East Africa’s urban past is broken down into five historical periods. The first (c. 900–1500 ce) saw the emergence of an urban Swahili culture on the East African coast that flourished thanks to its role as economic and cultural arbiter between the African interior and the Indian Ocean world. Between 1500 and 1800, as in other parts of the world, the intrusion of Europeans (and other outsiders) appears to have had a detrimental impact on “classical” Swahili civilization, although several important urban centers continued to flourish. Inland there is negligible evidence of urbanization before 1800. From around this time, however, important settlements did arise in the interior, thanks largely to the region’s growing integration in an international economy that emerged in the course of the 19th century—with various coastal (Swahili) cities prospering once again through their intermediary role. The situation was transformed with the onset of European colonial rule (c. 1890–1960), which prompted historically unprecedented rates of urban growth and witnessed the emergence of what would become a number of important world cities. Toward the end of the colonial period, from the 1940s, East Africa’s urban centers experienced another upward jolt in their rates of growth; however, the full repercussions of this demographic revolution, which resulted in a substantial (and growing) proportion of the population claiming urban residence for the first time, did not become fully apparent until after independence; with rapid urbanization proving one of the most important features of postcolonial East Africa.
Lesley Nicole Braun
African women’s experiences of migration and transregional movements have long been eclipsed by men’s histories of travel and journeying. However, this certainly does not mean that women have not historically participated in geographical movement, both with their families and independently. Reasons for women’s migratory practices are divergent, and they are informed by a kaleidoscope of shifting historical internal and external sociopolitical forces. Some of these include escape from violent conflict and war, slavery, environmental and economic hardship, and oppressive family constraints. The colonial era marked a period of intense migration in which men were forcibly moved to labor within extractive economies. Women, for their part, sometimes migrated without the approval of their own families, and against the colonial administration’s sanctions. Their experiences were shaped by struggles against all forms of patriarchal authority. As a result of changing demographics and social roles, the colonial city also assumed a reputation among colonials and Africans as a space of moral depravity motivated by consumer culture. Consequently, migrant women often faced stigma when they entered cities, and sometimes when they returned home. Women were attracted to towns and cities and what they came to represent—spaces where new opportunities could be explored. Opportunity came in the form of economic independence, marriage, romantic liaisons, and education. Most migrant women were confronted with being marginalized to the domestic sphere and informal sector. However, many women also acquired and honed their market acumen, amassing wealth which they often reinvested in family networks back in their natal villages, thus revealing circular modes of migration associated with multilocal networks.
Robert S. Kramer
It is tempting to seek an auspicious beginning for the Sudanese city of Omdurman, given its eventual significance, but there is none to be found. From its humble origins as a watering place for local pastoralists on the west bank of the Nile, and a mere hamlet and waystation for travelers by the early 19th century, it grew rapidly in the 1880s into a crowded market center, an administrative capital, and even a holy city: all due to the tumultuous events of the Sudanese Mahdist movement (or Mahdiyyah) of 1881–1898. And while it was not the intention of Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi to found anything—he considered Omdurman just another “spot” (buq‘a) among the many he had camped at—the policies of his successor and the devotion of his followers enlarged and ennobled the place, transforming it into the dominant urban center of the Nilotic Sudan. As a holy city, Omdurman can hardly be compared to such places as Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca, with their centuries or even millennia of existence; and although it resembles Shaykh ‘Uthman dan Fodio’s city of Sokoto in northern Nigeria as the capital of an expansionist jihadist state, it also differs from it in some important ways. Ultimately, whether one considers its messianic or economic importance, its military or administrative functions, its planned or spontaneous origins, Omdurman is remarkable for becoming, in just over a decade’s time, one of the most important cities across Sudanic Africa. Moreover, the experience of the Sudanese people in so tribally and ethnically diverse an urban environment, under such concentrated and extreme conditions, both impelled by the policies of the state and inspired by fervent Mahdist belief, helped to accelerate ongoing social changes, which ultimately led to the formation of a more coherent national identity.
Ahmad Alawad Sikainga
As in the rest of Africa, the establishment of colonial rule has accelerated the pace of urban growth in the Sudan. During the period of British colonial rule (1898–1956), a number of new administrative centers, ports, and railway stations were established and metamorphosed into full-fledged cities. Among the most important towns and administrative centers were Khartoum, the capital of the Anglo-Egyptian administration; Atbara, headquarters of the Sudan Railways; the port city of Port Sudan; and Khartoum North, the headquarters of the steamers division of the Sudan Railways. These towns grew from small administrative headquarters into major urban centers and became the home of a diverse population that included Sudanese as well as immigrants from the Middle East, Europe, and neighboring African countries. The inhabitants of these towns engaged in a wide range of economic, social, and political activities that shaped the character of these towns and developed a distinctive urban culture.
A pervasive system of migrant labor played a fundamental part in shaping the past and present of South Africa’s economy and society and has left indelible marks on the wider region. South Africa was long infamous for its entrenched system of racial discrimination. But it is also unique in the extent to which urbanization, industrialization, and rural transformation have been molded by migrant labor. Migrancy and racism fed off each other for over a century, shaping the lives and deaths of millions of people.
The urban history of Africa is as ancient, varied, and complex as that of other continents, and the study of this history shares many of the theoretical, conceptual, and methodological challenges of urban history generally. Knowledge of Africa’s historic cities is based on archaeological investigation, analysis of historic documents, linguistics, and ethnographic field methods. The historiography of cities in Africa has debated what constitutes a city, how urbanization can be apprehended in the archaeological record and in documentary sources, why cities emerged, and how historic cities have related to states. The great impact colonization had on African urbanization is a major topic of research, including in the study of postcolonial cities. The “informality” of much contemporary urbanization, both in terms of economic activities and architecture, has been a major topic of research since the 1970s. With few exceptions, prior to the 20th century cities were relatively small, with no more than 20,000–30,000 inhabitants. Religion, trade, and the concentration of power were major factors in the rise of cities across the continent. The largest and most well-studied cities were often the capitals of important states. At times networks of city-states flourished, as in Hausaland, Yorubaland, and along the Swahili coast. The cities of northern Africa shared many morphological characteristics with other cities of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, being characterized by a high density of population, masonry architecture, and encircling city walls. South of the Sahara, cities tended to be multinucleated, with low densities of population and built-over surfaces, and they tended to merge with surrounding agricultural landscapes in an urban–rural continuum. Perishable construction materials such as earth, wattle, and thatch were widely used for both domestic and public architecture.