A Harvard researcher who tracks Ebola’s evolution remembers being “totally shocked” when he learned that Zaire ebolavirus was behind reports of a mysterious hemorrhagic fever cropping up in Sierra Leone last January. Lassa fever or even the rare Côte d’Ivoire Taï Forest strain of Ebola would have been more logical pathogens according to him, and the question remains:  how exactly did the most lethal form of Ebola – which was previously restricted to Central Africa – suddenly appear thousands of miles away on the edge of West Africa? Researchers may never be able to provide a precise explanation, but they have developed several theories as to how Zaire ebolavirus “jumped” across the continent.

Some background on the basic evolutionary biology of Ebola is necessary to appreciate the mystery presented by this mammoth leap. Moving down the tree of evolutionary similarity, the Filoviridae family encompasses the Ebolavirus genus, of which there are five distinct (known) species: Zaire ebolavirus, Sudan ebolavirus, Reston ebolavirus, Bundibugyo ebolavirus, and Taï Forest ebolavirus. All are found in Africa except for Reston, which has only appeared in a Virginia lab.

Despite widespread reports that the current Ebola outbreak is West Africa’s first instance of the virus, one previous case of Ebola was recorded in the region prior to last December. The case occurred when a female Swiss ethologist contracted the disease while conducting a necropsy on an infected Chimpanzee in the Taï Forest region of Côte d’Ivoire that borders Liberia. She survived what virologists eventually determined to be a separate species of Ebola, and this year’s outbreak in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone surprisingly has no connection to that species now known as Taï Forest ebolavirus.

The culprit of this year’s outbreak, Zaire ebolavirus has likely circulated in the forests of Central Africa for hundreds of years. The first confirmed case occurred only in 1976 near the Ebola River in Zaire, but based on the virus’s mutation rate, Ebola likely split from Marburg virus – another deadly member of the Filoviridae family – around 800 years ago. Further evidence for the long history of Ebola in Central Africa comes from the virus’s presence in stored samples collected from Gabon primates prior to 1976. Previous cases likely went internationally undetected in part because of long practiced indigenous protocols such as isolating infected people outside of villages in addition to community-wide dietary restrictions during times of unusually severe afflictions (see Matthew Barry’s anthropological research on Ebola).

After 1976, Zaire ebolavirus went eerily quiet but reemerged again in the mid-1990s, beginning a series of semi-annual outbursts that continue to this day in Central Africa (the recent 2014 DRC outbreak is the latest instance and is unconnected to the West Africa outbreak). Contrary to many recent news reports, these sporadic episodes have affected bustling cities (Gulu, Kikwit) and have spread via air travel (from Gabon to South Africa), but the initial index cases have always originated in Central Africa, and the outbreaks have never eclipsed more than a few hundred cases.

The 2014 West African outbreak broke this pattern. Scientists have now traced its origin back to a two year old boy who was likely exposed to fruit bats last December in Guinea, ruling out an immediate cause of an infected person bringing the virus directly from Central Africa.

The connection of fruit bats to an Ebola outbreak is not unusual, and bats have been linked to several other index cases over the years. As a result, bats are the leading suspect for the elusive and long sought “reservoir” animal that asymptomatically harbors the virus between human outbreaks. Tests on thousands of animals in Central Africa have yet to find definitive traces of ebolavirus, perhaps because the virus is also rare amongst animals or else only flares up for short spells.

Even within a single species of Ebola, the virus’s DNA constantly mutates each time it jumps from animal to animal, or animal to human. Thankfully the mutation rate for Ebola is much lower than other RNA viruses such as HIV/AIDS, providing more hope for a sustainable cure. Based on its slow rate of mutation, the genetic structure of the Zaire strain ravishing West Africa seems to have separated from its Central African parent strain of Zaire ebolavirus about a decade ago.

This estimate gives scientists about a ten-year window within which to speculate as to how Zaire ebolavirus ended up in West Africa. Here again, bats present the most likely link.

One theory picked up by those with a taste for primitiving Africa, postulates that Africans’ supposed appetite for bat meat (and bush meat in general) has led to the illegal smuggling of infected bats or chimpanzees from Central Africa to West Africa. While it is true that infected primates acted as vectors for bringing Reston ebolavirus to the US and Marburg virus to Germany, there is no evidence of an elaborate black market for bush meat criss-crossing Africa. Assuming a thriving bush meat trade is to misunderstand the driving factor behind wild game consumption in Africa: poverty. West Africans don’t import chimpanzees and bats from Central Africa as exotic delicacies—hungry villagers hunt small game in the forest to add protein to their diets, as other forms of meat are often prohibitively expensive. The average annual income in Guinea is $416 (World Bank).

A more likely scenario for Ebola’s jump involves the long distance migration of bats. Bats are unique amongst mammals in their ability to fly, and recent research tracking their flight patterns has uncovered that they often travel hundreds of miles a year in search of insects. Just about everything about bats from their migration routes to their immune systems is notoriously understudied.

According to the few published studies, scientists know that there are “metapopulations” of bats – separate colonies (whose members can run into the millions) that interact on some level. In other words, large populations of bats come into contact with other large populations of bats at the fringes of their territories or as they migrate, allowing pathogens to pass between them. Along such a metapopulation network, Zaire ebolavirus could have worked its way up the coast of West Africa. Preliminary positive tests for Zaire ebolavirus in bats found in Ghana – about halfway between the DRC and Guinea – support this theory of a gradual passing on of Ebola.

One factor that complicates this picture of bat-born Ebola is the fact that human outbreaks seem to only occur in regions of Africa where large primates are found. This remains a puzzling mystery, but one possible explanation floated is that Ebola needs to be – in a sense – shaken back and forth between bats and non-human primates before it mutates into a form that can be picked up by humans. An intriguing theory and time will tell if index cases eventually do emerge from areas without non-human primates.

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What might be Lagos’s most internationally recognizable building project since the 1980s isn’t a skyscraper or a suspension bridge — it’s a one-room schoolhouse. The now well-known A-frame bobs in the murky surf of Makoko, one of Lagos’s largest slums, providing a learning space for a community of 100,000+ people not officially recognized by the city government. Designed by Nigeria’s rising star Kunlé Adeyemi, the project made waves in the architectural world last year for its simplicity, adaptability, and humanity. I first read (and blogged) about the project last fall and was struck by the auroral beauty of the blue-roofed building set against the cooking smoke and plain timber structures of Makoko where new homes are often constructed on a soggy foundation of raw sewage (see episode 2 of the BBC’s documentary Welcome to Lagos). Here was a project that had actually succeeded in that often sought but rarely realized gauntlet of creating low-cost, high-design buildings from recycled material to benefit poor communities. Write-ups poured in from the New York Times, The Guardian, and many others, and Makoko Floating School splashed across my newsfeed for several weeks.

Last summer when I was in Lagos for the first time, I saw the school from the Third Mainland Bridge moments before glimpsing the city’s skyline and I have to admit that the school stole the spotlight. The Third Mainland Bridge is the longest bridge in Africa, meandering from Ebute Meta to Lagos Island, and, about halfway along, it provides the perfect balcony to view Akeyemi’s school (where I took the photo below). Akeyemi certainly knew how to make the most of a small-scale project that other architects might have scoffed at. For making a name for himself Akeyemi had good training — he worked at Koolhaas’s firm OMA for nearly a decade before founding his own firm NLÉ in 2010. His relationship with Koolhaas adds a fascinating dimension to Adeyemi’s project since Koolhaas’s Harvard Project on the City produced some of the most provocative writing on Lagos to date. Koolhaas challenged outside observers to see Lagos as being at the “forefront of globalizing modernity” — a dynamic urban space that had outgrown Western notions of the city and carrying capacity to become a “self-organizing” entity that completely disorientated visitors but somehow “worked.” Within this paradigm, it’s not surprising that Adeyemi saw that the future was in Lagos and returned to set-up shop. But of course his move and the civically-concerned design he’s been involved in since being back puts a twist on Koolhaas’s “self-organizing” thesis.

Away from the stratosphere of starchitects, the school itself has become the pride of Makoko, a place for a handful of youths to get an education long denied to the unincorporated fishing community. Every day local children park their hollowed out wooden canoes around the floating school and gather on its open-air decks for class, and in the evenings the buoyant building becomes a community center for local leaders. The project is only the prototype of a much larger masterplan that Adeyemi envisions for Makoko, and if funding comes through all of the neighborhood’s stilt-supported shacks will one day be replaced by floating A-frames. When that happens, it may just be a sight to rival Eko Atlantic — the megaproject of office buildings developing on the other side of the city and architectural spectrum.

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(Mark Duerksen 2014)

I’m writing an essay on David Adjaye for Professor Blier’s course on Contemporary African Art and our assignment this week was to write a short bio of our artist:

David Adjaye is a Ghanaian born in Tanzania to ethnically Yoruba parents. But it’s not that straight forward. Over the years Adjaye has continually grown into an international citizen as his diplomatic father was posted across Africa and the Middle East during the early decades of Ghana’s independence, as he attended art school and launched his firm in London once his family settled there, and, more recently, as he broadened the footprint of his offices into America, Germany, and Africa in an effort to stabilize his practice in the aftermath of the financial downturn. Yet Adjaye has forged a distinct design style by continuously drawing on Africa’s history and culture — a history and culture he has learned by reading widely in whatever small bits of free time he has — as inspiration for the bold forms and intricate patterns he infuses his projects with. The other, overlapping motif of Adjaye’s designs and career is that he was trained as an artist and only fell into architecture by chance when his design for a cafe attracted attention from firms in London. Across much of Africa, artists and architects are one and the same as buildings are at once dwellings to be designed for living in and at the same time are sculptures — often literal blocks of wood to be carved and molded into patterns and figures. The houses Adjaye made his name with in the beginning of his firm’s existence in the early 2000s, are both highly livable abodes and at the same time artist installations infused with thoughtful forms and patterns worked into the shell of the building. Working mostly in northern cities, Adjaye has preferred to use materials (especially black concrete) that are as at home in their surrounding cold, industrial environment as wood, thatch, and clay are in traditional African architecture. Within five years of existence, Adjaye’s designs caught the broader world’s attention and soon he was designing the Oslo Nobel Peace Center (2005), Denver Museum of Contemporary Art (2007), with his profile reaching a zenith in 2009 when his design was selected for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (set to open in 2015–see previous post). Recently, encouraged by the rise of economic opportunity in Africa that many businesses have begun to take notice of, Adjaye has turned his eye back to Africa and is at the forefront of designing on the continent, undertaking a series of projects from Accra to Kampala.

In 2009 David Adjaye and Philip Freelon’s plans for an inverted and stacked trapezoidal building encased in bronze screens won the design competition for the construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). When the building opens in late 2015, it will have been 100 years since African American Civil War veterans first proposed a DC memorial honoring various African American achievements. This centennial timeline illustrates how long the struggle has dragged on to construct a monument to African American history, it also reminds us just how recently millions of Africans were enslaved in America by the fact that men who actually fought to end slavery were connected to this ongoing project. The building itself mines the more distant connection of the African origin of American slaves for its defining tripartite trapezoids, which evoke Yoruba carved wood columns–specifically the crowns at the top of the columns (not a king’s “crown” as many articles mistakenly assume)–found on traditional buildings in southwest Nigeria. The reference to Yoruba pillars subtly suggests the prominence of African American scientists, artists, and politicians in the creation of America, and also–to use the museum’s term–“the darker corners” of the reality that America was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. Revisions to the original winning design, including a third tier, have further brought out the form of a sculpted Yoruba column, whereas before the plans looked equally like a shimmering fire above a base of a flat funeral pyre…not exactly the imagery a museum to African American culture wants to evoke. The redesign removes the red-stone base, integrating the crown with the ground level. While these have been improvements to the original vision, budget concerns have scrapped plans for an entrance that would have crossed a series of intricately landscaped waterways, reverently breaking the stride of visitors as they approached and serving as a reminder of the middle passage crossing. Another victim of the budget has been the bronze facade, which will now be fashioned from some kind of coated composite. There are concerns whether the new material will shine and if it will eventually flake off. Perhaps, in an America where pernicious racism chips away at any optimism for a united union, nothing could be a more fitting symbol for the dream of a nation that recognizes and honors the contributions and heritage of African Americans…except for maybe a funeral pyre…or, maybe yet, the shift in the form of the building’s tragic flaw from funeral pyre to a million paint specks speaks to the shifts in the way American racism operates.

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Yoruba columns in the house of Susanne Wenger (Mark Duerksen, 2014)

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Columns carved by Olowe of Ise (source)

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Original design (source)

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Redesign (source)

*Self-promotion warning* A book review and an article–both related to Lagos–that I wrote last year were recently published online. The African Studies Quarterly book review was on Kaye Whiteman’s Lagos: A Cultural History (highly recommended introduction to the city) and the article looked at Rem Koolhaas’s Lagos project and the highly critical responses to it, making the straightforward claim that critics’ borderline-vitriol was unnecessary and unproductive, and that despite numerous imperfections, Koolhaas’s project in fact pushes African urban research in productive new directions of grappling with African cities on their own terms rather than as stunted or failed versions of Western cities. The article was published in the Johannesburg Salon.

Review of Lagos: A Cultural History

The Koolhaas Effect: Hot Air over Lagos

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Lagos Billboard (Mark Duerksen 2014)

This is a short reflection exploring trajectories across four famous African Art exhibitions over the past 30 years.

Exhibiting African Art: From Exhibitionism to Critical Engagement

In a highly critical review of the 1984 exhibition “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern,” Thomas McEvilley used the anthropological term “etic” (privileging the observer’s perspective) to critique curator William Robin’s neglect of indigenous understandings of the tribal art that he juxtaposed to modern, western art. Robin was far more concerned with how Picasso, Gauguin, and other iconic modernists (though notably none from Africa) had aesthetically experienced tribal masks than with how the artifacts were originally connected to African systems of belief and ritual. This Eurocentrism infuriated McEvilley who consequently made the case for privileging etic’s opposite, emic, and thus attempting to understand others from their own perspective.

In the 1995 essay “Art, Identity, Boundaries,” Olu Oguibe would lampoon McEvilley as harshly as McEvilley had Robin for presuming to understand others (in this case, the artist Ouattara) from their own perspective by simply knowing where they were from (Abidjan) and to speak for that perspective as an external observer. Here we can see the trajectory of emic-realization being further subdivided into an understanding of subject as stated by the observer and Oguibe’s preference for the subject’s own statement.

In the intermediary between these two fiery articles, Susan Vogel had curated “Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art” (1991), which was in effect the laudable reversal of “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” in seeking to exhibit African artists “digesting the West.” With this Africanist orientation, the exhibit was an exemplar of McEvilley’s encouragement for greater emic, but in retrospect the exhibit is open to Oguibe’s criticism of McEvilley’s failure to finish the reorientation away from the West. Although “Africa Explores” explicitly stated that it sought to understand the African perspective, by Vogel–a white American–selecting the exhibit’s pieces and doing so with a preference for those with an “exaggerated appropriation of an ‘African’ aesthetic”( Enwezor and Okeke-Agulu, 2009) — what Donald Cosentino refers to as Afrokitsch — the New York based show was essentially speaking for Africa’s artists.

A decade later, the momentous, Okui Enwezor-curated exhibition “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa” (2001) would encapsulate a period in which contemporary African artists finally escaped decades of Western misrepresentation by gaining access to the avenues and stages of power to speak for themselves. This achievement was symbolized by an African — the Nigerian Okui Enwezor — curating the Munich-based show. Enwezor chose a historical perspective to thematize the artwork exhibited, moving notions of the continent and its art beyond the static, ahistorical perception it had so long suffered and thereby bringing social and political context back into understandings of African art, but not in the McEvilley emic of exoticized, ethnographic, explanations-from-uninformed-observers sense. Enwezor included mediums of film, sound, and photography that many African artists had worked with yet were not frequently included in early exhibitions such as “Africa Explores,” which had preferred plastic, static forms more akin to “traditional” African mediums of sculpture and painting.

As the-rise-of-African-voices trajectory of emic-realization proliferated, other fissures emerged over who speaks for whom within Africa and across the transnational Diaspora. American and European based shows such as “Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent” (2004) continue to predominantly display African artists who live outside the continent and who are from certain countries within the continent (Nigeria, South Africa). Likewise star-artists (Shonibare, El Anatsui, Kentridge, Fosso, Samba–all included in “Africa Remix”) have emerged whose works are included in nearly every major show–at times blocking out new voices and aesthetics. While it’s unclear whether greater emphasis on regionalism will be the result of how future exhibits address these issues of representation (although it seems unlikely), the great increase in the number of exhibits that focus on the work of a single African artist is an important way of disaggregating the continent/diaspora and further privileging the voice of the artist. Now to bring in artists from underrepresented regions of the continent…

This post summarizes and analyzes Paul Emmanuel’s The Lost Men of France—a WWI counter-memorial that has been on my mind recently—for a course that I’m taking with Prof. Suzanne Blier on the contemporary arts of Africa.

2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of what was at the time called the Great War. With the blessing of the French Government, Johannesburg based artist Paul Emmanuel has commemorated the centennial by installing a series of silk tapestries in a field that flanks the permanent stone and brick Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Printed on the delicate silk banners are images of Emmanuel’s nude body pressed with deep imprints of the names of both black and white South African soldiers who died at Somme yet whom were excluded from Thiepval Memorial. Like other “anti-monuments,” through its ephemerality and humanness, Lost Men counters the monolithic ideology and history inscribed in triumphant, monumental monuments (like Thiepval) meant to tower above the earth and withstand the elements, symbolic of their creator’s power and endurance. Already, the summer’s storms, heat, and dust have battered Emmanuel’s installation, fraying the ethereal cloth and rusting the metal poles, conjuring the violence subjected on the bodies of the young, fit men of the Western Front. These allusions to youthful slaughter are not evident in the polished Thiepval arches, and viewing its arches in the same plane as Emmanuel’s momentary evocation of the tearing and rotting of flesh suggests why memories of World War nightmares fade with time like Emmanuel’s silk banners. Through the tranquility of Lost Men’s soft images and subtle material, the suggestion of war’s horrors becomes all the more chilling, leaving the adjacent 1932 Thiepval Memorial looking garish and insensitive while the translucence of Emmanuel’s tapestries imparts trust that historical omission and obfuscation is not their intent. With no WWI combatants still living, Lost Men suggests a way memories of humankind’s first exposure to the terror of mechanized warfare may yet be preserved and passed on–not in triumphant European architecture–but in architecture molded from more recent (South African) discourses of truth and reconciliation. In this way, Emmanuel’s memorial also speaks to the fact that African Art–that is art produced by “Africans” or those who feel a connection to the continent–is not spatially or topically limited; rather African Art’s numerous and diverse discursive strands continue to have a global impact.

Link to The Lost Men of France website

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Creating a mashup of aerial images of African cities is something I’ve wanted to do for a while now and today I finally had a minute to put the satellite images together. Here’s the link: Afrian_metropolises. I downloaded all of the images from Google Earth Pro at the same size and scale (from 34.7 miles). The top row shows six of West Africa’s largest cities, the middle row shows East and Central African cities, and the bottom shows southern Africa plus New York and Boston for familiar comparisons (for me at least). A few striking first glance observations include the size of the South African giants Johannesburg and Cape Town, and Nigeria’s neighboring megalopolises Lagos and Ibadan (especially these two Nigerian cities in comparison to Kano, which recent (politically motivated) censuses have given population figures equal to Lagos. This is not to say geographic size of a city is determinant of its population, but the aerial difference between these three cities is readily apparent). Also interesting to note is how obvious (but obviously not a scientific method) it is to tell how paved a city is or is not based on where the city lies on the scale between brown (dirt) and grey (asphalt). There’s a limit to how useful images/maps like this actually are, but it’s fun to look at and helpful to have a for developing a mental imprint of the relative geographic sizes and shapes of African cities. 

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(Mark Duerksen 2014)

Here‘s a pretty good map of Ebola cases throughout Africa that I just came across. It was created using Ersi Story Maps software and what makes it useful is its simple and straightforward design, which allows the user to run through a timeline of known Ebola cases while the map zooms in to show their location. It would have been nice if the creator had included more information on each outbreak (such as which species it was and a little bit of background on the outbreak), but it’s still a very useful representation of Ebola’s spatial distribution in Africa. 

Here’s a single PDF of the entire “Ebola’s History” series: Ebola’s_History

I’ve finally finished what sprawled into an eight part series “summarizing” the history of Ebola. This project, which was originally supposed to be a quick summary in order to contextualize the current outbreak in West Africa, in the end turned into a far more ambitious undertaking, but I hope it succeeded in compiling some useful information on Ebola’s long-span history from medical, media, and social science sources, and is as straight forward and accessibly written as I intended it to be. Thanks for reading and check back soon for more posts on my time in Lagos.

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Sculpture at Makerere University, Uganda (Mark Duerksen, 2011)

This is the final post in an eight part series on the history of Ebola. For immediate information about how to help prevent the further spread of Ebola and keep yourself safe please consult and share the Ebola Facts website.

As we are well aware, this year the two-decade trend of isolated outbreaks in Central Africa every few years has been broken by a much larger and more prolonged series of cases in West Africa. The outbreak began when a two-year-old child in southeastern Guinea contracted the most deadly species of the virus (Zaire ebolavirus) in early December last year, putting into motion the initially slow and then progressively faster spread of the virus to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now Nigeria. Unlike the past twenty year’s string of Central African outbreaks that were each unique and separate despite initial speculation otherwise, this year’s West African outbreak does seem to be the result of a single index case followed by human-to-human transmission. Here’s a good time-lapse map of that transmission through West Africa. Summaries of the specifics of this year’s outbreak are widely available online, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will offer a few pieces of analysis based on the history I’ve covered in the previous posts.

IMG_5260Matt Ridley gets it all wrong for The Times

First there’s a need to correct a couple of pieces of misinformation that continue to circulate with this year’s outbreak. A more minor error is that this is not in fact the first time that there has been a West African case of Ebola as many news outlets have reported. Previously a zoologist working in Cote d’Ivoire caught the Tai Forest species of the virus and then fully recovered in Switzerland. Second and more importantly, the virus has not been previously restrained to only rural, remote areas of Central Africa. As we’ve seen, two of the deadliest previous outbreaks occurred when the virus struck the relatively large cities and regional hubs of Kikwit and Gulu. These Central African cities might not have quite the same level of road infrastructure linking them to other urban centers as West African cities do (although I know plenty of people board buses every day in Gulu bound for several cities and countries), but these two cases do provide a precedent for urban outbreaks of Ebola. And although these previous urban outbreaks were incredibly deadly, the cities were able to eventually contain the virus’s spread within a matter of months. So, in searching for a reason why this year’s outbreak has spread so far and killed so many, the answer is not as simple as stating that this is the first time the virus has appeared in an urbanized setting.

Other explanations have included the slow recognition and response time of international medical teams. Again, a look at the history of the virus shows that response time is not a unique factor in considering why this outbreak is so much worse. In the cases of the 1976 Sudan and Zaire outbreaks and several subsequent episodes, international teams were slow to recognize the virus’s appearance and did not arrive on the scene until after the local communities had already contained the spread of the virus. This fact suggests that one reason for the extent and deadliness of this year’s outbreak might be partly found in the local community’s responses. As Hewlett observed in Gulu, the DRC, and Gabon, many communities in Central Africa possess long practiced social procedures such as quarantine and modified burial practices that they employ when their communities recognize that they are dealing with an especially virulent affliction. I do not know if communities in West Africa have similar procedures, but it would not be surprising if they don’t due to the fact that they’re not used to seeing diseases like Ebola, or alternatively that they did previously possess similar response techniques but that the long civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone destroyed that local knowledge as violence and insecurity ripped communities apart.

Whatever the cause(s) behind the severity of this year’s outbreak, the fact is Zaire ebolavirus’s path through West Africa has been more deadly than all previous Ebola cases combined, and I have to admit that when I initially heard that the virus had arrived in Lagos—the impetus for this series of posts—I feared that Ebola might finally find in the fast life, international networks, and rancid infrastructure of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city what HIV/AIDS found in the reused medical needles, sex trade, and migrant networks of 1970s Kinshasa and Brazzaville—that is, the lethal mixture of social and environmental conditions that would allow the virus to eventually explode into a global epidemic.

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Trash disposal in Lagos (Mark Duerksen 2014)

Being a Central African originating RNA virus linked to primates and transmitted through body fluids, comparisons of Ebola to HIV/AIDS were bound to occur. However there are several important differences that will likely yet prevent Ebola from boiling into an epidemic the way HIV/AIDS did. The first significant difference is the length of time from infection to fatality (or recovery for 10-60% of Ebola patients). HIV can hole up and multiply inside an infected person’s immune system for months, years, or even a decade, slowly destroying T-cells until it has killed so many that doctors consider the person to have developed AIDS. Over these months or years while HIV festers into AIDS, a person with HIV may be completely asymptomatic, but all the while still able spread the virus through sexual contact or blood transfusions. This slow and silent development timeline means that an HIV carrier might not even realize that he or she has become infected for years or even a decade and all the while be transmitting the virus to numerous people, allowing HIV to creep into a critical mass of carriers before it is even detected. This quiet buildup of an infected mass of people is exactly what happened for decades in Central Africa, and by the time doctors “discovered” HIV/AIDS, it was already an epidemic throughout the region.

Ebola on the other hand asymptomatically incubates for a few days or up to a few weeks, during which time the victim cannot transmit the virus to another person. Once symptoms develop after the incubation period, the patient’s health declines quickly and death is then generally a matter of days away, leaving only a very small window to further spread the virus (although it can still be contracted from infected corpses, so that is an additional concern and why burial practices are crucial to containing Ebola). One important note here is that those who recover from Ebola can still transmit the virus through semen or possibly breast milk for a number of weeks. While Ebola is easier to transmit during its small contagious window than HIV/AIDS is during its prolonged window, Ebola still has a low transmission rate,[1] requiring direct contact with infected bodily fluids, and the virus cannot be transmitted through the air the way respiratory diseases can be. Despite the horrific extent and fatality numbers of Ebola in West Africa, the virus will likely burn itself out due to its short contagious window (although it might take severe quarantine and curfew measures as we’re now seeing in West Africa) before it ever reaches a critical, completely uncontrollable mass in the way HIV did.

Perhaps the most optimism-inspiring difference between HIV/AIDS and Ebola is the two viruses’ rates of mutation. While both likely simmered in the forests of Central Africa long before scientists officially detected and classified them, Ebola’s genetic structure has hardly changed since the first confirmed cases in 1976 while HIV/AIDS has mutated incredibly rapidly, making treatment for HIV/AIDS much more difficult to square with virus’s continually changing configuration. Ebola’s steady genetic structure makes the prospects for a cure much more promising, and as we’ve seen with the initial success of ZMapp, cures seem to be on the horizon. Now we just have to hope treatments can be produced and distributed asap because, while Ebola is not likely to become a global epidemic, it is causing untold suffering in West Africa that we likely won’t realize the true extent of for some time yet. Ebola’s destructive path through West Africa includes not only the direct victims of the virus, but also those caught in the clashes between soldiers enforcing quarantines and those trying to flee its path, survivors who are now shunned by their communities, communities that no longer trust doctors and hospitals, businesses and entire economies that have taken a massive hit, and medical infrastructure throughout the region that has been depleted, abandoned, and looted, causing other illnesses to proliferate in the absence of treatment facilities. Still it is worth noting the statistics on HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases deaths per day dwarf Ebola deaths in the Ebola-affected countries–a reminder that those preventable diseases also require immediate attention and that serious long term work to repair medical infrastructure and communities’ relations with medical personnel will be imperative to West Africans’ health once this outbreak can be contained.

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(image source)

[1] Daniel G Bausch, et al., “Assessment of the Risk of Ebola Virus Transmission from Bodily Fluids and Fomites,” Journal of Infectious Disease, 196(), S142-S147. Available online: http://jid.oxfordjournals.org/content/196/Supplement_2/S142.full

As social scientists studied communities affected by the slew of outbreaks that swept through Central Africa in the 1990s and 2000s, virologists began to wonder if the unprecedented number of cases were somehow connected. Initially they developed a theory that a single Ebola outbreak from a single index case was slowly simmering and spreading through Zaire (and then DRC), Gabon, Congo, CAR, Sudan, and Uganda. The reality that the outbreaks included several species of the virus and a multiple suspected index cases connected mostly to the handling of animal carcasses squashed the theory of a single outbreak, but still the question remained, why this sudden and prolonged string of separate and distinct outbreaks?

Scientists next looked for larger environmental patterns that might connect the Central African cases. Most outbreaks of Ebola occur in between the dry and wet seasons, but there has been speculation that broader climatic event might be connected to the sustained spike in cases. The 1976 simultaneous outbreaks of separate species only a few hundred miles from each other also points to an environmental occurrence activating the virus and allowing it to jump from the reservoir to monkeys and humans. Scientists have been studying satellite photographs of the Congo Basin from the past few decades in an attempt to detect any environmental changes that overlap spatially with flare ups of Ebola. These studies have found that especially arid dry seasons disrupt the ecosystem in the jungle, leading animals to move beyond their normal confines in search of food and water, which results in increased human-animal contact.[1] If this is accurate, global warming has serious implications for Ebola outbreaks.

Another study that may lend further support to the environmental activation hypothesis was conducted in 2010 when scientists examined the genomes of living African bats and rodents and found ancient “fragments” of filoviruses in their genomes. Through recent advances in the fascinating subfield of paleovirology the researchers were able to estimate that filoviruses are likely tens of millions of years old based on the genetic remnants of the disease shared by the mammals coupled with the scientists’ knowledge of the mammals’ shared evolutionary trees. If rodents and bats have carried filoviruses for tens of millions of years as they migrated across the world, it’s no surprise that strains of Ebola exist in both Sub-Saharan Africa and the Philippines. The study goes on to suggest that other rodents, marsupials, and bats may carry yet unknown forms of filoviruses in the Americas.[2] The fact that we’ve only seen the virus pass from reservoir to human in Central Africa and the Philippines, lends credence to the idea that it is something particular to the Central African environment (that the Philippines may share) that is “activating” or allowing the virus to jump from the reservoir to larger mammals. Could global warming activate latent filoviruses in other regions of world? [Or, alternatively perhaps other New World strains are similar to the Reston species in that they don’t cause human illness when spread to humans and therefore haven’t been detected yet.]

As promising as the research has been into detecting an environmental link, in focusing on identifying climatic trends connecting the past twenty years of outbreaks, scientists have neglected to consider the often-horrific human history of Central Africa as a potential source of explanation for the string of outbreaks. In the aftermath of the Rwandan civil war and 1994 genocide, the deadliest conflict since World War II unfolded across Central Africa, killing over four million people, displacing many millions more, and dragging in soldiers from throughout the region. The First and Second Congo Wars have not received nearly as much scholarly attention as they require, but books such as Africa’s World War written by Gerard Prunier begin to document the devastating bloodbath that occurred as troops from Rwanda and Uganda marched across lawless Zaire to evict Mobutu from his rotting seat of power in Kinshasa. Two decades later, the conflict continues to this day with fighting between Kagame’s Rwanda and rebel groups such as M23 in eastern DRC. Additionally South Sudan has suffered its own bloody history that persists despite independence from northern Sudan, and the Lord’s Resistance Army has terrorized Northern Uganda/CAR for many years, displacing numerous people.

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Charcoal mural in an IDP camp near Gulu, Uganda (Mark Duerksen, 2009)

The result of the countless armed conflicts in Central Africa has been an upheaval of societies across region, causing an increased likelihood of human exposure to Ebola as starving refugees and soldiers turned to bush meat while they roamed through the Congo’s dense forests, and as they displaced animals by burning and logging forests, which may have put primates in greater contact with both humans and the reservoir. It would be interesting to see what further spatial research tracing the conflict and the virus over the past 20 years might reveal.

Scientists’ omission of the deadliest conflict since WWII from their causal considerations and the dismal results of the ethics review of Ebola research (previous post) suggests a troubling trend where scientists studying Ebola in reality know very little about the region and the people affected by the virus.

[1] Stephen Pincock, “Seeing Ebola from Space,” The Scientist, May 1, 2006. Available online: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/23952/title/Seeing-Ebola-from-space/

[2] Derek J Taylor, et al., “Filoviruses are ancient and integrated into mammalian genomes,” BMC Evolutionary Biology, 10(2010), 1471-2148.

In 1995 a major outbreak hit a major urban area for the first time. Kikwit is a large town of several hundred thousand residents in what is now central DRC, and despite two hospitals utilizing somewhat better sanitation practices than those used in 1976, the virus passed quickly from person to person, infecting 315 and killing 254.[1] Although some recent media stories have stated that prior to 2014 Ebola occurred only in remote, rural areas of Central Africa, the Kikwit and previously mentioned Gulu (2000) cases contradict this myth and provide a precedent for how deadly—the deadliest two cases prior to 2014[2]—the disease can become in a dense, infrastructure-poor urban setting when it is not immediately identified (as it luckily was in Johannesburg and now Lagos).

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Kikwit, 2014 (Image Source)

Kikwit is also notable because several researchers have subsequently conducted otherwise scarce social science research into the local responses and explanations for outbreak. The origin stories recorded by de Boeck (2000), and Kibari and Lungazi (1998) describe how the people of Kikwit had a history of resisting ruthless Belgian colonial and later kleptocratic Mobutu sese seko national exploitation and told the story of how the grave of Kungu Pemba (the town’s chief who resisted the colonial state) would curse anyone who tried to sell the soil of Kikwit.[3] Many people in Kikwit believed Ebola was a result of this curse. A competing claim linked the outbreak to an American doctor whom locals believed to have introduced the virus from labs in Europe in revenge for residents accusing him of transforming into a hippo and attacking people.[4] By the time of the 1995 outbreak, the people of Kikwit had a long history of good reasons to distrust the national and international world and to perceive that these external forces were the cause of their suffering. Amplification of the disease in hospitals run by Western doctors did nothing to improve that trust, and, in fact, in the wake of Ebola’s toll, the town did not have a functioning hospital for two years and boycotted a polio vaccination program in large part because of continued mistrust of biomedicine.[5]

These findings from Kikwit add a layer of context to consider regarding the stories we’re currently hearing about tensions between health workers and some communities in West Africa. There may well be similar historical reasons for communities in West Africa to mistrust Westerners who claim to want to help them—after all, colonialism claimed to be “helping” Africans. Prior to Hewlett, WHO Ebola response teams did not consult social scientists with knowledge of the people they were attempting to help, but hopefully, in trying to fight the current outbreak in West Africa, WHO and other health organizations are utilizing Hewlett’s research along with liaisons who are more familiar with the local communities.

Even once this current outbreak is eventually stamped out in West Africa, the state of healthcare in the aftermath of Kikwit’s outbreak demonstrates that WHO’s job won’t be finished, as there will still be work needing to be done in order to repair relations and rebuild trust with local communities. Likewise, as has been the case with past episodes of Ebola, international researchers will likely rush in once the danger has past in order to collect more information on the virology of the outbreak, potentially kindling further mistrust amongst local communities as was found to be the case by Hewlett in post-outbreak Gabon where locals complained of researchers drawing their blood and questioning them without providing explanations and then never returning with the results.[6] A 2009 review of scientific field research on Ebola in Africa found that only 15 out the 34 teams sought individual consent from research subjects, and only three consulted any form of a research ethics committee.[7] Instituting measures to rebuild trust with local communities—including higher ethical standards for post-outbreak researchers—will likely improve local receptions of international response to the next outbreak, hopefully lessening its severity.

The next outbreaks after Kikwit were back-to-back in Gabon, followed by the major Gulu outbreak, and then, in keeping with the trend since 1994, followed every few years since by outbursts in Central Africa with the latest (prior to 2014) occurring in the DRC in 2012.[1] During these outbreaks researchers and witnesses have documented additional noteworthy social reactions to the deadly disease such as how people in Uganda and Congo responded to government bans on traditional handshakes during the outbreaks by instead snapping fingers or bumping elbows.[2] In Uganda business largely ceased during outbreaks because of fears that money might carry the infection, and in Sudan people resisted their loved ones being placed in WHO’s windowless pop-up isolation units because they had no way to communicate and comfort them and were not allowed to see their bodies once they had died, leading to fears that the outbreak was concocted by the international teams in order to harvest villagers’ organs.[3] In societies where belonging to a community is everything and where pain is often treated with the constant comforting presence of a family member or friend, the concept of complete isolation from the community during a disease is utterly terrifying. This finding from Sudan may also help explain peoples’ fear of international health teams in West Africa employing isolation units.

[1] Xavier Pourrut et al., “The natural history of Ebola virus in Africa,” Microbes and Infection, 7(2005), 1005-1014. Online: http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/science/article/pii/S1286457905001437

[2] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

[3] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L. Hewlett, Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L. Hewlett, Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

[7] Philippe Calain, “Research Ethics and International Epidemic Response: The case of Ebola and Marburg Hemorrhagic Fevers,” Public Health Ethics, 2(2009), 7-29.

[1] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

[2] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L. Hewlett, Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

[3] Ibid.

In 1994 the Ebola’s eerie silence was broken when it reappeared in Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire. The single human case in Cote d’Ivoire occurred when a 34-year-old female Swiss ethologist contracted the disease while conducting a necropsy on a chimp that had died from a suspected outbreak of Ebola amongst a troupe of Chimpanzees in the Tai Forest near Liberia. Once symptoms appeared, physicians quickly transferred her to Switzerland where she soon made a full recovery without infecting anyone else (a precedent for the two Americans with Ebola currently being transferred back to the US). [1] This solitary case is significant because it is the only known human instance of Tai ebolavirus, and, prior to 2014, was the only known Ebola case in West Africa despite many news agencies reporting that this year’s outbreak is the first West African Ebola episode.

In Central Africa, the three chimpanzee-linked cases that occurred in Gabon between 1994 and 1995 were all relatively isolated, each infecting less than 60 people, but one victim did travel to Johannesburg where he infected a nurse who died days later without further passing on the disease.[2] This episode provides a precedent for fears that the 2014 outbreak may travel far beyond the initial index case via international air travel, however the case was quickly contained to a single transmission.

[1] Tara Waterman, “Ebola Cote d’Ivoire Outbreaks,” Stanford Honors Thesis, 1999. Online: http://web.stanford.edu/group/virus/filo/eboci.html

[2] Xavier Pourrut et al., “The natural history of Ebola virus in Africa,” Microbes and Infection, 7(2005), 1005-1014. Online: http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/science/article/pii/S1286457905001437

International ignorance of Ebola’s existence changed in 1976 when near simultaneous outbreaks occurred 500 miles apart in Nzara, Sudan and Yambuku, Zaire, killing a combined 431 people.[1] The existence of a (very poorly supplied)[2] Belgian mission hospital in Yambuku may have actually amplified the outbreak into an event that attracted international attention, as nosocomial cases (those originating in a medical setting) accounted for 234 of the 318 cases, and it was only after the surviving medical staff shut down the hospital that transmission slowed.[3] By the time an international medical team arrived in Yambuku, 95% of the cases had already occurred, and the local people had managed to contain the virus after the hospital’s closure through similar responses to the ones Hewlett would observe decades later in Gulu.[4] A large and active hospital in the town of Maridi near Nzara played a similar role in amplifying the outbreak in Sudan.[5]

Although they arrived at the tail end of active cases, researchers were eventually able to piece together partial details of the outbreaks. They determined that the two outbreak sites involved different strains of the virus—the strains subsequently named for each country—with Ebola getting its name from a river near Yambuku. They were also able to trace the 89% fatal Zaire ebolavirus outbreak in Yambuku back to a 44-year-old man who fell ill after he bought and ate monkey meat, and were able to link the 53% fatal Nzara case of Sudan ebolavirus back to a cotton factory where numerous bats were present.[6]

Despite the international medical community’s surveillance for filoviruses after the European Marburg outbreak from imported African monkeys in 1967 and the Central African Ebola outbreaks of 1976, the virus went silent. Only two isolated human incidents are known to have occurred between the initial ’76 outbreak and 1990s resurgence.[7] There is speculation amongst researchers that this might be because the virus—fortunately—never contaminated hospitals, as it had in 1976, during that fifteen-year respite.[8]

[1] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

[2] The Belgian hospital owned only five syringes, which were constantly reused and subsequently linked to 85 of the Yambuku cases: J.G. Breman et al., “The Epidemiology of Ebola Haemorrhagic Fever in Zaire, 1976,” in Ebola Virus Haemorrhagic Fever, Amsterdam: Elsevier/North-Holland Biomedical Press, 1978. Online: http://www.itg.be/internet/ebola/ebola-24.htm

[3] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L. Hewlett, Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008; and Ibid.

[4] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L. Hewlett, Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

[5] WHO/International Study Team, “Ebola haemorrhagic fever in Sudan, 1976,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 56(2): 1978. Online: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/bulletin/1978/Vol56-No2/bulletin_1978_56(2)_247-270.pdf

[6] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L. Hewlett, Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008; and Xavier Pourrut et al., “The natural history of Ebola virus in Africa,” Microbes and Infection, 7(2005), 1005-1014.

[7] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

[8] C. J. Peters and J. W. LeDue, “An Introduction to Ebola: The Virus and the Disease,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 179, 1999. Online: http://jid.oxfordjournals.org/content/179/Supplement_1/ix.full.pdf

Although 1976 marked the first discovery of Ebola by international scientists, the virus likely has a much deeper history lurking in Central Africa. By testing stored blood samples of 790 chimps and gorillas from Cameroon, Republic of Congo, and Gabon, scientists determined that primates had acquired Ebola prior to known human outbreaks in the areas where the samples were originally taken.[1] Subsequent blood samples of people living in Central Africa have shown that as much as 32.4% of the population possess Ebola antibodies (igGs), which they likely developed from exposure to fruit contaminated by bat saliva containing inactive strands of the virus.[1B] These findings have led the researchers to conclude that the virus has long circulated in the vast forests of Central Africa, infecting human and nonhuman primates.

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Chimpanzee in tree, Kabale National Park, Uganda (Mark Duerksen, 2011)

Further evidence of a lengthy history of Ebola outbreaks comes from recent calculations based on the mutation rates of Ebola and Marburg viruses (unusually slow for RNA viruses) that show that the two filoviruses diverged from a single common source around 700 to 850 years ago—around the time when larger and more centralized Bantu speaking societies began to emerge in Central Africa.[2] Given this timeframe for Ebola’s emergence, it is highly improbable that isolated human cases of Ebola did not occur at least occasionally for several centuries before 1976. [Of course humans could have contracted other older forms of Filoviruses long before this timeline, and there has been speculation that ancient plagues such the one that struck Athens in 430 BCE were actually caused by Ebola-like filoviruses.[3]]

The reason why international scientists were unaware of the Ebola’s existence prior to 1976 may be in part explained by the research of Barry Hewlett, a medical anthropologist from Washington State University and a member of WHO’s Ebola response teams. Hewlett’s socio-cultural findings suggest that the people of Northern Uganda and Congo have developed effective methods for containing epidemic diseases such as Ebola. When the Acholi people realized that they were dealing with a more serious affliction (gemo instead of yat) during the 2000 Ebola outbreak in Gulu—Northern Uganda’s largest city—they implemented a protocol that prevented an even larger outbreak. This protocol included isolating victims in huts at least 100m from other homes, encouraging everyone to limit their movement, allowing only survivors of the illness (or, if not possible, an elderly person) to treat and bury the victims, and only eating meat freshly butchered from cattle. While the Acholi incorporated modern medicine into their local beliefs and treatments throughout the outbreak, the elders were adamant that the gemo protocol existed before the late nineteenth century arrival of Europeans. Their assertion has yet to be historically verified, but the specificity of the regiment and the degree to which it is enmeshed in the language and religious belief system of Acholi people suggest that they developed the emergency procedures over numerous generations in response to outbreaks of Ebola or other similar diseases.[4] Indigenous medical measures such as the Acholi’s may explain why prior to 1976 Ebola failed to erupt into outbreaks large enough to attract international attention.

[1] E. M. Leroy et al., “A Serological Survey of Ebola Virus Infection in Central African Nonhuman Primates,” Journal of Infectious Diseases, 190(2004), 1895-1899. Online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15529251

[1B] Dieudonne Nkoghe et al, “Risk Factors for Zaire ebolavirus—Specific IgG in Rural Gabonese Popultions,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 204(2011), S768-S775.

[2] A. S. Carroll et. al., “Molecular Evolution of Viruses of the Family Filoviridae Based on 97 Whole-Genome Sequences,” Journal of Virology, 87(2013), 2608-2616. Online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23255795

[3] Constance Holden, “Ebola: An Ancient history of a “new” disease?” Science 272(1996), 5268. Online: http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/213553956/79244C745EFA4C4DPQ/2?accountid=11311

[4] Barry S. Hewlett and Bonnie L. Hewlett, Ebola, Culture and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease, Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008.

This post is the second part in a short series I’m writing on the history of Ebola. For immediate information about how to help prevent the further spread of Ebola and keep yourself safe please consult and share the Ebola Facts website.

While there are numerous virology and pathology articles trying to pin down the scientific facts of the elusive Ebola virus, social scientists do not seem to have thoroughly studied the dreaded virus…and it’s not hard to imagine why historians and anthropologists would shy away from field research on a disease like Ebola.

I haven’t researched Ebola in the field, and when reading this historical summary please note that I am not a doctor, nor am I a historian of science, so please consult the sources cited for more thorough information. That being said, as compellingly argued in a recent Journal of African History article on the social history and biology of HIV/AIDS in Africa, scientific understanding and treatment is often enhanced by a greater awareness of the social and cultural contexts in which diseases have developed and spread. These kind of historical insights are why I hope I’m able to offer something by giving an account of Ebola from an African history perspective without having an advanced background in biology.

However a quick synopsis of Ebola’s basic biology is of course necessary. Ebola virus disease (EVB) or Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF) is an RNA virus that is part of the Filoviridae Family of diseases of which there are three members—Marburg Virus, Cueva Virus, and, our concern, Ebola Virus. Within its branch of the Filoviridae tree, Ebola comes in five species: Zaire ebolavirus (EBOV, discovered in1976), Sudan ebolavirus (SUDV, 1976), Tai Forest ebolavirus (TAFV, 1994), Reston ebolavirus (RESTV, 1989), and Bundibugyo ebolavirus (BDBV, 2007). Amongst these five strains, Zaire, Sudan, and Bundibugyo are responsible for the deadly outbreaks in Africa, while Reston has never caused human illness or death despite several people testing positive for it (they remain asymptomatic), and there has been only one human known case of Tai and the victim fully recovered within six weeks.[1]

Ebola is a public health nightmare because it can be contracted easily and is almost always fatal. Ebola is introduced into human populations from contact with the highly contagious blood or body fluids of infected animals such as monkeys or bats, and then spreads through human-to-human transmission. There is also some inconclusive evidence that the virus can spread through airborne nasal and throat secretions.[2] The signs and symptoms of Ebola have been well publicized, and they include the sudden onset of fever, sore throat, extreme weakness, headache, and muscle pain within 2 to 21 days of infection. Additional symptoms soon appear that make transmission more likely, including vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, both internal (gastrointestinal) and external (gums, nose) bleeding.[3] There is no known treatment for Ebola (although vaccines are in the works), and once the onset of symptoms occur, victims usually die within 5 days with Zaire ebolavirus’s fatality rate nearing 90% and Sudan’s being slightly less between 53% and 66%.[4]

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Bats on an island in Lake Kivu (Mark Duerksen 2014)

One of the greatest mysteries surrounding Ebola has been identifying the “reservoir”—the animal that asymptomatically carries the virus between outbreaks, allowing it to go silent for years at a time. Scientists have come to consider fruit bats as the most likely reservoir candidates after capturing and testing thousands of African animals, and after numerous attempts to infect various animals and plants, which confirmed fruit bats could contract and carry the virus.[5] However most human cases are thought to be the result of exposure (hunting, eating) to infected nonhuman primates and duikers (small deer) that have acquired the virus from bats.[6]

[1] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

[2] C. J. Peters and J. W. LeDue, “An Introduction to Ebola: The Virus and the Disease,” The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 179 (1999), ix-xvi. Online: http://jid.oxfordjournals.org/content/179/Supplement_1/ix.full.pdf

[3] WHO, “Ebola virus disease Fact Sheet,” April 2014. Online: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

[4] A. S. Carroll et al., “Molecular Evolution of Viruses of the Family Filoviridae Based on 97 Whole-Genome Sequences,” Journal of Virology, 87(2013), 2608-2616. Online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23255795

[5] Ibid; and Xavier Pourrut et al., “The natural history of Ebola virus in Africa,” Microbes and Infection, 7(2005), 1005-1014. Online:

[6] A. S. Carroll et al., “Molecular Evolution of Viruses of the Family Filoviridae Based on 97 Whole-Genome Sequences,” Journal of Virology, 87(2013), 2608-2616. Online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23255795

For immediate information on how to help prevent the further spread of Ebola and how keep yourself safe, please consult and share the Ebola Facts website.

The terrible news that a man—who we now know was an American citizen on his way home to Minnesotadied from Ebola upon arriving in Lagos from Liberia jolted me when I read about it a couple of days ago. Ebola—the disease my older sister used to give me nightmares about after she read The Hot Zone—seemed oceans away when I was researching in Lagos several weeks ago, where car crashes, malaria, and Boko Haram seemed like much more immediate fears.

But now, in a matter of hours, via one single horribly unlucky man on one ill-fated flight, the disease has arrived in Nigeria’s megacity—a city where as many as 20 million or more people live without a reliable source of power, without a well functioning sanitation system, and without much infrastructure whatsoever (a topic I am currently writing another post on). The people of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea along with the health workers bravely working to treat those affected have already suffered horribly from West Africa’s first outbreak of the Zaire strain of Ebola—an outbreak that has killed at least 1,500 people since early 2014—and it is terrifying to think of the virus traveling to a major international city like Lagos where the toll could be even more horrific and from where it could more easily spread beyond West Africa (over seven million passengers traveled through Murtala Muhammed International Airport in 2011 alone).

With fear for my friends in Nigeria in mind, I decided to research more about the deadly disease, and have been writing a summary of the virus’s history because the wikipedia entry didn’t provide much information and because the double mystery surrounding Ebola and Central Africa—still imagined by many in Heart of Darkness terms—is in part why many people find the disease so terrifying. Over the next few days I’ll upload a series of posts on the history of Ebola, so check back or follow Arcade Africa for notifications of those posts.

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Murtala Muhammed International Airport (Mark Duerksen 2014)

A few quick updates:

First off, a big thank you to The Guardian for including me in their updated list of The Best City Blogs from around the World (link to Arcade Africa under general sites, fifth from the left). I’ve gotten a lot of traffic (relative to next to none previously) through their link recently!

Secondly, a few days ago was the two year anniversary of starting this blog. Yay. Two years ago I was fresh out of college and hadn’t even applied to grad school yet, but I already knew the topics I’ve been following here were something I wanted to learn more about and share information on. Here’s to hoping it’s still going in two more years.

And finally, an update on a project I’ve been following closely and have posted about before: it looks like the much delayed NYC Museum for African Art has suffered another setback and is now scaling back plans for the Museum’s architectural embellishments in order to cut costs since its fundraising has dried up. Billionaires, and millionaires, open your wallets and fund this worthy project that will inform and thrill thousands and thousands of visitors with Africa’s rich art history. It only needs $11 million more…a single Fang sculpture (below) alone recently auctioned for nearly half that much.

Again, more posts on Lagos/Nigeria to come soon–working on them in a word doc now–so stay tuned.

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(image source)

I flew out of Murtala Muhammed Airport at 11pm and, after a short stop in Heathrow, I landed at Shannon Airport on the west coast of Ireland and was soon gliding through lush, stone-wall-lined country roads on an Éireann Bus headed to Galway City. As I sleepily stared out the window, I–at first casually and then more methodically–noticed the similarities between the architecture of Irish homes and those I had just left in Nigeria. The simplicity of the shapes–boxy, mostly single floor homes that maximized living space within the small plots–was the first noticeable parallel between the houses, and so was the material–concrete cinder blocks stuccoed and painted a variety of colors. Another common feature was walls around the plots. In Ireland yards were surrounded by the traditional, pastoral stacked-stone walls (some with and some without mortar) between 3 and 5 feet tall, and in Nigeria housed were barricaded behind tall concrete, booby-trap topped walls that provided their residents with security (but that I suspect also have connections to longer traditions of Yoruba architecture in which compounds were surrounded by walls not so much to keep people out, but to create a sense of belonging amongst those within the walls–more on this in another post soon). Then there was the paved yards around the homes–a not so attractive feature shared by Nigerian homes (to tamp dust? To provide more parking space for numerous visitors?) and Irish homes (to give homes and vehicles a more stable foundation on the water logged soil?). Having been in Ireland for a few weeks now, I’ve noticed other similarities shared between the former British colony Nigeria and arguably the first British colony, Ireland. There’s a second hand feel accompanied by a resourcefulness that’s noticeable in Ireland similar to that in Nigeria, which was especially apparent compared to the conspicuous wealth and opulence found in the former colonial metropole, London. Unconnected to colonial history, there’s an interesting similarity between Bronze/Iron age Celtic art and ancient Yoruba art (this region of Africa developed bronze and iron smelting independently of Europe/Asia). Any art historian could probably pick out just how different they are, but broadly speaking, I think there’s quite a few similarities in patterns and forms (especially the eyes: Irish Sheela na gig and Yoruba Orisha.

That’s a lot more than I was planning to write on the simple observation that a few things in Ireland remind me of Nigeria. Now I’ll work backwards and post more thoughts on Nigeria and Lagos over the next few days/weeks.

 

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Somewhat Upscale House in Lagos (Mark Duerksen 2014)

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Typical city home in Galway (Mark Duerksen 2014)

Made it to Lagos! And it’s everything I expected–namely traffic, loads of people, pollution, and brimming with stunning tropical architecture–and so much more. I’m filling up a journal, so stayed tuned for several blog posts and links to more photographs once I get a chance to post them in July. Until then here are a few images of the city (last one is from Ibadan).

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It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post, but seeing a sneak peak screening of Half of a Yellow Sun tonight has moved me to type up a few thoughts. First of all it was a terrific movie–maybe the best big budget film that I’ve seen set in Africa (and I don’t dislike movies like Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland). Warning: it starts slow. I hope critics sit through the whole thing and don’t write it off based on the first twenty minutes where we feel like the director and actors are getting their bearings. It was actually shot in Calabar and Town Creek, Nigeria by a Nigerian director (Biyi Bandele) and with a Nigerian production company, so I imagine a learning curve was a factor. Biyi Bandele started as a playwright and in the beginning the film feels more like a videotaped play that doesn’t quite match the periodicity of the historic footage of 1960s Nigeria that’s mixed in throughout the film to narrative the numerous political turns the country took during that rocky first decade. So, not having read the book, I started to worry that the movie was flopping about 30 minutes in when it was basically a historic soap opera that followed the lives of twins (Olanna and Kainene) in the first few years of independence as they moved from Lagos to Nsukka and Port Harcourt, fell in love and lost their trust in their lovers. Sex, jealousy, and lover’s rows summarize the first half of the film, shot in intimate frames that offer slivers into the lives of the characters. The second half of the movie pans out cinematographically and in content when war breaks out in a shocking scene at an airport. Despite the choppiness out of the gate, by this point we really know the characters through all their tribulations and more comedic moments (which there are plenty), and how many movies about Africa can we say that about before the violence breaks out?? Then the second half of the film left my heart in my throat. The war, the suffering, the constant anxiety of the second act hints that the first act’s over-the-top-soap-opera-style may have been self-conscious satire. The most memorable line in the movie comes as Olanna and Kainene are walking down a dirt road after they’ve each lost all security due to the atrocious war, and Kainene says, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” I’m kind of spelling it out here, but based on the early Rotten Tomatoes reviews (mostly from Australians where it’s already been released who have said things like “Much of the narrative plays out like a TV melodrama;” “Only when the protagonists’ lives are at stake – and bombs drop – does the piece truly come alive, with a sense of much-needed urgency;” “Bandele fails to establish the narrative’s wider national and political context, and the film is ultimately insubstantial as a result.”), I’m concerned that critics will miss the message of the movie along with why Bandele chose to partition it the way that he did. If this continues to be the critic’s take, don’t buy it; see Half a Yellow Sun for yourself and see past the production hiccups and the unfamiliar pacing to experience a stunning adaption about love, loss, and Africa. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that the one white character is very much in the periphery even if his presence helps American audiences digest and relate to the movie. Refreshing.

Here’s the Trailer for those who haven’t see it yet.

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This Nairobi matutu mapping project is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while. The idea is to create a map of the informal bus (known as matutus) routes in Nairobi in the aesthetic style of subway maps. Having something like this would have been extremely helping for navigating the bus systems in Kampala and Kigali. I’m the kind of person who rarely takes the bus around Boston because it’s too much of an effort to figure out the dozens of routes and the times that change depending on day of the week and time of day, so you can imagine how much fun I thought it was getting to class in Kigali or making it across town for a meeting in Kampala via bus (they’re more like oversize vans in Uganda and Rwanda) routes only found out about through word of mouth (or pointing when you don’t know the language). Of course those conversations to figure how in the world to choose which of the numerous matatus zooming by to hop into were an interesting opportunity to strike up a conversation and learn a little more about the city’s geography. And, once I knew the routes to use (distinguishing between the names of the destinations that the conductors would yell out took the most time), it felt like I had tapped into an esoteric transportation network not otherwise accessible through any kind of material map. But if I end up in Nairobi anytime soon, I know I’ll be thanking my lucky stars for this map. I’d be curious to know what Nairobians think about the project–a positive development for making the city more welcoming to new arrivals, visitors, and tourists? A lose of privileged knowledge that empowered and distinguished [poor] Nairobians from outsiders? I’d also be interested to read the history of how these routes have been slowly negotiated over the years without the oversight of government regulation. However anyone who thinks this private transportation network is an example of the efficiency of the private sector to provide what are elsewhere public services has not relied on hot, dusty, cramped, and dangerous matatus to get anywhere. But this takes nothing away from the ingenuity and creativity of the developers of these informal routes. One of the members of the team working on the project is a Cambridge, MA based company called Groupshot whose goal is to create, research, and develop “technology-driven projects that interface with and support existing local systems.” This matatu project seems like a great way to do just that. One thing to watch going forward is how current this mapping project is able to stay with the bus routes in Nairobi (how well and how long the project is maintained…) as one of the benefits of an informal, decentralized bus system like this is that it can change rapidly to adjust to new developments and flows of people in the city without having to wait for bureaucratic approvals or the redrawing of countless bus transit maps throughout the city as Boston would have to if a route was altered even the slightest. A cell phone crowd sourcing effort of the likes that the project website talks about for the future may be a solution to this upkeep problem, and something that city governments in the western world might want to pay attention to in order to keep their transportation networks agile and adaptable as changes in cities accelerate with the massive growth they’re undergoing around the globe.

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Something positive out of the Central African Republic: recently two photo-journalists rescued a large archive of photographer Samuel Fosso’s prints and negatives from looters in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, which has been fractured by serious religious violence for the past few months. I’m been mesmerized by Fosso’s work since I came across his elaborately costumed self portraits in a book a few years ago and am glad to know his archive will not be lost. Still the situation in CAR is dire from the descriptions of the photographers who saved the prints, but hopefully with increasing international pressure a peaceful resolution might be negotiated soon.

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Check out this illuminating blog post on how Lagosians were involved in producing an image of Lagos (that went against the notorious reputation it was developing in colonial circles) during the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, which was held in London. “Curating an image of Lagos.”

The Guardian aggregated a great selection of blogs on cities and urbanism and linked them to a map. Check it out here.

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A few very relevant and interesting articles came out over break in the New York Times and on Phys.org:

1. Seth Kaplan suggested that Lagos might be a model city for the future. He describes the recent success the Lagos government has had in raising revenue, cleaning up the city, and reducing crime, and makes the case that other fragile states like Nigeria could learn from Lagos and adopt policies giving more autonomy to cities, which could then become hubs of good governance and service delivery. With megacities mushrooming in fragile states there are definite merits to this return-to-city-states idea. But it remains to be seen what will happen when cities like Lagos no longer feel a need for the central government and are perhaps even more powerful than it.

2. Kennedy Odede discussed the bleak odds he lived through growing up in Nairobi’s slums and warned that the kind of urban poverty he experienced creates a fertile breeding ground for extremism and terrorism. Odede is 29 years old; a year from surpassing the life expectancy of Kibera slum where he grew up. He describes the violence and terror common in this mega-slum and explains how survival requires desensitization to death. From there the financial incentives offered by terrorist groups in Somalia and elsewhere become alluring. Odede calls for investment in urban renewal in Africa to create hope for the future in places like Kibera, not simply a new frontier in the military pursuit of terrorists.

3. And, on a lighter note, Phys.org had an article on an innovative and resourceful way some Nigerians are creating their homes out of recycled soda bottles. The house looks sturdy and attractive. It seems almost like living in a piece of El Anatsui art.

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In this short and sweet paper, Guy Michaels uses maps plotting French and British towns to make the case that French cities are not as strategically located as British cities, which have been moved more recently (middle ages being recent for Europe) to better take advantage of water transportation technology, while more French cities are landlocked remnants of Roman cities (although unfortunately the article does make an argument as to why) and therefore have been located in inferior places for centuries, costing who knows how much lost opportunity cost for France. The conclusion singles out Africa as a continent that could benefit from this kind of study of misplaced cities, stating that “parts of Africa, including some of its cities, are hampered by poor access to the world’s markets due to their landlocked position and poor land-transport infrastructure.” As the continent urbanizes and governments decide what cities to invest scare resources in, comparative studies of not only cities themselves but their relative spatial orientation may be useful. Of course this assumes that it won’t be Britain, France, (or China) benefitting from these more economically efficiently located African cities, but will be the cities and African countries themselves.

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An article about a monument designed to be visible from satellite that is in the middle of the Sahara in Niger. The memorial was constructed in 2007 by the victim’s families in memory of the 1989 flight 772 bombing. The monument is constructed from black stones and the plaque that bears the names of the victims is a wing from the wreckage of the plane. Here are more images of the construction which seems to have been quite an undertaking since it’s in the middle of the Sahara.

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…are profiled in this CNN article. This exciting new generation of camera wielders are rapidly changing the image of the continent and many share their work with thousands of followers on instagram (check out “truthslinger”‘s profile and the incredible images of life in Kenya he shares with 35k followers). I especially like the “Future Memories” series by Michael Tsegaye that captures bleak frames of recent large-scale Addis Ababa construction projects juxtaposed with more rural imagery (cattle, hand-washing clothes, and a great one of silhouetted wooden scaffolding). I don’t usually love black and white photography, but in this case, the medium does a perfect job of capturing the rapid inevitableness of the fading and cracking that the buildings will endure as they age. Do these images give a glimpse into the memories of this new wave of large-scale construction projects? Will they be remembered differently than the grand independence era towers and monuments that now look painfully optimistic in photographs from the time of their celebratory completions.

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Image Source (photographer:  Michael Tsegaye)

A summary of a book by the title of this post was published last month on the African Research Initiative’s Website (an awesome resource), so here’s my summary of that summary. The book by Vanessa Watson (U of Cape Town) and Babatunde Agbola (U of Ibadan) looks at the future of African cities and examines current planning practices and emphasis in the continent. The book has a strong belief that African planners should plan the future based on planning theories that originate in the global South, not the top-down, formalization-centered European and American norms. Rather than perceiving planners as part of the status quo of plans that benefit big business and political elites, the book imagines a proliferation of a network of planning schools in Africa (from the current dearth of only 90 in the continent with 30 of those in Nigeria and 10 in SA) that tailor their curriculums towards addressing inequality through participatory, survey-based planning methods (getting “shoes dirty”) that strive to account for informality as a fact in Africa instead of a nuisance to be eradicated through eminent domain (Makoko, Harare). One interesting fact from the summary was that currently the majority of African city dwellers were born in the city they are living in, which challenges the perspective of African cities as transient hubs for migrants who plan to return to the countryside. The authors critique the current “fanciful” master plans for African urban areas as “unsustainable in the extreme and inappropriate in terms of climate, available infrastructure – particularly power – and affordability.” Like Philip Harrison, in his article “The Edge of Reason,” this new book looks to redeem planners from the image of nefarious technocrats to the liberal, clipboard yielding, muddy boots lifeblood of participatory democratic institutions in Africa. Now to get this new breed of planners jobs and decent pay upon graduation…

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While much of this blog so far has been concerned with thinking about all the projects in Africa to build new commercial planned cities that will house the homes and offices of businesses making profits from Africa’s resources and nascent retail-hungry middle class, it’s important not to be overly focused on either these headline grabbing, secure, infrastructurally sound enclaves that attract international businesses, nor too focused on the surrounding slums they juxtapose, but to remember the array of roads, pipes, and wires that the country and partnering corporations depend on to actually run their operations in the country. This infrastructure, found in the form of airports, port, roads, power plants, trains, internet cables and cell towers, has the potential to either breach the gap between the wealthy enclaves and the rest of the country by building up infrastructure throughout a interconnected nation, or to further cut-up and cut-off communities from privileged bunkers like Eko Atlantic. This article in the New York Times about the “illegal” tapping of oil pipelines in Nigeria’s Delta region touches on an example of the latter. I’ve been reading Helon Habila’s novel Oil on Water, which has a moving descriptions of the effects of Shell and BP’s oil extraction on the people who made their homes in the delta region:

There are countless villages going up in smoke daily. Well, this place, Junction, went up in smoke because of an accident associated with this vandalism, as you call it. But I don’t blame them for wanting to get some benefit out of the pipelines that have brought nothing but suffering to their lives, leaking into the rivers and wells, killing the fish and poisoning the farmlands. And all they are told by the oil companies and the government is that the pipelines are there for their own good, that they hold great potential for their country, their future. These people endure the worst conditions of any oil-producing community on earth, the government knows it but doesn’t have the will to stop it, the oil companies know it, but because the government doesn’t care, they also don’t care. And you think the people are corrupt? No. They are just hungry, and tired. (p. 103-104)

That’s a powerful paragraph. Are these pipeline puncturers democratizing oil in Nigeria, or stealing from their country? Not easy to answer and probably not even a productive question in light of Habila’s illumination of the situation, but the whole complexity of the situation speaks to the infrastructural challenges places like Nigeria have beyond the edges of their slowly improving cities…will people continue migrating into the cities until the countryside simply a battlefield between the remaining petro-rebels and corporate backed national armies? Th violence in Southwest Nigeria has calmed down since the 2007 amnesty for rebels, but still that does not seem to be an impossible dystopian vision of the future. Roads and train tracks carved through places like the Serengeti or other communities and neighborhoods while leaving others off the map have similar problematic effects that have to be considered during planning. On a different note, looking at the images from the nytimes article about oil tapping, it’s not difficult to link the images of oil soaked landscapes and overflowing buckets of oil to how a cancer-epidemic is developing in much of Africa (chronicled in Botswana by Julie Livingston who ties it to what she calls “toxic capital”). In other places it’s savvy but hazardous activities like burning old computers without ventilators to collect and sell the medal inside them, and other places it’s simply the lack of car emissions testing, constantly dousing people in toxic fumes. And then there is the lack of medical infrastructure and treatment for this and other epidemics…

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Image Source [Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters]

An excellent article in the New Republic by Eve Fairbanks about the attack on Westgate Mall as an attack on what has become a popular symbol of Africa’s future:  shopping malls. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but in it Fairbanks recounts how large shopping malls have proliferated in the last couple of decades in many African countries, becoming the most popular hangout spot for all kinds of people from ex-pats to artists to very poor people, not just angsty teenagers. They’re the physical symbol of Africa’s rising middle class and the consumerism comes with it (retail is the hottest area of investment in Africa according to the article)–they’re where all kinds of African urban dwellers come “to act out a dream of the African future.” And in striking contrast to much of the surrounding cities, it’s a dream where has been planned with beautiful and clean infrastructure, running water, and electricity. It’s also a place where new identities can be experimented with, and where anyone is permitted to visit–it’s an open space unlike many walled and gated restaurants or hotels in African cities. Unfortunately this may begin to change in the wake of Westgate…security will certainly be beefed up, and Fairbanks wonders if rougher-looking people from the slums who used to come to window gaze and to dream about the future might begin to be turned away, stratifying what used to be a welcoming and cosmopolitan vision of Africa’s future.

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Today I wrote a response paper summarizing and comparing this article by Filip De Boeck and this powerpoint presentation by Vanessa Watson. I’m not satisfied with what I wrote so I’m going to attempt to hash out my ideas a little better here. So the Watson presentation is intended for her architecture students at the University of Cape Town and in it she runs through the big African planned “future cities” or what she calls “fantasy cities,” showing glamorous designs of them, and then on the next slide shows the “reality” of the actual slums that make up most of the area of these cities. I haven’t been in her actual lecture, but her criticisms seem to be, 1. these cities create islands of wealth that don’t help most of the city’s poor, and 2. the designs of these cities are transplanted from the West via Asia and are not fitted for the realities of African cities. Both points seem fair and accurate, but then the De Boeck piece seeks out the voices of Kinshasa’s urban farmers who are surprisingly attracted to the skyscraper-centric plans, saying “Yes, we’ll be the victims, but still it will be beautiful.” The dream of these new cities can also be alluring and captivating even to the urban poor who will not have access to them…the thought of one day being part of an international megacity frequented by the world’s who’s who evokes pride in one’s hometown and offers hopes that that wealth may find its way throughout the city. These are the similar sentiments to what Wole Soyinka expressed when he said Eko Atlantic is “[r]ising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic.” Many African urban dwellers desire symbols of beauty and pride to rise from the centers of their cities—buildings that are “so beautiful that it makes one dream.” In this light of these local reactions, current plans for shiny business districts of African cities might rather be looked at as monuments to the potential of the surrounding city, not as unsustainable parasites of corporations. Yet Watson is absolutely right that many of the “monuments” that are being sold by international corporations and architectural firms to African politicians are problematic in that they segregate cities often more than their colonial predecessors did:  De Boeck describes how Belgian colonial planners divided Kinshasa between the white island of wealth—La Ville—and the surrounding ocean of poverty—the black townships—with railroads and army barracks. Now the new wave of planned cities are gated island or 40 km away from the old city, taking the colonialist exclusionary model even further than before. Yet they’re still beautiful and desirable to the urban poor….their allure stimulates dreams for the future….and dreams are what keep everyone going. And also if you were an African doctor or lawyer or business person who might be tempted to leave for opportunities elsewhere where it is safer and stabler to have a family and raise kids (the brain drain), wouldn’t you be more likely to consider staying if you could have a home in Eko Atlantic or Cité du Fleuve? The ways in which the urban poor of Kinshasa have navigated and adapted to their infrastructurally scant neighborhoods (as described by Koolhaas and De Boeck) and the construction of Eko Atlantic and Cité du Fleuve can both be seen as different manifestations of the very human drive to create order and predictability in life. For me this is where the state comes in–as both a creator and moderator of human impetus for stability and security. Here again, the mayor of Lagos, Fashola, seems to be doing a better job at this than his counterparts in much of Africa, including in Kinshasa. Fashola has attracted investment in the glamorous dream of Eko Atlantic but he has also raised tax revenue by not just promising but delivering services, including housing and bus lanes to improve traffic. And the success of Fashola’s incrementalist approach of improving services and infrastructure for neglected, “informal” communities suggests that De Boeck’s prescriptions for slow and achievable planning goals for Kinshasa’s slums are dead on. When rapid changes come to poor neighborhoods, they’re more likely to be uprooted and turned inside out after years of self-organization than to be improved. But the political will has to be there, and the planners, lawyers, business people, and doctors have to be (live) there too….and in subtle but significant ways they will appropriate and alter this “imported” architecture as their own.

Kigali:  “Fantasy and Reality”

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Images in the New York Times of the rubble of Kenya’s Westgate Mall. What happens now to the devastated concrete structure with a crater in the middle of it? Will it be rebuilt with loads of security? Will it be left for squatters? Will it be bulldozed and replaced by a memorial? And here is another troubling detail from the article:  “Western security officials say they believe that several fighters slipped out of the mall during the attack, dropping their guns, changing clothes and blending in with fleeing civilians, an account echoed by some witnesses.”

A blurb in the Atlantic about how researchers are using data on the quantity of airtime sold per purchase to create a heat map of wealth in Côte d’Ivoire. Here’s a link to the actual report. I wonder what other applications research methods like this could have for African countries? I don’t know if it’s possible, but a map depicting the web of airtime transfers would be fascinating.

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This article from The Africa Report rehashes the need for urban planning for Africa’s rapidly urbanizing population and then focuses on laying out the four ways that planning can be funded: “raising taxes; state transfers; cooperation agreements; and appeals for loans.” The article also promotes the UN’s panacea of decentralization for Africa’s ills, which gets thrown out there a lot as a buzzword without much thought (without distinguishing the more common decentralization of bureaucracy from the more important decentralization of actual power), but in this case connecting it to the example of Fashola’s autonomy from Abuja and his social contract of real services in exchange for taxes works well. The call for cooperation and communication between Africa’s 15,000 mayors is also an important point.

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Here’s a summary I wrote of Stephan F. Miescher’s article, “Building the City of the Future: Visions and Experiences of Modernity in Ghana’s Akosombo Township,” which appeared in the November 2012 issue of the Journal of African History:

In his article, Miescher details the history of the Akosombo Township that the Nkrumah’s government commissioned in the early 1960s to house the workers for the accompanying Akosombo hydroelectric dam. He compares the high modernist visions for the Akosombo township (that Greek Urbanist Constaninos Doxiadis designed) versus the reality that lived out over the years as local workers and their families moved in and brought their own knowledge and lifestyles. The dam and Nkrumah’s modernist agenda has attracted past scholarship, but the visions and experiences of the township’s residents have been ignored. Almost immediately the resident’s modes of living clashed with the official plans as rural workers brought families and animals with them into the city planned for single industrial labors. A makeshift “shadow city” known as the “Combine” sprang up as they tend to in planned modern cities in developing nations (Brasilia), resulting in contention between its inhabitants and the VRA (Volta River Authority) who wished to level it to preserve the model city. Eventually the Combiners were relocated (with the support of the national government) and provided with a slab of concrete and building materials to construct approved housing in an orderly, new, and visually sanitized community.

Having recounted Akosombo’s history, Miescher evaluates the legacy of Ghana’s venture into high modernist city planning:

“Thus, is Akosombo just another instance of failed modernization, of which there are many in postcolonial Africa – another example of the ‘flaws of hubris in high-modernist urban planning’…?…Not quite. Akosombo continues to be an attractive place to live. While most urban areas in Ghana have chronic power failures, insufficient water supplies, roads with potholes, and limited health care, the infrastructure at Akosombo remains among the country’s best and the reputation of its schools and hospital ranks high. Akosombo is the township that works.”

Just because a city does not fulfill the original (often high modernist) vision laid out for it does not automatically doom it to failure, and Miescher does a great job not following into the easy mistake of tossing Akosombo into the pile of failed planned African cities just because it did not follow the original vision of Doxiadis to a T. What I think separates Akosombo from the pile is that there was a continued dialogue (even if contentious at times) between its residents and the government and instead of the Combine simply being torn down, a solution was arrived at that seems reasonable and allowed the city to continue functioning and serving its residents. The other day I was reading Philip Harrison’s article (On the Edge of Reason:  Planning and Urban Futures in Africa) in which he draws on post-colonial theory to arrive at a theoretical approach to planning in Africa that balances planners’ desires for efficiency and order with the wisdom found in the “multiple rationalities” of local residents of the Global South. The abstract notion of what Harrison wrote seemed to be sensible, but he was only able to point to Johannesburg as what to avoid, which made reading about the concrete example of Akosombo’s success extremely refreshing. This is the kind of project that planners can build off of for future African cities, striving for what Miescher calls “high modernist local knowledge.” And is why historical awareness and a long view of history is essential to planning.

The only thing that I wish the article had gone farther into was the design of the individual houses–how residents found the boxy (western) style, how the material held up over time, and what alterations residents undertook. Images of Akosombo:

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BUILDING THE CITY OF THE FUTURE: VISIONS AND EXPERIENCES OF MODERNITY IN GHANA’S AKOSOMBO TOWNSHIP

 

The photographer who shot the famous series The Hyena & Other Men (photographs of just that–Nigerian men who keep hyenas by their sides as part of their traveling act) has a new traveling exhibit entitled Kin, which he took in his homeland, South Africa. While a few of the images are stunning frames of dramatic instants (the windswept tree, the hunched, chalked boy) others are overly staged and still others feel even generic. The project lacks cohesiveness that made The Hyena and his other exhibits so powerful. Still as a visual project that seemingly lacks a central motif, I think it might be interesting to see the project as successful in conveying the challenge and resulting confusion that often ensues when one tries to tackle their homeland…as Hugo himself says, “I have deeply mixed feelings about being here.”

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Image source (photographer: Pieter Hugo)

Thinking about the people of Nairobi tonight. And hoping there is no violent backlash on the Somali community there. Here’s a Time article (a year old but still relevant) on the war against Islamic terrorism in East Africa. It does a good job summing up the situation, including the US’s behind the scenes involvement, and gives a detailed account of the investigations after the 2010 Kampala World Cup bombings. And here is the New York Time’s aggregator page on Al-Shabab and a firsthand account of today’s tragic attack.

Highlights from McKinsey report on “How to Make a City Great”:

-by 2030 60% of the world (5 billion people) will live in cities.

-While cities are world’s economic engines, they also account for the most resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

-The report focuses on what successful leaders do to make their cities great. Cites 3 things:  smart growth (that balances the economy, social conditions, and the environment), doing more with less, and winning support for change by delivering results swiftly.

-Smart growth:  simpler tax codes, focus on clustering industrial sectors in city, invest heavily in infrastructure, train English speakers, constantly set short term achievable goals, adopt regional perspective and collaborate within that region, make planning inclusive (bottom up), build high-density areas (smaller more compact infrastructure), regulate construction projects to build “green” projects, provide opportunities and infrastructure for the marginal residents of the city.

-More with less:  embrace technology, rigorously monitor expenses.

-Win support for change:  be accountable, provide citizens information, build a high-performance team, invest in education, create culture of accountability.

Not surprisingly, there was little ground breaking information in the report. What did strike me was actually how balanced and, in my view, spot on much of the report was (although it was corporately vague and general also). I guess I was hoping it would be actually prescriptive rather than just descriptive couched in prescriptive language. I was looking for it to layout steps and priorities at each stage of development rather than a laundry list of everything cities should be doing (even when doing more with less it’s impossible to do everything). I have an image in my head of representatives from a global corporation equipped with the McKinsey report on Africa sitting down at a meeting with the governor of an African city who has a copy of this city report in his briefcase, and each side being miffed at McKinsey:  the governor annoyed of the portrayal of Africa as a fruit ripe for the picking, where resources can be extracted and consumerism sold, and the corporation disappointed that the governor is demanding infrastructure investment and environmental pledges in exchange for business licenses and trading rights. I guess that’s the nature of soliciting information from a consulting firm.

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I recently had a chance to read McKinsey’s 2010 report on Africa’s economic outlook and another on what, in their view, makes a “good city.” Here are a few things that stuck out to me:

MGI Report on Africa

-Currently there are 52 African cities with more than 1 million people (as many as Europe)

-By 2030 50% of Africans will live in cities (already more Africans (40%) live in cities than Indians (35%), and the continent is not far behind China’s 45%)

-From 1990-2008 African trade with Europe and N. America declined (51% to 28%, and 16% to 15% respectively) while trade with China grew from 20% of total African trade to 28%

-China’s infrastructure commitments in Africa now surpass the World Bank’s (11.6 billion in financing in 2006 and 2007 versus 4 billion from the WB over that same period)

-The African labor force by 2040 is expected to be 1.1 billion (Larger than China’s or India’s, and every continent’s outside of Asia)

-Effective education is still sorely lacking in Africa (test scores have actually declined or stagnated for much of the continent) while its governments spend nearly 20% of their budget on education versus 11% for OECD nations.

-Africa’s largest oil exporting nations (Nigeria, Angola, Libya, Algeria) have dangerously undiversified economies compared to their international peers (Malaysia, Indonesia)

-23% of Africa’s largest resource deals now have an infrastructure or industrialization component, up from 1% in the 90s. For example, China’s 2008 deal with the DRC for cobalt and copper included 2.9 billion to construct 3200 km of railways, 31 hospitals, 145 health centers, and 2 universities (I’d like to know how much of this has been completed).

-African daily oil exports to China have quickly risen from 1% in 1995 to 13% in 2008 (the US and Europe receive 30% and 37% of Africa’s oil respectively)

-African governments (65%), private sources (25%), and foreign aid (10%) combined are currently investing around $72 billion per year in new infrastructure across the continent. Still the continents infrastructure is only somewhere between one half to a fifth of Russia, Brazil, China, and India’s. The report estimates that the continent needs to invest $118 billion a year to catchup and keep pace with its economic growth ($46 billion more per year than it currently invests). Chinese and private investment could help reach this goal, as both sources are increasingly at double digits rates.

-In 2008 37% of Africans had mobile phones, 39% had access to electricity, and 63% had access to improved water sources, versus 48%, 84%, 89% average for each those categories in Russia, China, Brazil, and India.

A few thoughts on the report:  it’s troubling how critically lacking Africa is in basic education compared to other areas of the world…this lag is what I would predict to continue to create instability in many African countries–under educated citizens are more likely to be easily manipulated by politicians who play up “tribal” or other divisions to instigate violence. This lag can be traced to the state colonialism left Africa at independence when many African countries (like the DRC in particular) had less than a dozen university educated citizens in the whole country. Now many of the few educated Africans leave the continent for better opportunities for them and their families in America and Europe, creating a serious brain-drain—I’m curious if this recent narrative of “Africa Rising” is bringing many of those doctors and business people home like what happened in Rwanda once Kagame stabilized the country and opened it up for businesses. The article also seems to find optimism in Africa’s rapid urbanism primarily because of the consumer focused business opportunities it creates when so many potential customers are bunched closely together in a city. Is this what cities are to businesses? Places to export resources and sell people cheap stuff? Doesn’t that sound like the model of the slave trade in west Africa? Why don’t business perspectives like McKinsey see cities as places where services can be more effectively delivered or hubs for better education that can lead to more stable nations and thus better business locations? Again it’s going to come back to well educated and savvy leaders in Africa who can make business deals that provide substantial infrastructure and education improvements in exchange for resources. Highlights from McKinsey’s city report will be up soon.

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Following up onmthe last post, here’s another article (from the August New Yorker) questioning whether Mayor Fashola is leaving behind the city’s poorer residents in his pursuit of glamorous projects like Eko Atlantic that provide clean water and reliable power for the ultra rich. The article points to the Makoko slum built over polluted water on boards and logs and asks why solutions like the floating school designed by Kunle Adeyimi isn’t being developed for the people struggling in Makoko. For a look into life in Makoko read this article on the slum’s high teenage birthrate. After years of predominately positive coverage of improvements in Lagos the media seems to definitely be going through a more negative phase…I imagine that much of Fashola’s legacy will be tied to Eko Atlantic for better or worse and making sure the project is completed is consuming the majority of his time currently. What EA will mean for the rest of Lagos is yet to be seen. I have a chance to ask Mayor Fashola a question during a group video conference next week and am thinking about what I should ask and will be sure to share his response here. The article did a nice job juxtaposing these two images of EA and Makoko:

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Is the slogan of the Lagosian Mayor Babatunde Fashola, but the author of this op-ed, Femi Aribisala, is beginning to wonder if by “dogs” Mayor Fashola doesn’t mean “poor people” in his vision of the future Lagos megacity. The article claims that poor people are being rounded up in the night and transported out of Lagos and that visas may soon become a requirement to enter into what Mr. Aribisala thinks has become a city for the rich man. While acknowledging the effective governance of Fashola, he questions who speaks for the urban poor–those who cannot afford a home in Lagos now and certainly will not be able to purchase a plot on Eko Atlantic (if they’re even allowed on the new island in the first place). He raises a needed inquiry into who is driving the narrative of Fashola being a savior of Lagos and wonders if the slum residents might disagree, instead preferring a governor such as Baba Kerere, who introduced housing and education programs targeted on the urban poor during his term in the early 80s. Fashola also has what he calls a “social contract” with the residents of Lagos–pay taxes and receive services–see this article by Howard French in which Fashola glows as an organizer and revitalizer of Lagos life, growing tax revenue from $4 million per month to over $101 million per month while still only receiving revenue from only 3 million of the 8 million working residents of the city. French’s portrait of a benevolent mayor investing in infrastructure that improves the everyday life of Lagos is challenged by Aribisala’s insights into the fact that one way Lagos collects revenue is through tolls on paved roads that then make those roads inaccessible to the destitute whose livelihood may have come from peddling or or driving a motorcycle taxi on those highways, evoking for me similarities to the history of how American highway systems severed black communities and physically cutoff urban blacks during the 50s and 60s. How Fashola reacts to these criticisms will be interesting to follow; the comparison that comes to my mind is of Kagame in Rwanda and the international and business praise that he initially garnered for his organization and development of Rwanda in the aftermath the genocide, and the subsequent muddling of that narrative resulting from reports and stories have been written from listening to the perspective of people living in Rwanda (Hutu or homeless Kigali residents) who do not view Kagame in such rosy terms (see this recent nytimes article based on an interview where the author confronted Kagame about some of the allegations against him). Kagame seems to be getting a little cagey in light of these criticisms and that leaves me feeling uneasy about Rwanda’s future. The initial narrative of Fashola could be seen in a similar light–he and his predecessor, Bola Tinubu, have brought Lagos out of a dark period that is not widely understood by western observers (like the genocide in Rwanda) and have transformed the city in ways that are appealing to western visitors, but of course now challenges to that version of history are appearing. At the end of French’s piece he recounts an episode where Fashola was confronted by the vigorous and healthy Nigerian press, in which he claims Fashola seemed to revel in their challenges and address them head on–hopefully Lagos’s government continues to directly address its critics.

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A few cities (mostly in South America) have recently built or are planning to build gondolas to lift people up and over traffic to take them throughout the city as an efficient, low(er) cost, and scenic means of public transportation. This is the second time I’ve run into this urban mobility solution in the last couple of weeks and given how successful some of these projects have been, I’ve been wondering why it has not yet been more widely implemented. Compared to the disruption and all the technical difficulties in digging tunnels for underground metro systems, building these hanging subways is far less disruptive (and cost “between $3 million and $12 million per mile, comparing favorably against $400 million per mile for subway systems and $36 million per mile for light rail systems”} and although they don’t have the carryings capacity of underground trains, they can be visually “timed” and offer a visible link to the heart of the city for residents of historically marginal areas (or “urban islands”) that are then connected to gondola lines. The article claims that plans for a gondola system is in the works for Lagos (I’m not sure if it’s part of the proposed but slow to develop plans for a Lagos train metro system). This is a phenomenon worth following.

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A great blog post on Nigeria’s plans to build a new centennial “smart” city (more of a district) for 100k people in its capital Abuja (itself a planned city that was built in the 1980s). While praising the socially and environmentally conscious planning approach that promises “a mature vibrant ecosystem,” the piece reminds us that new cities in developing countries are almost always reliant on fickle market driven investors hoping to reap huge economic playoffs from these “green and sustainable” international business hubs by quite simply plundering its countryside. These ambitious, environmentally conscious, new city projects are in themselves fantastic examples of planning and social responsibility, but as the post points out, at some point we have to take a step back and question whether our capitalist economy and its byproduct of violent ecological damage are themselves sustainable, and how do we plan and build a better version?

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China’s national news agency is quietly buying up stake (and influence) in African news outlets. What better way to win hearts and minds in the 21st century? This says a lot: “Its content, however, is often simplistic and condescending. It produced a documentary, for example, called Glamorous Kenya that portrayed the country as “a land of mystery” and “kingdom of animals.” It gives consistently glowing coverage of Chinese trade and aid in Africa, including frequent stories about the two dozen Confucius Institutes that provide Chinese language training across Africa.”

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Billing itself as a kind of anti-megacity that have been the focus of urban studies in the developing world, the Anam New City project is creating a new “rurban” (mixed rural and urban) area in east-central Nigeria for approx. 30k people to live in. Funded by the Chife Foundation, the aim is to create a model for sustainable development that mixes agriculture and pastoral space and lifestyle with dense community living (and the service delivery that is possible with it) in a clustered, mixed use master plan. I’m very curious to follow this project as people move in. Unlike past African city plans, this one seems to have a better appreciation for the “rurbanism” that eventually works its way into nearly all African cities–I read somewhere that the cows in Nairobi produce some massive quantity (in the 1000s of pounds) of dung a day. Of course this is a project funded by an wealthy NGO and unlikely to be reproducible across the continent where a more likely widespread approach is the privately funded planned cities to cater to international economic development. Still it seems like the NGO is going to eventually upload a manual onto their website that shares information on how to build similar cities. Master planning isn’t nonexistent even in places considered the epitome of “adaptive self-organization” such as Lagos where the current mayor Babatunde Fashola is building planned urban housing projects for the city. It would be interesting to see the effect of aspects of Anam New City incorporated into a kind of “nodal development” of a megacity, creating hubs of pre-planned order with services and uncongested transportation. Here’s a link to the Anam City blog.

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It looks like Zimbabwe’s plan to build a kind of Epcot of Africa might finally break ground in the foreseeable future. The plan would create a $200 million theme park/city minutes from Victoria Falls. It sounds like one idea for it would be like Epcot or a world fair of Africa, displaying food, art, and buildings from all over the continent. Zimbabwe’s government says it would cater to Africans themselves as a low-budget vacation destination, citing the exorbitant costs for Africans to visit “African” tourist destinations such as Victoria Falls as the motive to creating this cheaper alternative. Which makes this response in the Telegraph citing “African tourism experts” amusing for condemning the project as ruining “authentic Africa” and not something European tourists want to visit. Not that there aren’t concerns about this scale of a project being constructed so close to Victoria Falls, but the assumption that the park’s target audience is foreign tourists says a lot.

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$6 per day, NOT per hour. Which breaks down to 75 cents per hour (it seems like there must be an 8 hour day labor law as well). I had no idea so many African countries had minimum wage laws on the books–according to wikipedia, a majority of the continent does. Liberia’s new law is by far on the higher end with lower end being around $1.83 a day in the DRC. I’d love to see reports on how widely these laws are followed and enforced or even what percentage of laborers are aware of them. A good place to start might be looking see if multinational corporations obey them.

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