Cities are meant to be centres of progress, places of advanced forms of social, economic and cultural life, bringing together in aggregate the most dynamic elements of people, goods and ideas drawn from the hinterland and farther afield.
Cities are the complex expression of the level of development and sophistication attained by a nation, a proud advertisement of its material wealth and spiritual balance.
City life is civilised life. Citizens are city residents. Outside the city walls live countrymen and countrywomen. The differences between the two sets of nationals range from diet to dress, sanitary arrangements and leisure and recreation patterns.
It is thus that civilisations since antiquity have prided themselves on the splendour of their metropolises, vaunting the grandeur of their public buildings, the width of their boulevard, the luxuriance of their gardens: Babylon, Athens, Rome.
In their pursuit of excellence, cities have borrowed heavily from each other, copying what they have found desirable in what others have done, sometimes even taking it by force as spoils of war, sometimes by commissioning architects, artists and sculptors from abroad to come and work a little magic on their towns.
This copycat activity has been so successful that many a time I have had the experience of waking up in a new town and drawing the curtains to look at the skyline and wondering — helped, of course, by the effects of a late night — whether I am in Toronto, Frankfurt or Nairobi. There is too much of a muchness about many big cities of the world.
There are exceptions, of course. I suppose it would be too much bother trying to do another Jaipur, with its pink facades, and Rome will always be the only Eternal City, while only Cape Town has the Table Mountain. San Francisco has its charm too, with its famed Wharf and the Alcatraz view, but generally huge towns, like big bodies, are hard to dress up.
Smaller towns fare much better, as is the case with Berne, capital of Switzerland, or Sacramento, capital of California, or Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, or Salzburg, hometown of Mozart. Petit, manicured, ventilated. Kigali’s reputation as one of the cleanest towns of the world should not surprise anyone since Paul Kagame, essentially a military man, needs a “smart area” for him to work properly.
Still, a city can be big, sprawling and uninspiring without being an absolute eyesore — such as Bamako, capital of Mali; or Ibadan in Nigeria; or Ndjamena, capital of Chad.
The Ethiopians are currently seriously reordering their capital, Addis Ababa, which, having avoided the colonial experience of racially determined zoning, has had a mixed-grill layout of shantytowns juxtaposed with state of the art buildings.
You could thus look down from your room in the sumptuous Addis Sheraton onto ramshackle structures with scrawny children doing their early-morning bowel movements.
Over the past five years or so, the Ethiopian authorities have been giving Menelik’s city a facelift, building highways, byways and overpasses, cleaning up the slums and erecting estates of houses affordable by the poor, and generally creating a new flower, as the name Addis Ababa says. So, it can be done.
Certainly, dirty, chaotic and dangerous towns like Dar es Salaam and Kampala – Nairobi is doing something already — can borrow a leaf from what the Ethiopians are doing in Addis. The disorderliness of these two capitals denotes the disorderliness in the minds of their citizens and city fathers.
Dangers of communicable diseases, as well as disasters such as fire and floods, increase with greater demographic concentrations, a matter about which our city fathers need no special instruction.
It is partly to avert these that orderliness and cleanliness are a must in cities.
Jenerali Ulimwengu, chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper, is a political comentator and civil society activist based in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]