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Photo courtesy of MASS Design Group.

The African Design Center is Birthing a New Generation of African Architects and Designers

In this interview, Rwandan architect and designer, Christian Benimana, says that the 'African city' does not exist and suggests that the continent look to urbanizing without necessarily creating cities.

When Christian Benimana left Rwanda to study architecture in China in the early 2000s, he inadvertently bore witness to one of the world's biggest building booms. During that time, China underwent one of the most rapid urbanization in the history of the earth. But behind the glittering skyscrapers and brand new urban neighborhoods, says Benimana, in a TED Talk from last year, is a much darker story. "Behind these facades was the exploitation of huge numbers of migrant workers and the massive displacement of thousands of people that made these projects possible. As countries in Africa undergo massive rates of urbanization, it's these lessons in city building from his time in China that come to the front.

Benimana is the principal at MASS Design Group in Rwanda, a firm that has carried out architectural projects in Rwanda and broader Africa over the past 10 years. He has become the lead in implementing the African Design Center.

The African Design Center, the project-based apprenticeship established by the MASS Design Group, is committed to a more sustainable model of architecture. The ultimate goal is to begin a movement of young and inspired people who will completely upend what we have come to know as conventional architecture. By incubating talent and redesigning curriculums, the Africa Design Center is attempting to envision what development in Africa needs to start looking like outside of the Western conceptions of development being imposed on the continent. Schools are a particular focus for the center as it challenges what schools should look like and how their architecture goes hand-in-hand with the education African children receive.

We caught up with Benimana to talk more about the African Design Center's ambitious vision and his own personal views on the state of cities on the continent right now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


How would you describe the current state of African cities?

That's a very difficult question. Personally, I don't believe in the notion of African cities. I believe there are cities in Africa, but there's no such thing as an African city. In Nairobi, Kinshasa, Kigali, Jo'burg, Cairo, they're all in Africa. They all have a very different nature in themselves, their origins and identity. I don't think that there could be one blanket that covers what an African city is at the moment. However, I can say that the general understanding I have of African cities, at least the ones that I've had a chance to visit and experience myself, is that they're still not even at that "city level".

Often times they've been promoted as sources of economic transformation and opportunities, but more often than not, they also fail to go back in a tangible way. I keep telling people that we really don't have cities. We have very dense areas, often times it's because of a high concentration of economic activities, but I wouldn't call them cities.

Photo courtesy of MASS Design Group.

Having said that, do you at least feel that there should there be a difference in the way that cities within Africa look versus those in the West?

Absolutely.

"I don't believe that the answer to urbanization is necessarily a city."

In this modern age of technology and advancement in thinking and systems, I think you can urbanize without creating cities. The notion of a city is not new in Africa. It's just that the way we interact with them, the way we deal with them, the way we manage them through time is fundamentally different from how Europeans use them. Right now, we're forcing this concept of either a European or an American city onto our communities and it's creating this deep confusion.

Do you think how most people get around is a big part of how well we can rate the city in which they live?

Definitely. I've been to cities where people can't walk around because the city is designed around this motor vehicle culture that comes from the US, but 99 percent of people in that city cannot afford cars—that's a tension right there. Then what ends up happening is that you have these "hustlers" who know how to seize an opportunity and proceed to go buy these minibuses that can only seat like 12 people. They end up seating like 30 or 40 people, that minibus never sees maintenance in like 20 years and becomes a hazard that kills people day in and day out.

People who are left to rely on that same public transportation are subjected to a condition that is so dehumanizing for such a very long time that sometimes they forget that we're dealing with the consequences of a problem that was created years before.

The next generation of African architects and designers | Christian Benimana www.youtube.com

What are some of the challenges you've faced with the the Africa Design Center and what it aims to ultimately do?

I think the biggest challenge is a shift in mindset and providing the evidence of what the African continent will look in the next 50 years. There is this rush to, for instance, accommodate this generation that is coming, a generation that is different than the one before it. We now live in a world where it's very clear what's happening to the majority of people. The lack of opportunities that allow certain communities to rise to a certain level of living is creating some problems.

What's lacking in Africa is a public dialogue or a series of discourse that talks about where Africa sees itself in the next 50 years. What does development look like? And in my opinion, there's an opportunity to change traditional notions around what a city and urban living is or could be, what a country is and even what forms of economic opportunities we could have. We have the potential to shape all of that.

"I think if we miss that, I we're going to repeat the same mistakes Europeans and Americans made. We'll be back in the same spot where we are now."

What are some of the successes that have affirmed to you that this is the kind of work that you should continue doing?

The fact that the new generation of people don't need any convincing that something needs to be done [about development]. They already have that thinking. The only thing that we may be required to do is point out the boundaries of the realistic world we live in—but they're ready to go. To me, that was a very big validation that this needs to be done. Young people are already thinking about it, so whether we like it or not, it's going to happen. They're going to do it.

It's just a matter of us supporting them in doing it, and supporting them in a manner that does not hurt them in the process.

What significant projects are you currently working on?

Well, as the African Design Center, we don't have a class of fellows on site at the moment. The last class of fellows worked and finished a public school in the north of Rwanda, but that school is part of a larger study trying to understand what the true value of education is, and what component you have to put in place so that the intended living outcomes are actually attained. In Africa, we also have this tendency of just sending children to schools but nobody really questions the content of that education or the outcome of it. The same with the physical spaces that supports that education.

Ruhehe Primary School. Photo courtesy of MASS Design Group.

And then as MASS Design Group, one of the biggest projects we're working on is a university campus for conservation and culture. It's looking at applying the concept of "one health" in the built environment. So, the principle that human life, animals and ecology are all inextricably linked. Therefore, in all our efforts to create a physical environment, we need to think about that balance very carefully. It's an important one.

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Photo by Abena Boamah.

Photos: Here's What Happened at Daily Paper & Free the Youth's Design Talk for Accra's Young Creatives

Founders of the popular brands discussed all things African streetwear in a conversation facilitated by OkayAfrica and moderator Amarachi Nwosu.

Last week, Amsterdam-based, African-owned streetwear brand Daily Paper and Ghanaian streetwear label Free the Youth held a talk for young creatives at the Mhoseenu design studio in Accra, Ghana.

Moderated by Melanin Unscripted creator Amarachi Nwosu and presented in partnership with OkayAfrica, the design-based conversation explored everything from sustainable practices in manufacturing, to the overall evolution of streetwear globally. The founders of Free the Youth, which was been called Ghana's number one streetwear brand, expanded on how they've been able to build their audience, and shared details about their community-based initiatives.

They event, which took place at the Daily Paper Pop-up Store in Accra last Friday, drew a fashionable and creative-minded crowd ready to partake in a design discussion between West Africa and Europe.

Check out some of the action that took place at the Daily Paper x FYT event below, with photos by Abena Boamah.

Find more upcoming OkayAfrica events here.

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Photo courtesy of Karabo Poppy.

In Conversation with Karabo Poppy, the First South African Artist to Collaborate with Nike

The talented illustrator and street artist produced three unique designs for Nike's iconic Air Force 1 Low sneaker collection.

Karabo Poppy is an award-winning South African illustrator, graphic designer and street artist. The majority of her work has been inspired by signature geometric patterns and vibrant African aesthetics.

Recently, she became the first ever South African artist to collaborate with Nike on their iconic Air Force 1 Low sneaker collection. Nike By You, which offers sneakerheads the opportunity to get some dope custom-made sneakers, teamed up with Karabo Poppy to design three unique sneakers whose aesthetic is distinctly African. Design-wise, the sneakers go where Nike itself has never gone and it's exactly what gives them a striking quality—they're hard to miss.

In a matter of days, the sneaker collection had completely sold out globally, yet another feat for a South African artist. And so naturally, we caught up with Karabo Poppy to talk about the success of her sneaker collaboration, what it feels like making history within sneaker culture and some of the biggest lessons she's learnt in the process.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Photo courtesy of CSA Global.

In Conversation with Congolese NBA Player Emmanuel Mudiay: 'I want more African players in the NBA.'

The Utah Jazz player talks about being African in the NBA, supporting basketball in the DRC and how 'everybody knows about Burna Boy'.

Inspired by his basketball-playing older brothers, by second grade, Emmanuel Mudiay already knew that he wanted to play in the American National Basketball Association. Then in 2001 his family, fleeing the war in Democratic Republic of Congo, sought asylum in the United States.

In America, Mudiay saw basketball as a way for him to improve his situation. After impressive high school and college careers, he moved to China to play pro ball. Picked 7th overall in the 2015 NBA draft, the now 23-year-old guard has made a name for himself this season coming off the bench for the Utah Jazz.

Mudiay attests to the sport having changed not only his life but that of his siblings. Basketball gave them all a chance at a good education and the opportunity to dream without conditions. Now he wants to see other talented African players make it too.

We caught up with him to talk about his experience as an African player in the NBA, his hopes for basketball on the African continent and who he and his teammates jam out to in their locker rooms.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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University lecturer and activist Doctor Stella Nyanzi (L) reacts in court as she attends a trial to face charges for cyber-harassment and offensives communication, in Kampala, on April 10, 2017. (Photo by GAEL GRILHOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Jailed Ugandan Activist, Stella Nyanzi, Wins PEN Prize for Freedom of Expression

The outspoken activist, who is currently serving a prison sentence for a poem she wrote about the president's mother's vagina, won for her resistance "in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her."

Stella Nyanzi, the Ugandan academic, activist, and vocal critic of President Yoweri Museveni has been awarded the 2020 Oxfam Novib/PEN International award for freedom of expression, given to writers who "continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution."

Nyanzi is currently serving a 15 month sentence for "cyber harassment" after she published a poem in which she wrote that she wished "the acidic pus flooding Esiteri's (the president's mother) vaginal canal had burn up your unborn fetus. Burn you up as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda."

According to the director of PEN International, Carles Torner, her unfiltered outspokenness around the issues facing her country is what earned her the award. "For her, writing is a permanent form of resistance in front of a regime that is trying to suppress her," said Torner at the award ceremony.

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