Friday, July 10, 2009

Mumford in Kajeitia

West African cities, especially their slum quarters tend to be grim affairs. Kumasi boasts two areas that seem to especially qualify; Kajeitia and Race Course. Race Course is the traditional African mega slum – mud roads, burning garbage and tin sheds packed tightly together without rhyme or reason. Kajeitia on the other hand is a squalid commercial district – resembling Lewis Mumford’s descriptions of the ancient Greek and Roman agoras. Indeed, Mumford makes some interest points in the city in history. In describing sanitation conditions within Greek cities, Mumford notes:

“The Hippocratic emphasis on air, water, soil, and situation did not gain an easy victory; for an ancient tradition of close building, a tolerance of filth and putrefaction, a greedy desire to use every bit of land available worked to transmit without improvement the medical and hygienic misdemeanors of the early builders of cities.” (Lewis Mumford, The City in History, first edition, pg. 142)

This description feels interchangeable with what is on display in Kejeitia, Race Course, or many other parts of Kumasi; (or Accra for that matter), with the addition of the corpses of old polythene bags that cover almost every inch of exposed ground as well. Automobiles whizzing by also introduce a potential for danger beyond traditional Mediterranean societies. Commercialism takes precedence over hygiene and people compartmentalize. Certain tendencies in urban development seem to be omnipresent, and self-reproducing throughout history. To get an idea of how ancient Greek and Roman cities operated, one need merely look to the West African cities of today.

3 comments:

smsmantis said...

Well written and true to a large extent. It however needs to be placed in the appropriate context. Deley could offer some insights as to why such a situation has arisen and how these squalid conditions co-exist with a fairly high degree of both human and inanimate sophistication even among those who perpetrate this squalor. Greece and Rome, despite these which have been described remained great cities of their time. These are issues that go beyond the simple description of a prevailing situation, to an appreciation of an entire system.

Mikey Golightly said...

Reading Mumford at a baseball game gave you the proper American context for your observations. I wonder just how many great ideas originate somewhere between the 4th and 8th innings...

Alex Deley said...

7th inning stretch... while they were singing "Take me out to the ball game".

Thanks for the comments as well John, you make some good points. Mumford's argument as to why Rome and Greece survived is two fold (1) because they maintained something of an agricultural base, (2) because they got great through colonial exploitation of their neighbors and were scaled beautifully vertically, so people would look up at the cool buildings (financed through colonial expansion) rather than looking down at the squalor.