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date: 29 November 2020

Urbanization in East Africa, circa 900–2010 ce locked

  • Andrew BurtonAndrew BurtonBritish Institute in Eastern Africa

Summary

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.

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