Writing and feature visual by Khensani de Klerk
I often smile at strangers during commutes on the bus, tram and train. It is also no misconception that Switzerland feels like an unfriendly place, and I say this with a bit of a chuckle, when thinking about the endless blank stares I’ve received in return for my friendly smiles. I’ve explored many thoughts along those lines and often think that perhaps people are merely intrigued? But then again, Zurich isn’t as white as snow; there are a few sprinkles of chocolate amongst the vanilla Bircher bowl. Call it instinct, or perhaps good fate, every black woman who I have smiled at has returned the gesture with a sense of warmth- from a subtle smile to a hug and salutations of “have a nice day my child!” It has been very interesting to say the least. In fact it has been magical to witness the unwritten and indescribable spiritual connection we have as black women. When looking at this intangible connection in relation to African Diaspora, it becomes evident that black women have evolved to find place in one another. With Africa as the ancestral motherland, we tend to one another, irrespective of the many different heterogeneous identities we carry. It is the African string that knits us together.
However in and amongst the stippling of Africans’ cultures that have brought us to today, occurs an unfortunate fragmentation. Naturally, we are different, we hold different views: sometimes conflicting, sometimes shared. However, the clash of these conflicting narratives coupled with hegemonic cultural practice lead to and sustains a fragmentation that keeps black women at the bottom of the food chain. This fragmentation caused by patriarchy and a tendency to Eurocentric norms never considered or designed physical space for black women to belong: to belong in a state of comfort, not oppressed. As black women, we exist, and we do so often with an assertive effort because in actuality, there is no physical place where we are inherently favored. Our safe spaces are ephemeral, and take on the nature of gatherings. In the globally connected digital world we live in today, I have been persistently and relentlessly searching for other voices and opinions of women of colour. I have yet to come across a physical site that favors the safety of our existence. What is both intriguing and empowering is that as black women, we in fact find place in one another. At first glance, a smile is returned. In hair salons, we feel at home, having just met. Varying cultures instinctively become points of departure for learning, and rarely a driver of alienation. It’s beautiful, and it is this observation that makes me proud to be a black women every second of every day in this ruthless life that has not even kept an appendix drawer for us to occupy (not that an appendix drawer would even suffice). This is the phenomenological existence that we face, the humanly one of main concern, but it is not the only concern on that list of inaccessible space. This brings us to today’s topic: Contemporary African Diaspora, a networked tissue sustaining the body of African knowledges.
Beyond this phenomenological social (non)place, as a multilayered African global community, we face a great (dis)placement of our knowledge. African knowledge has been normalized as folklore by Western knowledge institutions, and often omitted completely due to the unaccommodating nature of discouraging other forms of archival outside of writing as valid. How accessible are African knowledges? Sure information exists on the internet, in a few books and in specific bodily and environmental sites; however, the projection of these knowledges are hidden under the very many layers of colonial walls that require porosity. With search engines like Google, perhaps one may find luck on page 21 at which stage many Africans in the quick-info generation have given up. And so, to answer the question, African information is not accessible enough. Furthermore, capitalism and critical mass fuel information that encourages the continuation of capiutalism, which is inherently linked to colonialism. The lack of technological infrastructure in majority of sub Saharan Africa is a big contributing driver to this inaccessibility, and even though Africa has the mass majority, this mass majority does not critically feed the capitalistic state on a level to change ways of thinking at the forefront of knowledge production.
Earlier this week I met an incredibly soulful Nigerian Swiss woman, a newfound friend in the ever-challenging western landscape. We shared so much new information with each other, finding interests and challenges in our African mutuality. At the same time, it came to my realization that we share the same life long endeavor – rooted in the progress of Africa. We are at a sensitive point where class is driving a great inequality gap, and in Africa, this gap is widened immeasurably by a lack of education that a vast majority do not receive. And so, as privileged Africans, the persuasion of international recognition is often tempting, but equally as dangerous in contributing to a neglect of strengthening our continental community. It is difficult; how to begin?
What is a bit consoling it that the information is undoubtedly there, and even though on a continental scale we still have a lot of ground (quite literally) to cover, there are groups, institutions and sources of information penetrating the rubber white layer of Google’s page 1. Many of the sources that have taken the persistent effort to contribute to African knowledge production and preservation are brilliant because they serve as corridors lined with an abundant amount of doors that lead to rooms of information. However it is difficult to find the first door, and disappointing to know that many of these doors are not abundant in the corridors of university curriculums, at least in South Africa. Education is the core, and it is quintessential that we encourage intercontinental communication in the design discourse to understand the social and physical challenges and opportunities that can emerge in Africa. From understanding local construction methods particular to mutual climates, to understanding Africa-specific social behavior and trends; there is so much that we can learn from one another. And so, what now? What is the best mechanism for this? It is difficult to say, and with political systems being tested on an existential level, one cannot pin it solely to collaborative political will. We are all too aware of the palpable corruption in our countries. Information is also vast, and will inevitably not reach every single African, but it is definitely worth a shot. Majority of Matri-Archi’s viewers tend to be South African and Swiss, but recently to our pleasant surprise, Kenyan viewers have been the majority for the past week. The diaspora is no longer only a movement of people outside of Africa, but one within the continent. Because we have the freedom of movement, many Africans, are located in non-African countries by choice, and this dispersal that presents opportunity for strings of connection across the globe.
Listed below are a few sources that MA has come across that have dedicated their efforts to retaining and producing African knowledge(s). We urge you to read beyond each short synopsis, because what waits behind the door is a corridor filled with new African consciousness rooms to explore:
African Centre for Cities
“The ACC seeks to facilitate critical urban research and policy discourses for the promotion of vibrant, democratic and sustainable urban development in the global South from an African perspective…
…In this context it is unsurprising that there are very few qualified and appropriately trained urban professionals and activists who can manage Africa’s cities and towns. The ACC seeks to intervene into this situation by remaining rooted in context and building knowledge networks between durable research institutions across the Continent.”
“Born in Africa and bred in the diaspora, Transition is a unique forum for the freshest, most compelling ideas from and about the black world. Since its founding in Uganda in 1961, the magazine has kept apace of the rapid transformation of the African Diaspora and has remained a leading forum of intellectual debate. Now, in an age that demands ceaseless improvisation, we aim to be both an anchor of deep reflection on black life and a map charting new routes through the globalized world. Transition is a publication of the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, published three times annually by Indiana University Press.”
“This website , a platform through which the influence of this design vernacular in modern day Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Interior Design is showcased, is less about architecture in Africa, but more Africa in architecture. We also aim to be an exploration of this vernacular, within the context of the past, the local, and the present, with the hope of inspiring further investigation and admiration.”
“Drawing together a myriad of voices from across Africa and the diaspora, Chimurenga takes many forms operating as an innovative platform for free ideas and political reflection about Africa by Africans. The aim of these projects is not just to produce new knowledge, but rather to express the intensities of our world, to capture those forces and to take action. This has required a stretching of the boundaries, for unless we push form and content beyond what exists, then we merely reproduce the original form – the colonized form, if you will. It requires not only a new set of questions, but its own set of tools; new practices and methodologies that allow us to engage the lines of flight, of fragility, the precariousness, as well as joy, creativity and beauty that defines contemporary African life.“
Africa Research Institute
“Africa Research Institute (ARI) encourages debate, questions orthodoxy and challenges “received wisdom” in and about Africa. We seek to promote an informed, nuanced and representative understanding of the continent. Our work draws attention to good practice and innovation, while also identifying where new approaches might be needed. Examples of practical achievement are of particular interest to us. ARI’s research is distributed widely within Africa and elsewhere to decision-makers, institutions and individuals with a keen interest in the continent’s future. We also hold regular interactive events with expert speakers in London and Africa. ARI was founded in 2007. We are independently funded and strictly non-partisan. Many of our publications are the product of collaboration with policymakers, expert practitioners and academics in Africa.”
The Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS)
“Many African planning schools operate in a context in which urban planning practices, national planning legislation and planning curricula have been inherited from their colonial past, and continue to promote ideas and policies transferred from the global North. As such, many of these ideas and practices are inappropriate in contexts characterised by rapid urban growth and high levels of poverty, inequality and informality. Reforming planning education is therefore central to ensuring that future practitioners respond to urban and regional development challenges in a meaningful and effective way. Fundamental shifts in the content and pedagogy of planning education programmes are required. Promoting these shifts is the central aim of AAPS’s project work.”