IF you drive along a road in a typical African country – say the Kampala-Jinja highway in Uganda, or the Lagos-Ibadan one in Nigeria – what’s the most common sign that you will find erected along the road?
In my experience, the signs along the road in most of the countries I have been to announce some kind of service available in the area.
School signposts are very common. Churches and hospitals too, as well as signs announcing all other small businesses – salons, hotels, nyama tayari (meat is ready here) and so on.
In my hometown Nairobi, many people – including middle class/ educated ones – don’t even know the names of city streets. They use landmarks such as tall or famous buildings to direct you to their offices.
I recently spent two weeks in the US, in New York and North Carolina, and felt that there was something unsettling about the place. It took me a while to figure it out, but once I did, I realised that the road signage was totally off, in my African eyes.
There are very few road signs in the category of “things you can buy here”. Though there are roadside signposts for hotels and inns, not once did I see one announcing a school; the school names were either written on the school building itself or even not at all. Churches post very modest signage on service hours, and not much else.
What there is, however, was an abundance of road signs telling you what to do. Apart from the usual – speed limits and the “normal” traffic signs – there is deluge of signs you have to read and follow through, if you are to avoid a fine or ramming into the back of someone’s car.
On the big interstate highways, the highways are numbered, so there are signs showing you which highway you are on, and whether you are going east or west, north or south.
There are signs showing the exits that go into the cities, off the main road. There are mile markers that tell you how far off the next exit is.
And on the smaller city roads, there are signs telling you exactly the day and time where it is legal to park on a particular spot – e.g. “Monday – Thursday, 9am – 5pm, Fridays 10am – 4pm.”
One sign I saw frequently on city streets was “No Standing Anytime”. If you see a sign similar to this one in Africa, it is likely to be near an army barracks or other government installation, for “security reasons”.
But this was on streets that looked quite ordinary, which made me wonder why they wouldn’t want anyone to stand there. And by adding the “anytime” it became doubly severe, implying that there was a need to disabuse you of the notion that there could possibly be a time of day when it would be acceptable to stand there.
Don’t get me wrong; I would be the last person to complain about having to read things. But I was struck by how meticulous and regulatory public signage was in the US – much more regulatory than informational.
It suggests that American society has reached the level of complexity where precision becomes key.
WORTHY OF ARBITRATION
But the fact that public spaces would be worthy of arbitration in this manner suggests that they belong to the public, in the broadest sense of that word. The people who live in that city really own it – it is not just a place to buy things.
An example from Congo will illustrate. In 1997, Denis Sassou-Nguesso marched into Brazzaville with his own private army called the Cobra militia, intent on overthrowing President Pascal Lissouba, who had defeated Sassou-Nguesso in a democratic election in 1992 (one of the relatively rare instances an incumbent president has been ousted in an election).
Alongside the “official” government army, Lissouba also had his own militia, called the Ninjas. There was a third force, the Cocoyes, backing Pascal Kolelas, who had been a runner up in that election.
It sparked a five-month long civil war, in which Sassou-Nguesso was victorious – he went on to seize power, and remains in office to this day.
But something interesting happened too, as Kenyan economist and columnist David Ndii writes. When the war broke out, international agencies were predicting a humanitarian disaster as the fighting raged in the heart of Brazzaville.
BACK TO THE VILLAGE
But the crisis did not materialise. What happened is that the residents of Brazzaville quietly went back to their village homes, where they lived off the land – eating bananas, yams, and chicken – until it was safe enough to come back and “do business” in the city.
It happened too in Uganda. The country was mired in war and political instability in several of the years between 1978 and 2000.
But the affected towns simply emptied when the fighting got intense. Trade was disrupted, yes, but there was food – people simply cut down bananas from their back gardens and went on with life.
You have probably seen it every Christmas, when buses and vans are packed up with people going “home” for the holidays.
Devastation in places like Aleppo and Homs in Syria means mass emigration, because people literally have nowhere to go.
But in Africa, the city is often just a place to buy or sell, a marketplace with shiny edifices and no depth, with a “sterile relationship” between authorities and city dwellers as Ndii puts it.
No wonder so many more signs telling you where to leave your money, rather than how to conduct yourself.
After all, you only care about a child’s behaviour if he or she is yours, or at least belonging to your clan or village.