The annual rate of urbanization in Kenya is estimated at about 4.4 percent, which 62 percent higher than the annual rate of Kenya’s population growth. The unprecedented rate of urbanization, especially in Africa has been widely regarded as a blessing.
Cities, when they work, are places of promise, hope and opportunity. The long history of urbanization, especially the rise of global cities – from ancient Athens to Rome and to Cairo and New York in the present time – is a chronicle of modernity and prosperity. More recently, urbanization in China and Korea has been accompanied by significant income growth.
However, the link between the growth of a majority of African cities and shared material wellbeing is tenuous. According to leading urban scholars, like Harvard University’s Edward Glaeser, there has been an explosion of poor-mega cities over the last three decades. Here in Kenya, rapid urban growth has been accompanied by deterioration of basic services, especially housing, water and sanitation, lack of planning and of course maddening traffic gridlock.
Across our region, the convergence between rapid urbanization and the youth bulge presents an opportunity and a challenge. It presents an opportunity because urban spaces that inspire and foster creativity and innovation. Think about the technology hubs and the burst of innovation that have become the hallmark of Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Kigali and Nairobi. Cities have become the magnet of Africa’s youthful talent. A pool of educated urban population is a veritable engine for East Africa’s transformation into a knowledge economy.
A survey by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University revealed that Kenyan youth are optimistic about the future, and believe they will have jobs, better access to quality education and healthcare. Moreover, a majority of the youth will live in urban not rural spaces. Hence, the views and aspirations of the youth should inform the planning, management and governance of our cities.
The convergence between the youth bulge and rapid urbanization presents a challenge because a better future is inextricably bound with thriving cities. In essence, the success of a majority of young people today will depend on whether our cities deliver opportunity and shared prosperity that meets the expectations of the youth.
It will take youth and a broad coalition of stakeholders working together to create the necessary conditions to build cities that deliver opportunity and prosperity for all of us. While youth are disproportionately affected by the problems that beset our young cities, their engagement could be the source of innovative solutions. Authentic and meaningful engagement of young people in change processes however, requires creative, non-traditional approaches.
Through its Young Cities Dialogue programme the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University is deploying novel methods to gather the experiences and views of urban youth across East Africa, and to create dialogue aimed at influencing change through public policy and a call to action by urban youth.
After months of painstaking research through observation and consultation, a group of Mombasa-based performing artist created and presented four superb short plays, which describe the experiences of youth in Mombasa; their struggles and triumphs, their joys and pains, their dreams and the hard knocks of reality. Drama is simply a form of narrative or story presented through performance. The point of dramatizing story is to engage deeply, emotionally through the heart and through the mind.
It was truly inspiring to witness young people grapple – with sophisticated wit, reflection and wisdom – with issues that confront urban youth such as unemployment and opportunity, the failures of our criminal justice system, sexual abuse, pluralism and interfaith understanding. Moreover, it was exceedingly delightful to listen to the thoughtful exchange between the protagonist in the play and the audience to find resolution to complex dilemma. At the heart of the dilemma in each play were moral and ethical choices, personal agency and the role of civil society, business and government.
At the end of the Young Cities Dialogue in Mombasa last Saturday, my confidence and faith in Kenya’s youth was reignited. Youth have the capacity to grapple with the challenges of urbanization, while taking advantage of the opportunities created by urbanism.