Afropolitains - the new kids on the block

Afropolitains  - the new kids on the block

​April 2016

Alice Hertzog, Doctoral Candidate, ETH Zürich

Migrants are the movers and shakers of the cosmopolitan city of Cotonou. They come from inland Benin, Nigeria and Niger, Lebanon, China, Togo, Ivory Coast, Pakistan, or Europe. Some have followed global commercial routes whilst others have popped over the border to trade household goods.

Whilst conducting fieldwork on migration and urban development, my attention was drawn one evening to a new arrival at my guesthouse. Her hair was braided back in a no-nonsense fashion, she wore a bright wax print skirt and her laughter resonated around the courtyard late into the night. Her name was Grace and as a second-generation migrant she had arrived from France to plan her return.

Her parents had taken a promising migrant path, leaving Benin in the 1970s for decent jobs in government ministries and family life in a Parisian suburb. They worked hard, integrated into French society, and sent their children to university. Now, much to their bemusement, their daughter wants to move back to Benin in the hope of contributing to the country’s development.

Grace has been hatching this plan for some time. During family holidays she had noted the terrible state of Benin’s infrastructure. So, with this in mind, she applied to the most prestigious engineering school in France – no small feat as a black woman of foreign origin. A recent graduate, she currently works for a top developer, and is busy managing the renovation of a train station in central Paris. She’s now aiming to take her skills, and put them to use in the West African construction sector.

Grace’s story sheds new light on the role migrants play in cities, it reverses trends in terms of gender, skills, and trajectories. The classic link between migration and urban development is straightforward: migrants build cities. It was migrants who built Cairo’s pyramids, New York’s skyscrapers, and many of our cities’ monuments. This is because building projects always require high numbers of low-skilled workers onsite for intensive periods of time. Their presence is critical for the construction sector.  

A recent report published by the UK Chartered Institute of Building lobbies for the voice of the construction industry to be heard within the migration debate, stating that this would help shape sensible policy on migration while meeting the needs of the wider community. It asserts that migration is necessary to the construction sector because it dampens the harmful effects of volatile labour markets, and argues that tight regulation of migration would damage construction activities in the UK.

Yet migrants in the sector often forego the right to decent working conditions. The French sociologist Nicolas Jounin writes well about this. Having worked side by side with undocumented builders, he describes the racial discrimination and dangerous conditions they face, and provides an eye-opening account of construction sites. This is a reality familiar to GPMD colleagues working in the Middle East, where infrastructure development has gone hand-in-hand with the exploitation of migrant workers. In Qatar, foreign construction workers currently outnumber the local population, their passports are often confiscated, they have limited accident insurance, and are often withheld pay – making the link between urban development and international migration painfully evident.

The development turn in migration studies suggests that, through financial and social remittances, migrants can have a positive effect on their communities. They send money back to build houses, fund education, and contribute to local infrastructure. But at what cost?

Grace’s case illustrates a long-term perspective, in which migration provides return dividends a generation or two down the line, in the form of brain-gain, commitment and skills. A far cry from migrant workers climbing up scaffolding, she forms part of a new generation embracing greater mobility, and seeking out opportunity in African cities.

Grace is an Afropolitain – the name author Taiye Selasi gives to the newest generation of African emigrants, “coming soon or collected already at a law firm/chem lab/jazz lounge near you.” Part of a young, ambitious diaspora that ties its sense of self to at least one place on the African continent. They are cultural polyglots for whom a stint in Africa adds value to their CVs, and provides opportunities Europe is no longer able, or willing, to make.  Neither expats nor development professionals, Afropolitains are looking to make an impact, advance their careers, and – like young people the world over – have an adventure.

The cosmopolitan cities of West Africa need talent in the fields of urban management, planning, and design. Afropolitains like Kunlé Adeyemi are leading the way - a Nigerian architect trained at Columbia, based in the Netherlands and founder of an architecture and design practice. He recently built a floating school on a polluted lagoon in the Lagos slum of Makoko. This piece of unusual social infrastructure is a case of radical, diaspora-driven urbanism. It is the product of a sustained link between Adeyemi and Lagos, apparent in the name of his practice, Nlé – which means “at home” in Yoruba.

I meet up with Grace a few months later in Paris, in a small bistro opposite the building site she manages. As she tucks into a croque monsieur, we speak about her return to Benin. Having made it past the first administrative hurdles, she now has her paperwork ready, money in her pocket ready to invest, a useful degree, and a network of potential partners. “Now,” she laughs, “it’s time to take the plunge”.

Photo: The Makoko Floating School Credit: NLE Studio