Afropolis 2020 Saint-Louis

Afropolis 2020 Saint-Louis

What makes you remember a street? Is there an area in town to which you return often? Why? We all know how specific areas within any given city have their own feel and pace, depending on the time of the day. I was always a walker and in whatever town I lived, I always developed a fast understanding of my own favorite neighborhoods. In the case of Saint-Louis, it’s the northern part of the island, or the sandy stretch of land further north by the Mauritanian border in Goxum Bacc and Sal Sal. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic I started my days by walking around the island very early in the morning, and the first thing I do is check the surface of the river as some sort of a fortune teller or weather forecast. I would also choose my first walk or bicycle route of the day always by the river even in the non-pandemic times. 

With Covid-19 the pace of life has changed and even more so with the Ramadan in full swing. This change will – I hope – manifest also in my video installations for Afropolis. I have chatted with friends and listened to them talk about their hometown and it has been very interesting to hear what they like about this town and how they would change it if they could. I chose to shoot on the streets with a mini DV camcorder on purpose as I have come to realize that digital does not always convey so well what I am hoping to show. I like this extra-economical boundary of 60 minute-cassettes because that puts me in a completely different mood with planning my work. Additionally, it has been my interviewees who gave me ideas for locations to shoot.  

Afropolis 2020 Saint-LouisA Takkusaan Production (2020), Duration: 45:14 (In French & Wolof)

Once a bedouine

The Mauritanian tent has found its way to contemporary architecture in Nouakchott. If you stroll the streets of Ksar, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, you will not miss the tent shape in practically every other house. It’s a symbol of a lifestyle in which the movable home is now built in cement and bricks and glass and functions as a fixed space to welcome guests. It’s also a very visible statement telling that the owner of the house has roots in the desert. 

Anyone who has been to the desert knows the soothing effect a tent can provide against the scorching sun and hot winds, and how it allows you to feel the evening breeze on your skin when the walls of the tent have been rolled up. You can now find that same effect also in the city: some restaurants and cafés such as the famous La Palmeraie has made their own modern interpretation of the tent part of the attraction in their already very inviting garden and terrace. Some designs – usually it’s the simple and practical ones – are just meant to last and in Mauritania the tent is definitely one of them.

On the road

You can consider yourself lucky if you get a seat in these small and often crowded Tata city buses. Packed they may be but they are a very cost effective way of transport and often fairly fast too. In some parts of the town they are my favorite choice, simply because I like people watching and you get a good view of the streets on a window seat. 

I keep admiring the collaborative nature of the fellow passengers in situations in which the bus seems like it can no longer take more people and yet you can still squeeze in. When the bus is packed, you just find a corner or sometimes a seat that is offered to you, and hand out the money for the bus fare to someone next to you. The money then travels from hand to hand in order to reach the cashier at the back of the bus and similarly, the bus ticket then finds its way back to you. 

Long distance Senegal Dem Dikk buses operate between major cities in Senegal and although there usually is some hassle just before everyone finds their appointed seat, the rest of the trip goes very smoothly. The buses leave for Dakar twice daily and last time it took me less than four hours from Saint-Louis to Dakar and to Ngor. You can hop off the bus at a couple of stops before its final destination in Liberté 5. These days you can reserve your ticked with an app – booking in advance is obligatory – and pay it with Orange Money, in which case there is no need to even go to their office before your trip. Bon voyage!

Dubai Fever

When I see cityscapes with the silhouettes of skyscrapers, I often wonder: how do these massive buildings make you feel in a city? Urban? Contemporary? Modern? Proud? Chic? Rich? Poor? Small? 

Addis downtown area and some other parts of the city are growing fast into the skies creating striking contrasts with older buildings that are still standing next to them. You can’t but wonder whether Addis is contaminated with what is known as “Dubai fever?” This syndrome, or Dubaiization manifests itself with the desire to copy an urban model lined with capital and power, and it gives you the impression of a city designed overnight. Buildings look as if they were imported from another location and planted to a new one without the original context. This cut and paste method leaves out local history altogether. 

When I was strolling the streets of Addis I could still feel the historical identity of the city in some neighborhoods but at the same time I noticed that many buildings had simply disappeared since my last visit and had been replaced by massive gated construction sites. The city certainly has interesting and challenging times ahead! This really is the time to document the amazing transformation that is taking place in Addis. My humble contribution to this documentation will be visible in the upcoming exhibitions for Afropolis 2020

If you would like to read more about the Dubai Fever, I recommend the article by Katriina Stoll: “Dubai Fever. The Dream of an Urban Model in Ethiopia” in Cities of Change: Addis Ababa by Mark Angélil and Dirk Hebel (Birkhäuser, Basel 2016).

Addis is wide awake

There is an amazing construction boom shaping the silhouette of Addis Ababa city scape to new heights. Steel and glass are now competing with all things old and organic. But some things never change: neighbourhoods such as Piassa, Arat Kilo, Siddist Kilo and Mercato with their buzz and sudden quiet and cosy back streets, small cafés and boutiques still charm me more than any other area. City planners in Addis work in ten-year-chunks with Kazanchis having recently been “the place”. Now things are moving on to Sarbet, the next priority area. The year 2020 marked a new ten-year urban planning period and now we already see glimpses of a future Addis with projects such as The Riverside, La Gare and Adwa Museum in the heart of Piassa.

The foreign investors of some of the latest housing projects are referring to “a new era for the country and continent at large.” That era is also made of a massively growing young population. I heard somebody estimate that Ethiopia’s urban population will reach 74 million by 2050 while the country’s current population – 113 million souls – will also grow respectively to 205 million by that same year. 

The target of the New Urban Agenda set by UN-Habitat is to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The Ethiopian government and the Prime Minister have not been sitting with their hands crossed: The first phase of the Riverside project has just been launched in October, running from Entoto to Bambis Bridge. The idea is “to enhance the well-being of city dwellers by putting river flooding in check and creating public spaces, parks, bicycle paths and walkways along the river banks” with the project scheduled to be completed in May 2020.*

This plan looks like manna from heaven for pedestrians! And for the record: what also is cool about Addis is that it has already been designed so that pedestrians can actually walk in most parts of the town’s main roads on wide sidewalks. Compare this to downtown Dakar (Plateau) for instance and it feels like in the latter there are no sidewalks at all as they are all hidden under giant four-wheel-drives parked on them! The pedestrians are pushed to walk on roads and leer around for fear of being hit by cars coming from behind.

Addis has a fair share of visual contrasts: green and shady areas, steep hills, wide streets, city rail bridges, corrugated iron – a lot of it and in all colours – giant billboards, enormous construction sites with night guards sitting in their small temporary huts… everything seems to be going through a constant process of transformation. In a timespan of ten years, suddenly even Arat Kilo condominiums look outdated, yet they can still be considered comfortable housing and not the least because of the good location but also because after 10 pm it is q u i e t. To someone who lives in Senegal this is a luxury. 

I have the habit of chatting with taxi drivers so I on many occasions I have asked them where they would like to live in Addis. Many answered: Sarbet, the place where “most of the ambassadors live.” Then there was Sam, one of the drivers of Ride – a local taxi system – who would summarise it in just one word: “Anywhere!” Not bad for a big city.

Dear reader: I am also curious to know what is your favourite part of Addis? Where would you decide to live if you could choose freely? Thank you very much in advance for any comments and thoughts.

* Link to video about the Riverside project (in Amharic)