DIY mega cities in West Africa

Accra, Ghana

Africa's cities are growing very rapidly, and local authorities are finding it hard to keep up. What does this mean for the residents of all these new districts? How do they get access to basic amenities like tap water, electricity, roads and safety? And who have the power in the new districts before the government gets involved? Joris Tieleman addresses these issues in his doctoral thesis, which he will be defending at Erasmus University Rotterdam on 8 October.

These are times of unrivalled urban growth. Sub-Sahara Africa now has around 424 million city dwellers, a number that will probably double in the next twenty years. To investigate what such extreme growth looks like, Joris Tieleman spent 10 months in Accra in Ghana for his doctoral research. Using ethnographic methods, he studied the role of tribal chiefs, civil society organisations, churches and local governments in creating the infrastructure for new districts.

Important role of tribal chiefs 

The first lesson: even though government is barely present in the initial years, it still has a big influence on how the district develops. The role of tribal chiefs is crucial in this. They are present from the start and form an important link with the local governments. They help the police maintain order and provide a basic spatial planning. Unfortunately, they often also misuse the support they receive from the government to obtain more power or to benefit from lucrative land sales.

Churches play a less important role than in the past

The churches founded by missionaries used to play an important role in the construction of schools and hospitals. The new generation views religion differently. These new 'charismatic' churches, very useful for promoting and spreading their services, often have a very commercial basis. They regard the church as a business and don't hesitate to reap big profits from it. This is usually at the expense of the creation of amenities.

Effective action by residents

It is particularly interesting to see how water and electricity networks are extended. Often residents simply connect a pipe to their neighbour's pipe. The utility companies later discover that they have new 'customers'. They usually then legalise the home-made connections. Tieleman: "This approach by residents might be questionable, but it does prove effective. The government would never be able to connect new districts at the same speed."

Thesis defence

The study ‘Organising new neighborhoods: Understanding the emergence of amenities in Accra from below’ is part of the IHS-ESSB study programme ‘Dealing with Urbanization Challenges’. Joris Tieleman defends his thesis on 8 October at Erasmus University Rotterdam. 

More information

Press Office Erasmus University Rotterdam, Meral van Leeuwen: 06 4026 4367,

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