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Africa, Where Events Are King. John Thackara talks to Mugendi M’Rithaa

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First published in Design Observer.
[Introduction]
As the global crisis unfolds, interest in alternative economic and social models is growing – and with it, attention to what we might learn from Africa.
Most of us in the North are badly informed about a continent that is home to over 900 million people, living in 53 countries, who speak 2,000 languages between them. We hear a lot about poverty, political instability, disease, illiteracy, and corruption – but almost nothing about the multitude of ways in which poor African people organize their daily lives – to survive, yes, but in ways that are often creative and joyful, too.
In terms of material resources used, poor people in Africa live sustainably right now. But, because they consume so little, their communities are described as economically ‘marginal’. Yet many African communities are surprisingly resilient and robust in the face of pervasive uncertainty.
Is Africa’s social resilience an asset – and if so, how might the rest of us learn from, or even share it?
To find out more, John Thackara talked with Mugendi M’Rithaa not just about what we in the North can learn from Africa – but also how. Dr M’Rithaa is a professor at one of Africa’s most interesting universities, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and is a co-founder with Byron Qually of Design With Africa


JT A few words about background: where is Mugendi from? How did he arrive where he is now?
MM My name ‘Mugendi’ means ‘a traveler’ – which has been prophetic, if I reflect on my life thus far. I was born in Chogoria, a small town at the foothills of Mt Kenya. It’s a very fertile region, and the Meru people from this part of Kenya are renowned farmers. They are also very community-orientated. When I was a young lad of five years our family moved to the USA while my father pursued postgraduate studies in pharmacy. I’m sure that early education planted the seeds of my lifelong fascination with manufactured objects. I witnessed the live TV transmission of the moon landing; that was a particularly inspiring moment for me.
JT But you didn’t stay in the US?
MM I stayed in the USA for four years. When my father completed his studies we went back to Kenya; there, I ended up as a design undergraduate at the University of Nairobi. After graduation I worked for a while in advertising, and appropriate buiding materials research, prior to being awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship in Mumbai in India. I did an industrial design Masters for two years and then returned to my alma mater, the University of Nairobi, as a lecturer.
In 2001, I moved to the University of Botswana, in Gaborone, to help start a new industrial design course there. In 2005, I joined the newly established Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). I completed my doctorate in universal design and have been teaching there since.
JT What does your day job at the university entail?
MM My typical day involves wading through email correspondence; attending to faculty meetings; lecturing undergraduate students; consultative appointments with postgraduate students; and the occassional social engagement. I’m quite partial to a glass of red wine at the end of a long eventful day…
JT Who do you teach?
MM I lecture to undergraduate industrial design students on applied ergonomics, sustainable design, and universal design I also supervise postgraduate design students with a special focus on design for sustainability and participatory design. My research interests are linked to these areas.
JT Do you interpret “design for sustainability” in a way that is specific to an African context?
MM Yes, we emphasise the need for social equity and cohesiveness as critical success factors of any sustainable design strategy for the African context…
JT What kinds of hopes and ambitions do your students have?
MM Our students in the university come from mixed social and economic backgrounds. Many have families at home who depend on them. They’ve gone further in education than anyone else in their family – but they need to focus on studies that offer the surest prospect of gainful employment. Until now design has been viewed as a one of the ‘riskier’ propositions.
Our postgraduate cohort is much more diverse. They come from Africa, Asia, and Europe – in that order. The come for the opportunity to interact with cultures other than their own, and because they aspire to create a better and brighter future through design.
JT What’s the most irritating preconception we in the North have about Africa?
MM That’s the assumption that problems that occur in one place in Africa, although real enough there, are typical of life for the rest of the continent. Pascal Eze coined the acronym PIDIC to describe such stereotypes: it stands for poverty, political) instability, disease, illiteracy, and corruption.
A group of us started Design With Africa as a counterweight to PIDIC attitudes. We want to facilitate a more informed and progressive dialogue. Africa is a far more dynamic and optimistic place than it is given credit for!
JT You’ve explained that Africa is not just about helpless poor people, corrupt elites, and a burgeoning middle-class. What about an environmental movement in Africa? What form does it take? Are many designers involved?
MM In Africa, the environmental movement (like many other grassroots activities) has mainly been championed by women. Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt Movementis Africa’s first female Nobel laureate. Wangari has been an extraordinarily effective activist and advocate in changing the way people relate to their environment. Designers on our continent are only just beginning to rally support for such important causes.
JT Transition Towns has emerged as a dynamic and bottom-up movement here in Europe, and I see there’s now a Transition Towns Africa. Are there other comparable movements emerging in Africa?
MM Yes, I only recently learnt of a similar network that was initiated by the Community Exchange System in Cape Town. This system also advocates the use of ‘talents’ as currency for the exchange of goods and services within participating communities just like the ones in other parts of the world.
JT Are there other emerging cultural movements we should know about?
MM There are indeed exciting developments across the continent. Africa has a youthful population and young people are driving change in music, theatre, art and crafts – such as the vibrant multi-disciplinary activities showcased at the GoDown in Nairobi.
There is also a sizeable film industry in Nigeria; it’s known popularly as Nollywood.
And hosting the recent soccer 2010 World Cup in South Africa was a massive morale booster for the entire continent.
Africa is the fastest growing region in the world for mobile telephony and we are producing some of the most innovative applications in that field. M-pesa, for example – the cellphone-based money transfer platform – was introduced in Kenya. It’s now spreading far and wide.
JT How do you teach?
MM I use a dialogic approach for engaging with pertinent issues. I also use inspiring texts and video documentaries initiate robust debate and sustained dialogue around interesting cases.
JT Give me an example of one or two “robust debates” you’ve had recently…
MM Just last week we watched a video on Sustainable Design in which three products were critiqued. One of these was the highly popularised windup radio invented by Trevor Baylis. The product was designed ostensibly for majority world contexts and relies on human and solar energy to run it. One of the challenges presented in the case study was the lack of acceptance by consumers in the West due to the product’s ‘clunky’ aesthetics – this necessitated a redesign… A robust debate then ensued around aesthetics versus aspirations. The emerging consensus was that designers should not ‘skimp on aesthetics’ just because their sustainable products are aimed for less affluent consumers/end-users.
JT Does the word “sustainability” have resonance for people in Africa? Or are other words or concepts richer for you?
MM The word “sustainability” is a well-known word here. It’s considered to be synonymous with good stewardship and a sense of responsibility for one’s community and environment. It is rare for economic aspects of sustainability to be given much prominence; in the collective aspirations of a community people come first!
My humble submission is that, for the most part, Africa is sustainable by default. But if African societies are to leapfrog into a more sustainable future – as Ezio Manzini proposes – we need to become sustainable by design. This is the only way to avoid the wasteful production and consumption patterns typical of more industrialised contexts.
JT I have a warm expectation that traditions of social solidarity are stronger in Africa than in the North. Am I being sentimental?
MM You’re definitely not being sentimental. Saki Mafundikwa, a good friend from Zimbabwe, famously asserted that “Africa isn’t poor; it just doesn’t have a lot of money!”
This bold statement forced me to re-interrogate the issue and subsequently ask myself: “If Africa doesn’t have a lot of money, what then does it have that is of universal value?” Perhaps we can share what it means to live in participative, interconnected and cohesive communities.
A sense of communal solidarity is still strongly embedded in our collective consciousness and social fabric. For many close-knit communities (especially in rural and peri-urban settings) consumerism has yet to take its hold on the popular psyche – people readily share what they have, and borrow what they don’t.
JT Tell me a bit about these different forms of solidarity?
MM Different kinds of communal dialogue, public debate, and consensus-building are found all over Africa. They vary from context to context. For example there are words like baraza (in kiSwahili spoken in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) indaba (in isiZulu spoken in Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe); and lekgotla (in seTswana spoken in Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa).
There are also a variety of systems of collective self-reliance, and mutual assistance: bataka kwegaita (communal solidarity) in Uganda; nobwa (reciprocal assistance) in Ghana; harambee (pulling together) in Kenya; ujamaa (familyhood) in Tanzania; stokvels (co-operative societies) in South Africa; and boipelogo (self-reliance); molaletsa (collective labour sharing systems) and motshelo (group credit unions) in Botswana.
JT I guess a lot of these social arrangements lie outside what we would call the formal economy?
MM The informal economy is of course a vital part of the big picture. Women play a pivotal social and economic role here, particularly in the informal economy which they call jua kali in kiSwahili which means literally ‘[in the] hot sun’. In Kenya and South Africa we call it the second economy.
This parallel economy contains a vast number of ad hoc co-operatives, micro-lending clubs and group savings and purchasing schemes. These are mostly based on deeply interpersonal relationships and mutual trust. Such a voluntary group is known variously as motshelo in Botswana; chama in Kenya; and stokvel in South Africa.
JT Are these social forms found exclusively in rural areas or only within more traditional societies? Or do they have urban forms?
MM In many urban areas a sense of solidarity is pervasive. It’s expressed in various types of elective creative communities; these typically deal with shared needs such as running communal crèches and car pooling. These groups are known as chamas in Kenya, and differ significantly from traditional forms of groupings where membership was based on common kinship.
JT Are there examples you could tell me about of design skills being used to enhance these sharing schemes? where do you see the potential for design skills being used to enhance these sharing schemes?
MM There’s definitely scope for design intervention. Most of these examples involve rudimentary planning and logistical support systems – thus their efficacy and capacity for growth is compromised. Designers could contribute appropriate service design tools to make such schemes even more effective.
JT Some of us in the North also believe that a belief in the unity of living things remains important in African cultures. How real are these concepts for the average student in your class?
MM For the vast majority of African communities, the currency of exchange is trust. People come first! A key word here is ubuntu. The word is very difficult to render into a Western language. Desmond Tutu explained it this way: “When you want to give high praise to someone we say, “Yu, u nobuntu”; he or she has ubuntu. This means that they are generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. They share what they have. It also means that my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in theirs. We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “a person is a person through other people”. […] I am human because I belong, I participate, I share”.
Ubuntu is best understood through the sayings that “a person is a person through other persons”; “I am because we are”; and “I participate, therefore I am”. Our humanity is intrinsically (and inextricably) linked to the humanity of others. We are ultimately humanised through our interaction and relationship to other people.
The concept is widely appreciated by our students and is a common motif or theme butressing their worldview. This ultimately results in more socially conscious design solutions.
JT You have told me that the spoken word has a special value and meaning in African cultures. What does this mean for design?
MM For the most part, traditional African societies relied on oral as opposed to written means of communication. The spoken word still holds special value and meaning because of the fundamental principle of the ‘proximity of origin’. This principle ascribes a high value to authenticity.
The immediate implication for our profession is in the creation of ‘honest’ products, services and systems that reinforce convivial relationships among people.
JT You have written [link] that a shared concept of time helps different cultures and social layers coexist in Africa?
MM The concept of ‘kairos’ or event time explains how (and why) events are king in Africa. Event time embraces people’s need for participation and accomodates a much slower and humane pace.
You see this at weddings and funerals where ‘tangible’ bonds between community members supercede the more ‘emphemeral’ social strata. A good example is that of the ‘fantasy’ coffins that are found in Ghana. Relatives of the deceased prefer to wait for these expensive, extravagantly ornate bespoke coffins (as opposed to the cheaper, nondescript mass-produced ones known locally as funu adaka) as the fantasy coffins are more befitting of the perceived status of their dearly departed. Unlike in other parts of the world, weddings and funerals invite the participation of all known kith and kin – and in Africa that equates to a rather large and lively crowd…
JT There’s clearly an infinity of things we can learn from Africa. But to conclude, have you any advice, especially to young designers here, on how we should best engage?
MM Africa is a place that I believe is not fully appreciated in terms of its creativity and humanity. On behalf of my fellow denizens, I wish to extend an invitation – particularly to younger designers – to visit our continent and engage in participatory design activities that will provide deeper insights into our ways of being and doing. Such interactions can potentially leave a lasting imprint on the lives of everyone involved. This is an invitation to join us in our efforts to design with Africa…
END NOTES
Dr Mugendi M’Rithaa,Embracing sustainability: revisiting the authenticity of ‘event’ time
Design With Africa
Design for Dialogue

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