It’s happening in Africa; we have to go there! That was the general feeling among the WDCD audience after the morning sessions on Friday presented by Design Indaba’s ‘force of nature’ Ravi Naidoo. After the closure by Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane and her fellow-countryman, dj Ibaaku Amsterdam was in awe. Dakar seems the place to be, right now.

What Africa Can Do for Europe was the somewhat provocative starting point for one of the themes of WDCD Live Amsterdam 2016. As the conference coincided with the closing of the Dutch EU presidency during the first six months of 2016, the idea was to address Europe’s identity – and it’s many issues – by shining the spotlight on Africa. With European identity questioned on many levels, we wanted to make a comparison with this continent that is usually seen as one unity with one identity where the differences between countries are perhaps even greater than those in Europe.

Throughout both days we heard stories from African creative minds who, without denying the many challenges the continent has to deal with, curbed the prevailing image of poverty, helplessness and lethargy that generally raises from western media. Backlog can be overcome by energetic, forward-looking action and unrestrained and optimistic creativity, the African speakers proved in their talks. Certainly a lesson for us Europeans!

Harsh realities

It was film producer, Senior Visiting Research fellow at King’s College London and Lecturer in Film at University of Roehampton Michael Uwemedimo who early on Thursday morning confronted the audience with the harsh realities of his native country Nigeria. The gruesome video he showed of the wiping out of the waterfront slums in Port Harcourt quickly sketched the challenges at hand here. The demolition affected 480.000 people who years before had been drawn to the area by the oil industry, and now became the victim of political fantasies about urban development, as Uwemedimo named it.

The scattered community realized it’s power after the people were shown a film of the demolition, making their misfortune visible. A subsequent billboard campaign helped them win legal acknowledgment, which eventually led to the founding of the Human City Project by the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP) founded by Uwemedimo and Simon Kennedy. The project gives the waterfront communities control over the shaping of their city with a self-built Media Centre in the heart. The centre is home to the community led Chicoco Radio that gives the people a voice demonstrating them the possibilities they have in creating their own future.

Improvement, not perfection

In a conversation with WDCD-host David Kester Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi elaborated on the Human City Project in Port Harcourt for which he designed a floating media centre that will be the new accommodation for Chicoco Radio in time. Earlier Adeyemi had made his award winning Floating School for the slum community of Makoko on the waterfront of Nigeria’s capital Lagos.

‘We decided to build an iconic building that would put Makoko on the map’

Adeyemi told his main driver is improvement, not perfection. ‘Our work starts with understanding the context we are developing for,’ he explained. ‘We look at the long term plan, but act on the practical situation. It starts with the need, opportunity or challenge at hand. In Makoko people lived on the waterfront for many years but without legality. To change that notion, we decided to build an iconic building that would put Makoko on the map.’

The school was built without official permit, but accepted by authorities and eventually mentioned in an official city press release. Sadly, the pyramidal building collapsed recently after a heavy storm, but Adeyemi looked at that event from the positive side. It was already planned the prototype building would be replaced and since the government had responded to the collapsing, even this event would help the project further, Adeyemi said.

‘I drew what I see’

In his own way, South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, generally known as Zapiro, influences politics in his country too. In fact, he said, ‘South African cartooning has had the biggest impact on politics than anywhere else.’ To illustrate this, Zapiro walked through South African’s recent history while showing a selection of his witty and razor-sharp drawings. He recalled several instances where the authorities reacted with repressive action. In 1987, still under the Apartheids regime, he was forced to go in hiding until he eventually was arrested and had to justify why he had depicted representatives of the government as pigs. ‘I drew what I see,’ the cartoonist returned dryly.

Other encounters with state power followed Zapiro’s humorously critical view on major corruption affairs involving current president Zuma. When the charges against him were dropped not long before he was to be elected, Zapiro drew an iconic cartoon of Zuma on the brink of raping Lady Justice. Zuma sued the illustrator for 7 million Rand, but dropped charges one day before the case would come in court, apparently afraid of the public attention that would follow.

In high pace, Zapiro touched many subjects in his talk, including political hypocrisy, religious fanaticism, terrorism, the refugee crisis and racism, still a precarious subject in South Africa, as he recently experienced. The man who always had stood up against racism, was accused of it himself after he had depicted the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) Shaun Abrahams as a grinder’s monkey, dancing to the organ tunes of President Jacob Zuma. With regret Zapiro established that a drawing like this, drawn with no racist intention whatsoever, wasn’t possible anymore in today’s South Africa.

Creativity is capital

That things change for the better too was demonstrated during the morning sessions on Friday, powered by Design Indaba. Ravi Naidoo, who founded the Design Indaba conference 22 years ago based on the conviction that ‘creativity is capital’, presented us with some of the most influential young creative minds from Africa.

‘If we become insular, we rob ourselves from the richness that can change the world’

Juliana Rotich told the audience how in 2008 she returned from Chicago, where she worked as a data analyst, to Kenya. With a group of like-minded people she set up Ushahidi, a platform originally developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election violence in 2008. From there it was developed into an open source platform that allows people to report incidents using SMS, now operational in 150 countries. ‘Creating communities is the way we will change the world,’ Rotich said, who also advocated diversity. ‘Diversity and complexity are a resource,’ she said, stressing that this goes for Europe too. ‘If we become insular, we rob ourselves from the richness that can change the world.’

For Africa and Chicago

Rotich next discussed several relatively simple technical innovations that make life easier in places a continent where 70% of the population is not connected to Internet and 600 million lack access to electricity. M-Pesa is a mobile wallet so generally used in Kenya that 40% of GDP goes through this system. Already 330.000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are connected to solar power through M-KOPA, a system paid for per day over one year.

Rotich herself is one of the founders of BRCK, a physically robust Internet hub for all local devices, able to connect to multiple networks, and with enough backup power to survive a blackout. The popular device is extended with the Kio Kit, a set of 40 tablets with an intuitive interface designed for children, and a BRCK in a hardened, water-resistant, lockable case that charges all tablets at once. The system turns even the remotest classroom into a digital classroom. The Kio Kit is already exported to the Solomon Islands and, Rotich said, ‘it is our challenge to deploy this all over the world. Because this solution is not just valid for Africa, but also for instance for Chicago.’

700 million houses

Community collaboration is also the main principle in the approach of Christian Benimana from Rwanda, who had to learn Mandarin before he could train as an architect in China. Back in Africa he realized that because of population growth, the continent will be in need of a staggering amount of new buildings, including 85,000 new health clinics, 310.000 primary schools and 700 million houses by 2050. For that reason Benimana, who works with MASS Design Group, is a driving force behind the foundation of the African Design Centre. The ADC is meant to train and empower the architects who will design a more equitable, just, and sustainable Africa.

‘The more you build together, the more you have in common and to defend’

While showing the examples of the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center in Haiti, the Ilima Primary School in the jungle of Congo, and the Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, Benimana explained how the enormous infrastructural needs of Africa can only be met with the help of local people. ‘In Africa, people are our biggest asset,’ he said. ‘The more you build together, the more you have in common and to defend and take care of. In this way architecture can create relationships and contribute to peace.’

Surpassing boundaries

Finally, fashion designer Selly Raby Kane, dressed for the occasion in beautiful yellow garments, made a splash with her modest but self-confident presentation on her work at the forefront of new creative wave in Dakar. As a young girl, Kane told, she was an activist for children’s rights, who later started to study business administration and law. In between studies she started to draw garments, which eventually turned out to be her destiny. In Dakar she found herself in the heart of a new creative scene of ‘new kids with new ideas and a deep thirst for expressing themselves,’ Kane said.

In the middle of this thriving urban art, hip hop scene Kane drew attention with subsequent imaginative and unrestricted shows in unexpected locations in collaboration with other artists and musicians. Vogue praised her love for telling stories and building dream worlds, of which her Alien Cartoon show is one of the most striking examples. The show in an old train station was themed around the invasion of aliens – played by 25 actors – ‘which gave the permission to surpass boundaries’ in the creations Kane designed. The unheard afrofuturistic soundtrack for the show by Stephen ‘Ibaaku’ Bassene added to the funky atmosphere of which the ‘guru of alternative sound’ in person gave us a taste to conclude these totally impressive morning sessions.

Top image: Ibaaku / all photos by Leo Veger