Introducing the Academy for African Urban Diversity


Alice Hertzog, Doctoral researcher, Transdisciplinarity lab & Chair of Sociology, ETH Zürich

As people move and cities grow the urban spaces we inhabit are becoming increasingly diverse. We easily recognize the value of this urban diversity in the cities we prize – in their offer of culinary delights, nightlife and vibrant cultural scenes. When newcomers show up they bring novel ways of belonging in the city, of co-habiting together, as communities rub shoulders, and sometimes rub up against each other. As social scientists we are interested in the forms of sociality, urbanity and politics that increased diversity produce. And whilst we have a good idea of how multiculturalism plays out in the great cosmopolitan cities in the North, there's much to learn about urban settings in the Global South where future urban growth and mobility will take place. 

The Academy of African Urban Diversity (AAUD) is training a new generation of scholars to tackle head-on some of these key questions and advance knowledge about mobility and urban diversity. The African continent is rapidly urbanizing. If this point is agreed upon by a wide variety of actors—from media, to governments, UN agencies, development banks as well as scholars—there is far less consensus about what this process will mean for Africans. As regional and global crossroads, African cities refract broader geo-economic and political trends, often in innovative, anticipatory and unexpected ways.

This September I was lucky enough to join the second cohort of AAUD at the Max Planck institute in Berlin. This gave me the opportunity to engage with other emerging scholars from across the social sciences attempting to provide answers to urgent questions related to Africa's growing and diversifying cities. These scholars, working all over the continent, are contributing to debates, theories and a growing understanding of how diversity is shaping urban futures. Drawing on their work, we plunged into the impact of diversity in case studies including local market economies in Ouagadougou, informal street traders in Accra, urban social movements in Harare, Somali refugees in Nairobi and a post-colonial neighborhood in Cape Town. 

The AAUD is headed by Dr. Loren Landau – co-editor of Forging African Communities, Mobility Integration and Belonging, and director of the African Centre Migration and Society – and Dr. Léonie Newhouse a senior research fellow with the African Urban Diversity cluster at the Max Planck institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. The key idea behind the AAUD is to bring together a new generation of scholars from Africa, the US and Europe to refine their research focus, promote professional development, and build trans-national scholarly communities. It's a boot camp for migration, mobility and urban scholars seeking to increase the strength of their theoretical claims, define clearer research goals, and build the endurance needed to write a PhD!

The goal of this academy is to produce a new generation of academics who will collaborate, partner, and together populate the field of urban diversity studies in the African context. Another clear ambition was to incite researchers to produce results that speak to wider audiences, beyond the strict empirical focus of their work. What wider lessons can be learnt about the political, social and economic processes surrounding Africa's urbanization? And how can insights from our specific cases be transferred and shed light on other contexts?

The academy set our scholarly ambitions at new heights. Sadly research about African cities, especially by African scholars, encounters many barriers before being considered within global debates about our urban futures. So the earlier we can build solid alliances between scholars, the more likely we are going to be able to bring the topic of African diversity to the table!

The Academy is in its second year now, and judging by the first cohort, it is living up to its promise to foster brave new research. We will meet again in a year – to check our progress, share results and continue to build this exciting new community.

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