On the bus ride up country yesterday, I read a comment in The Daily Monitor about Gulu municipality’s efforts to claim city status. Gulu town itself is about 150,000 people, but some on the municipal council are trying to incorporate nearby communities to bring the population closer to the 500,000 threshold to achieve city status. The change would give the town more space but also access to more resources. The short comment in the Monitor noted that:
Gulu Mayor George Labeha… has ordered the demolition of grass-thatched housing in Layibi and Laroo divisions as the municipality works towards gaining city status. “Not all residents will be affected, we are targeting areas such as Cereleno, Industrial Area and Limo Sub-ward.” Of course the decision did not go well with some residents, who argue that grass-thatched huts are part of their culture, and development will not force them to abandon them. They added that some of them cannot afford to buy iron sheets.
On the way into town, I saw decent-sized parts of town that are still comprised of grass-thatched huts. The notion that they would have to be destroyed before Gulu could claim city status is a difficult one to accept. As I thought about it, though, I realized that I haven’t seen many (any?) traditional huts in Kampala, despite seeing plenty of informal settlements like shacks and shipping containers. I don’t know how other African cities are, but it sends the message that, in a city, you can have modern poverty, but can’t have homes that are seen to contradict what most think of as “modern.”
It reminded me of my friend Camille’s talk on slum tourism in South Africa (I live-tweeted pieces of it). During the question-and-answer segment after her talk, someone asked how depictions of townships as authentic Africa influenced African perceptions. She responded that, when asked where “the real Africa” was, whites often referenced the townships while blacks pointed to the rural homelands. From what I’ve seen in Kampala and Kigali and Cairo, cities can be African, but this news from Gulu seems to say that one aspect of being African is not compatible with being a city.
That’s not to say that housing that isn’t a hut isn’t African, just that these houses are also African, and all types of housing should be acceptable for a city such as Gulu. I hope that the municipality can find a way to develop into a city, if that’s what is wanted, without shedding the grass-thatched housing elements of the town.