IN THE past month, I have visited four African cities – three of them for the first time, and spanning four regions: North, West, Central and East Africa. Spending two or three days in each (mostly on the conference circuit), I didn’t extensively tour the cities, or get a sense of all that they had to offer.
But I did form clear first impressions – the hugely subjective, yet almost tangible vibe that a city exudes.
It consists of a host of arbitrary factors: how the streets are laid out, the look in someone’s eye, street lighting (or the lack thereof), whether the people walk with a languid drag or a purposeful saunter, and many other fleeting things.
With that, I have decided to put together a completely unscientific cityscapes ranking, which I have ordered from the best to the worst.
The Winner: ABIDJAN
(Photo/ Flickr/ Citizen 59)
The first thing you notice about Cote d’Ivoire’s economic capital, as you drive in from the airport, is its wide streets and tree-lined boulevards. That gives it a vaguely majestic feel; it seems to be a city that is meant to be there, and didn’t merely find itself existing.
Abidjan is sometimes called “The Paris of Africa”, but I haven’t been to Paris and so cannot tell if this reputation is deserved or not. The city represents 45% of urban dwellers in Cote d’Ivoire and a fifth of the country’s total population, but there is a sense of order that is relatively rare in African cities. Even with all the hustle and bustle, I didn’t see a single vehicle jump the traffic lights, and there was no hooting or jostling either.
I was able to freely walk the streets at 11pm in the business district Le Plateau, and the suburb of Cocody, without a sense of dread. Granted, these are upmarket areas, but even so, this cannot be said for many cities around the continent.
The city was set back by the country’s civil war and political crisis of a few years ago, but the recovery seems on course. Abidjan is a warm place – both in the literal and metaphoric sense. People smiled, walked briskly and made eye contact. The energy makes you feel you can achieve something meaningful there.
(Photo/ Flickr/ Mighty Travels)
Rwanda’s capital is known for being perhaps the cleanest city in Africa, and it is true – the place is immaculate, almost gleaming. The streets are well lit, and police on patrol hang out of refurbished pick-ups, facing outwards on two benches, about 5-a-side and guns in hand. It’s an intimidating, yet oddly reassuring sight – you know that you will not have to deal with opportunistic petty crime.
There is order and discipline on the roads too, though for a traffic-hardened Nairobian like me, what is considered “rush hour traffic” in Kigali is a Sunday afternoon breeze in my book.
The city has grown exponentially in the past decade and a half; brand new neighbourhoods have been built from scratch, from what was essentially rural land.
But Kigali is small, and seems rather subdued – even tame. This is not necessarily a bad thing (many people would choose that over chaos that typifies African urban life), but it lacks a certain energy and vibrancy that was immediately evident in Abidjan.
I visited one of (the few) nightclubs in the upmarket Nyarutarama district, and even as the drinks flowed and the night wore on, I have never seen a bunch of drunk 20-somethings who are that well behaved.
(Photo/ Wikimedia Commons)
Gabon is classified as an upper middle-income country (one of just eight in Africa), the continent’s third richest country by GDP per capita, according to World Bank data. It has oil to thank for this – crude accounts for 80% of exports, 45% of GDP, and 60% of budget revenue. The country has a total population of just 1.6 million – about 60% of whom live in the capital, Libreville.
For a country that is Africa’s third richest, Libreville seems modest indeed – even a little scruffy. Though the city’s main highway straddles a beach that is clean, many buildings have that familiar corrosion in coastal cities all over Africa, caused by the salty air slowly dissolving the paint. There is a vague air of neglect about the place – like there isn’t much to do, but somehow, everyone has made peace with it.
And being awash in oil money makes Libreville rather expensive – even a simple meal and drink could set you back $30.
#4: SHARM EL-SHEIKH
(Photo/ Flickr/ Ahmed Helal)
Often just called “Sharm”, this port city and resort town is located at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. The views are stunning – the Red Sea is of a deep blue tone that I have never seen before, with the rocky mountains of the Sinai peninsula in the backdrop.
About 40 years ago, Sharm el-Sheikh was nothing but a small fishing village, but today it is essentially a city of glitzy hotels. From the ramrod straight streets and sharp right angles, you can tell that it did not emerge organically; externally, it has the most developed infrastructure of the four that I have visited.
So why have I put it last on my rankings? It is because I have never been in a place where people were so menacing. As a (black) woman, being looked at in public places isn’t anything new, but for the first time in my life, I was stared at in an aggressive, threatening way, and men did not avert their gaze when I made eye contact. Inside the hotel was all right, but from the gate onwards, it was clear to me that I was not going to be safe.
The other terrifying thing that happened was that the taxi I was in got into an accident, as the driver tried to make a u-turn on the highway and was hit by an oncoming car.
I was in the car with a friend of mine, and upon impact our taxi’s bonnet was prised right off. Egyptian drivers are notorious for their chaotic ways, but what unnerved me most was not the accident itself, but the cool, offhand way the drivers got out of their cars and started causally kicking the broken glass and metal shards off the road. As we stood, rather shaken, on the side of the road, no one even looked at us, let alone asked us if we were all right.