Africa Urban Spaces: History and Culture

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March 28-30 2003

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The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa, c.1750-2000

Edited by Andrew Burton

(British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi, 2002: ISBN 1-872566-26-X)

Over the past hundred years the towns and cities of Eastern Africa have experienced growth rates which have been among the highest in the world. Societies that in the early twentieth century were overwhelmingly rural have become increasingly urban; sleepy colonial towns have been transformed into burgeoning post-colonial cities. However, despite its contemporary significance, urbanisation as a historical phenomenon has only of late begun to receive due attention from scholars of the region. This collection reflects the recent upsurge in interest in Eastern Africa’s urban history. A diverse range of chapters provide broad geographical and thematic coverage. Local traditions of urbanism are discussed in a section on pre-colonial urban settlements. This is followed by a series of chapters that address the ramifications of urban growth in the twentieth century. Rapid urbanisation and the politics of urban order are analysed in the administrative histories of selected urban centres. The city has been the location of ambitious attempts at social control; it has also been a place where the colonial and post-colonial state has had the greatest difficulty in imposing order. These administrative histories are followed by chapters that explore the social and cultural transformations associated with urbanisation and the ambivalent place of the town in African society. The urban arena emerges as the locus of gender, generational and class struggles, and as a site of identity formation and economic and cultural opportunity. The volume brings together a series of case studies that offer valuable historical background to the contemporary problems and opportunities facing Eastern Africa’s urban centres in the early 21st century.

See below for a full list of contents and chapter summary.

TO ORDER: Copies ordered directly from the British Institute are available at the special rate of US$20 + postage and packing.(Please mention the African Urban Spaces Conference website when ordering) Airmail takes 1-3 weeks and costs US$11 to the USA and US$9 to Europe. Surface mail takes 1-3 months and costs $5 to the USA and $4 to Europe. (For rates in pounds sterling please contact Elizabeth Kiarie at Please send cheques payable to the British Institute in Eastern Africa and specify whether you want the book sent air or surface mail. These should be sent to Elizabeth Kiarie, British Institute in Eastern Africa, Box 30710, 00100 GPO, Nairobi, Kenya.



ANDREW BURTON (British Institute in Eastern Africa)
Urbanisation in Eastern Africa: An historical overview, c.1750-2000


GIACOMO MACOLA (University of Zambia)
The history of the Eastern Lunda royal capitals to 1900

RICHARD REID (Durham University)
Warfare and urbanisation: The relationship between town and conflict in pre-colonial Eastern Africa

ABDUL SHERIFF (Zanzibar Museums)
The spatial dichotomy of Swahili towns: The case of Zanzibar in the nineteenth century


PETER WAWERU (Egerton University, Kenya)
Frontier urbanisation: The rise and development of towns in Samburu District, Kenya, 1909-1940

ANDREW BURTON (British Institute in Eastern Africa)
Adjutants, agents, intermediaries: The Native Administration in Dar es Salaam township, 1919-61

MILCAH A. ACHOLA (University of Nairobi)
Colonial policy and urban health: The case of colonial Nairobi

DAVID M ANDERSON (St. Antony’s College, Oxford)
Corruption at City Hall: African housing and urban development in colonial Nairobi


TSUNEO YOSHIKUNI (Senshu University, Kawasaki)
Linking urban history with precolonial/rural history: From the Zimbabwean experience

SHIMELIS BONSA (University of Addis Ababa)
A history of Kistane migration to 1974

JAMES L. GIBLIN (University of Iowa)
History, imagination and remapping space in a small urban centre: Makambako, Iringa Region, Tanzania


JOHN LONSDALE (Trinity College, Cambridge)
Town life in colonial Kenya

BODIL FREDERIKSEN (Roskilde University, Denmark)
African women and their colonisation of Nairobi: Representations and realities
DAVE HYDE (University of East London)
The Nairobi General Strike [1950]: From protest to insurgency

E.S. ATIENO ODHIAMBO (Rice University, Texas)
Kula Raha: Gendered discourses and the contours of leisure in Nairobi, 1946-63


The fourteen papers in this volume are arranged in four parts. In the first section, urban settlements in 18th and 19th century Eastern Africa are examined. Giacomo Macola looks at the neglected urban history of one of the pre-colonial savannah kingdoms, that of Kazembe, located in present-day northern Zambia. A tradition of urban settlement is uncovered incorporating political, economic, symbolic and ritual roles. In the following paper, by Richard Reid, on the impact of warfare on urbanisation in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Buganda, more defensive and military aspects of pre-colonial settlement are explored. Abdul Sheriff’s paper on Zanzibar seeks to undermine the notion of a segregated town (which has informed so much writing on Zanzibar), divided between a patrician Stone Town and a plebeian quarter in which houses are built in impermanent materials. Findings from Zanzibar suggest that this dichotomy, which is often taken for granted, should be reappraised both here and in other towns on the Swahili coast.

The second section contains four papers which examine the administrative aspects of urban centres in colonial East Africa. Peter Waweru’s contribution analyses the functional role of small urban centres in Samburu district in northern Kenya. The low level of urbanisation prevalent in this region in the first half of the colonial period meant that the settlements that emerged here hardly deserve to be described as towns. Nevertheless, incipient urbanisation appears to have been occurring and the paper provides a useful case study of the relationship between remote rural areas and administrative and trading centres. In addition, the issue of urban order (or rather disorder) arises in even these tiny ‘frontier’ settlements. The theme of urban order also informs the other papers in this section. In Andrew Burton’s paper on the Native Administration of Dar es Salaam during the British period, the attempts made by officials to erect an urban administration capable of asserting order within the town highlight some of the complications and contradictions of colonial rule. African communities emerging in the urban centres failed to conform to colonial visions of African society and the institutional structures erected to control it – even after an urban policy of sorts finally emerged following WWII. The next two papers offer complementary accounts of municipal administration in colonial Nairobi. Milcah Achola describes how urban health policy in the town was applied in a fundamentally discriminatory manner that reinforced spatial segregation. Predictably, segregation also rears its ugly head in David Anderson’s paper on housing. The nature of African housing in Nairobi both reflected and reinforced a particular urban order that the colonial/settler state was attempting to impose.

The manner in which towns and cities interact with their geographical hinterlands is a fundamental aspect of urban history that does not always receive the attention from urban historians that it deserves. A point forcefully made by Tsuneo Yoshikuni in the opening paper of the next section, on rural-urban links in colonial and post-colonial Eastern Africa. In the cases of Harare and Bulawayo he describes how the character of pre-colonial societies in the immediate vicinity of these Zimbabwean towns influenced the process of urbanisation occurring within them. The second paper in this section, Shimelis Bonsa’s paper on rural-urban migration among the Kistane of central Ethiopia provides a rare historical case study of this crucial topic. His paper is also noteworthy for its time depth; beginning in the mid-19th century and going up to the Ethiopian revolution in 1974. The final paper in the section – while additionally about the cognitive interpretation of an urban landscape – also demonstrates the saliency of the rural in interpretations of the urban. In the paper, James Giblin provides another case study – that of Makambako in southern Tanzania – which provides a historical perspective that complements the more extensive work conducted by scholars from other social science disciplines on Africa’s secondary urban centres.

The final section of the book is dominated by the history of colonial Nairobi. That this is the case is not entirely unexpected in a collection arising from a conference organised in this city. However, more scholarly arguments might also be put forward to justify the devotion of a whole section to the colonial history of the Kenyan capital. Colonial rule in Kenya had a deeply disruptive impact on African society and by the 1940s the manifestations of mass urbanisation – both positive and negative – were in evidence in the city. An increasingly critical land shortage in the territory (particularly in Central Province, which surrounds Nairobi) accompanied by a deeper penetration of capitalist relations than was usual in most of Eastern Africa, led to high rates of rural-urban migration. Shortly after its foundation Nairobi became the largest city in East Africa, a status it retained up to the late-20th century. However, although urban growth outpaced other parts of colonial Eastern Africa (the exception is Northern Rhodesia/Zambia), Kenyan societies – even those most affected by urbanisation – tended to distrust the urban centres, maintaining a distinctly rural focus. The opening paper in part four emphasizes this point. In it, John Lonsdale proposes salient themes for an emerging urban historiography on colonial Kenya. The paper serves as an excellent introduction to the following contributions, which explore some of the issues raised by Dr. Lonsdale with special reference to Nairobi. Bodil Frederiksen analyses how the supposedly male environment of the city – as conceived by both the colonial administration and African opinion makers – was in fact resourcefully exploited by Kenyan women above all. Amongst other things, her paper describes evolving social and political organisation in the African locations (notably in Pumwani). This is also to the fore in the second paper, on the Nairobi general strike of 1950. David Hyde sees the strike as a pivotal moment in Kenya’s urban (and political) history, in part instigated by the colonial state to provide the premise for a clampdown designed to restore colonial order in what David Throup has described as ‘outcast Nairobi’. In the final paper, Atieno Odhiambo provides an insight into cultural processes associated with urbanisation. From the 1950s, Africans benefiting from shifts in colonial labour policy could for the first time afford to express their emerging urban identities in the consumption of leisure. Through the exploration of lyrics from popular songs we gain an insight into the world of the ‘bachelor boys’ in pre-independence Nairobi.