Seeing the countryside through a new lens

Friday April 10 2020

The train stops at the Kenya-Voi Station on the standard gauge railway. Picture: File

The train stops at the Kenya-Voi Station on the standard gauge railway. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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What comes to mind at the mention of the countryside in East Africa? To many people, it is synonymous with rural home settlements, subsistence agriculture, and wildlife and forest reserves.

Now it is getting some attention, says Etta Mideva Madeta, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and one of the collaborators of Countryside, The Future, a six-month exhibition that began on February 20 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Although the museum is currently closed because of the Covid-19 outbreak, some of the exhibitions can be viewed online.

"For many decades the city has been the main focus. Yet the rural areas are facing unprecedented population growth too, and hence also need our attention," she told The EastAfrican.

"With most of the world moving online, and technology changing the way we live, the countryside is opening up as a viable place for the next generation to live, invest and work," Madeta said.

"We asked ourselves, ‘what does that future look like?’ The exhibition highlights innovative projects in the countryside that make this future possible, from financial inclusion through M-Pesa, large renewable energy projects, the Universal Basic Income experiment and tech hubs in rural villages," she added.


Countryside, The Future is marking a shift from a focus on the urban to the rural, remote, deserted, and wild territories, or the 98 per cent of the earth’s surface not occupied by cities.

The exhibition is organised by Troy Conrad Therrien, curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in collaboration with Dutch Pritzker Prize winning architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas, Samir Bantal, director of AMO—the thinktank of the Office for Metropolitan, and Ashley Mendelsohn, assistant curator, Architecture and Digital Initiatives, at the Guggenheim.

Pride of place

The East African countryside takes pride of place at the exhibition. From the human-gorilla "Buffer zone" in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to case studies on M-Pesa, Mobius Motors and boda bodas.

Also on show are projects such as the Mombasa-Nairobi SGR, the Lake Turkana Wind Power project and the Garissa Solar Park. "The countryside is a vast array of experimentation that usually goes unnoticed.

For example, in Kenya, the Lamu coal power plant was about to begin when conservationists and Unesco moved to stop it as it would destroy the well-being of a conserved heritage," madeta said.

The exhibition presents investigative work already underway by AMO, Koolhaas, and students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, Wageningen University, Netherlands, and the University of Nairobi.

"The African countryside is a place of radical change that could perhaps work as a new model for how we look at growth and urbanism, in alternative to Western city-focused narratives," the organisers say. The exhibition has grouped images, sounds, objects, and texts according to themes.

Madeta said: "The projects are double-sided, in that they bring much needed infrastructure, jobs and opportunities and in effect ‘open up’ the countryside, but on the other hand they take away community land, cultural heritage and the people often do not have a say in what happens.

"Governments too are reacting by trying to create ‘new’ cities such as Tatu and Konza cities in Kenya, as well as devolution that gave power to the various counties to develop — moving resources away from the city."

The sites selected depended on how they fit in with the whole narrative, and how they tell the story of the potential of the countryside in as varying degrees as possible. The preservation of natural ecosystems through conservation and preservation projects is the main issue affecting all land not occupied by cities in East Africa, Madeta said.

"However, in many cases, these are also in socio-economic conflict with the existing tribes and cultures that have had their land taken away.

"Large renewable energy projects, such as the Lake Turkana Wind Power project and the Garissa Solar Farm bring much needed energy to the rural areas, but also take up vast tracts of land occupied by communities and farmland. Due to the anonymity of the countryside projects go unnoticed."

Linda Gichuyia, a lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Nairobi, says a major challenge for the new millennium is the management of rapidly expanding urban areas. "Kenya, for instance, is in a constant state of transition. In the past few years, it has undergone and is projected to undergo further expansion.

"This challenge forms a large part of the national government, county government, municipality and town agendas. However, there is an assumption that in all of this, the rural countryside is static. It is not. These spaces are going through their own unique form of transformation that needs to be back on our planning agendas too.

"Currently, in East Africa, countryside spaces thrive on anonymity and freedom and lack of any planning guidelines. We have an ‘anything goes’ mentality."

Madeta singles out technology and over population as the two most radical changes in the non-urban areas.

"Technology, which has created financial inclusion, for instance M-Pesa, has connected the local farmer with the city businessman. It has also made it possible to stay connected to the wider world without being in the city, which is overly competitive, congested and expensive to live and work in. For example, as an architect you can work from outside the city and still connect with your clients and colleagues," Madeta said.