The topic of my column last week, the first in an occasional series of a Q&As with interesting thinkers, was ostensibly the rapidly changing nature of cities in Africa. But an important subtext of the piece, present throughout the conversation, was African performance or, perhaps better stated, underperformance on a range of issues.
My interlocutor last week, George Kankou Denkey, noted, for example, that Africa, a continent that is presently urbanizing on a scale never experienced anywhere before, generally lacks urban planners; even its universities seem unengaged with the topic. Elsewhere, he pointed out that although one of the largest megalopolises in the world is fast taking shape in the densely populated coastal region of West Africa from Lagos to Abidjan, there are almost no true highways covering the 500-mile distance between them, and no rail of any kind to facilitate east-west travel and commerce across borders.
As a former longtime resident of this region, what I remember even more about my time there was a seemingly far humbler detail, but nonetheless one that is lacking in so many cities on the African continent: the old-fashioned sidewalk. Almost everywhere one looks in Africa, cities are sprawling, but the pedestrian—never mind the cyclist, the current obsession of city planners elsewhere in the world—is a rank afterthought.