Urban Africa

Maputo, Mozambique

I’ve got close to 20 images in “4xAfrica,” an exhibition showing at Rayko photo gallery in San Francisco from January 27 – February 27. My photos span a decade of work, from Cairo to Cape Town. The opening is Thursday, January 27, from 6-8 pm, so if you’re in the Bay Area, please stop by and say hello.

The accompanying essay is below. For those who can’t make it to the gallery, I’ve put the photos into a set on Flickr. In the days to come, I’ll post a few of the photos, along with the mini-stories that go along with them.

457844090_229d4c3314_o1First we buy the meat, a pile of spicy red sausage, at a strip-mall butcher shop. Then we get the beer, lugging it past an armed guard at the door who zealously tears our receipt. Then the grilling commences, at a public fire-pit on the grassy verge separating the mall parking lot and the main road, which cuts through northern Soweto in a roar of honking minibuses. Hip hop and local house music blare from one of our cars. We eat and drink under the highveld sun.

As the beer flows, we talk about the world-beating incompetence of the national soccer team; about the perils of jealous neighbors paying witchdoctors to curse you; and about the merits of Facebook. A group of girls wanders by, and a few of the guys chat them up.

511089638_205e9fc2d0_o1My friend Tumi turns to me. “The first time you came here, were you expecting lions and tigers?” he jokes.

Mention Africa, and most people think of savannas and deserts, game parks and thatched-roof huts. It is a dizzyingly varied place–with so many countries and cultures, how could it fail to be?–and resists easy generalization. Like the rest of the world, however, Africa is rapidly urbanizing: by 2015, close to half of the continent’s population will live in cities.

3976819575_5884ed3733_o2Take Soweto, the largest of South Africa’s black townships, 20 miles south of Johannesburg and home to some 4 million people. It is a geography of extremes. Some neighborhoods are filled with tin-roofed squatter shacks, where people get their water from communal standpipes and filch electricity from the main grid. But it is also a place of crisp, modern housing complexes bristling with satellite dishes and monolithic new fieldstone-and-glass shopping malls. There are banks, luxury shops, and cafes where young professionals peck away on Macbooks.

3976811035_b50ec5dc0c_o1Indeed, what used to be an undifferentiated grey mass on apartheid-era maps, a warehouse to store Johannesburg’s black labor between working hours, has become a city in its own right. And Soweto is now part of a nearly unbroken strip of office towers, low-rise suburbs, and shantytowns stretching from southern Johannesburg to Pretoria, 30 miles away. Maybe 9 million people live here now, and more arrive every day in search of opportunities the countryside can’t provide. They call it Egoli, or City of Gold.

Places like Soweto are increasingly the story of how Africans live, from Mali’s low-slung cities, which unfurl across the land in dusty folds of cement and rebar, to Zambia’s Copperbelt, an archipelago of sleepy, seedy mining towns running along the Congo border, studded by precious minerals and checkpoints.

457886411_30ca203d12_o1My friends come from these places. Zé was working for a rental car company in Maputo, Mozambique, when I met him, and living in a decrepit Chinese-built skyscraper in the capital. The elevator hadn’t worked for years, so he trudged up and down the 14 floors to his apartment in the subtropical heat. Dale, a 32-year-old political organizer and jack-of-all trades, grew up in Lusaka, Zambia, part of the first generation of Zambians to be born in cities in large numbers. He sometimes goes out to his father’s small wildcat mine “in the bush,” as he calls it, and I get the sense that it’s almost as much an adventure for him as it would be for me.

457878679_0b79fab431_o1Urbanization, of course, brings with it a loss of tradition. Many of us have seen the news reports about Masai warriors working as night watchmen in Nairobi. But some of the old ways endure. There’s an African concept called ubuntu, meaning that one’s identity is bound to that of the family and the neighborhood. More or less, ubuntu enjoins people to look out for one another. In South Africa, it staved off the collapse of black society under apartheid. What the concept means nowadays for my friends is responsibility. These guys hold up the sky for everyone around them. Thami, a 30-year-old activist in Soweto, supports his son, his girlfriend, his mother, and her two teenage daughters by another father. Plus, because he has a job, every corner kid hits him up for cash. They call him a “cheeseboy,” and sometimes threaten him if he doesn’t cough up beer money.

457869073_d1487c4f98_o1Years ago, Thami’s elders marched in the streets, firebombed buildings, and at great cost won political freedom. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, whose lives were largely defined by the anti-apartheid struggle, guys like Thami face different challenges. Unemployment in Soweto is estimated at 40 percent, so everybody has to hustle. Most everyone is an entrepreneur of some sort: door-to-door salesman, restaurateur, even car thief.

457869077_cd466fbf6e_o1Back at the barbecue, the bottles are piling up. Thami proposes a toast of sorts. “Sometimes when it gets too hard I think of how far I’ve come,” he says. “Just staying alive until now is something to celebrate.” He raises his beer.

The sun turns red, dropping behind the mall and, beyond it, the manmade mountains separating Soweto from Johannesburg. These hills, flat-topped heaps of castoff dirt and rock, are the byproduct of the gold mines that made Jo’burg the richest city on the continent. In the waning light, even these mine dumps look like bars of gold.