seafood, from barracudas to prawns and crab are are sold at low prices. 

On the other side of the continent, Kigali’s Nyamirambo area is a slum in transition - and is now more considered a “suburb” rather than a “slum”, though parts of it still remain greatly wanting in infrastructure and security. 

50 years ago it was just another Rwandese village but quickly absorbed migrants and became a recognised “fun” but dangerous part of the city, known locally as “gangster’s paradise”. It is home to a big Muslim community, has an exceptionally vibrant nightlife, is very multi-cultural with African residents from across the continent and businesses that work 24/7.  

Touted as the birthplace of “Kinyarwanda slang”, a slang which characterises many of the locally produced songs, Nyamirambo also became a music hub and hosts a number of music studios such as Touch Record, F2K, Super Level, Unlimited and Top5sai. 


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