News / Africa

    Reporter's Notebook: Of Towns and Megacities

    FILE - Johannesburg is emerging as one of the continent's first "mega-cities"- bringing both opportunities and challenges as South Africa extends its dominance northwards.
    FILE - Johannesburg is emerging as one of the continent's first "mega-cities"- bringing both opportunities and challenges as South Africa extends its dominance northwards.
    Anita Powell
    I started out covering city government in three of the fastest-growing towns in Texas, just north of Austin. It lasted three years and was truly an education in American democracy.
     
    But there was a time in my life when I rejoiced that I would never again have to read City Council agendas; would never need to sit through five-hour Council meetings; would never again have to care about the planning and zoning commission or municipal credit ratings.
     
    I realized that on my first day accompanying U.S. troops on patrol north of Baghdad. We were trying to visit the mayor, actually, but a roadside bomb stopped us short. As we sweated in our Humvees while waiting for the bomb squad, I had two thoughts. One: This would never happen in central Texas, and two: this sucks, but at least I no longer have go to City Council meetings!

    Because the truth is, although I would swear to be a fan of democracy in action, city government is truly the front line of democracy. And like the actual front line, it is grueling -- and mostly very boring.
     
    This devotion to municipal minutiae may be why Toronto’s outsize crack-smoking mayor remains popular despite, well, his admission that he smoked crack cocaine. Mayor Rob Ford is a dedicated public servant -- or so says his Twitter feed -- and makes a point of visiting every constituent who complains about a leaky sewer or a pothole.
     
    This, said Virgil James of the city of Johannesburg, is the day-to-day reality of running a city. It’s often less about grand ideas than it is about sewers and sidewalks.
     
    “It becomes at the end of the day, somewhat mundane, in that you have to please rate-payers. They are critical because they keep the city running. And all the issues that have been discussed here become issues that are basic service delivery issues,” said James.
     
    I found myself thinking about this as I girded myself for an annual summit of big-city mayors in Johannesburg.
     
    It was a lot fancier than a City Council meeting in my old stomping grounds of Leander, Texas. But for some reason, it made me feel slightly… homesick. So I called Leander’s former mayor, John Cowman. Needless to say, he was surprised to hear from me after a decade. And he then surprised me by readily offering advice for mayors of cities many times Leander’s size.
     
    “It all boils down to one thing: education. It is the bottom line. You need an educated populace. You need to empower them through education. Be it South Africa, apartheid, whatever, you keep the people uneducated because they were feared if they got smart. Well, if you educate folks, this world will be better, and that would be my message to the mayors,” said Cowman.
     
    My first city council meeting in Leander was more than 10 years ago. Leander’s population then was just under 14,000. Since then, it that has more than doubled, making this bedroom community outside of Austin one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States.
     
    Growth was not easy. Cowman was a divisive mayor, and when Council meetings weren’t brutal, they were boring. I didn’t realize at the time that I was witnessing something special.
     
    Or, as Cowman claims, that I was part of it.
     
    “Everything you do learn, really starts at the local level, Anita, and you’re living proof of it. We went through the war together, and see, that’s why I love you for that, it’s like, wow. You reported things in our area that were occurring and so you were part of the team. And that’s they way we all viewed things. And yeah, there were some times I was like, ‘That darn Anita Powell,’ or ‘I’m afraid of her.’ But, look where we ended up,” said Cowman.
     
    When I moved to Africa in 2007, I thought the rural areas held the secrets to this riveting continent. Rural areas are often hardest hit by the conflict, pestilence and famines that made Africa famous.
     
    But I think I was wrong. New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, pointed out how fast cities on the continent are growing, and how they will shape Africa’s future.
     
    “In 2011, there were 52 African cities with a population higher than 1 million people. By 2016, in only two years, there will be around 65. And that’s a good thing. Cities provide economic and a chance for a better life and they are helping drive the rapid expansion of this continent’s middle class. Cities also drive technological innovation, and they’re the places where bright ideas find capital and talent that they need to become reality an improve lives,” said Bloomberg.
     
    I’m now aware that way back in Leander, I was already on the front line. Because the story of city government is really that of people’s hopes, fears and homes.
     
    We saw the critical role that African cities like Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli played in overturning entrenched leaders. We’re seeing similar unrest in Luanda, in Kampala, and in Johannesburg, as city-dwellers stand up for their rights and young new residents are streaming in. I think Africa’s emerging narrative could very well become cities.
     
    But please, please, no more City Council meetings. You can’t make me go back to that war zone.

    You May Like

    Video Rubio Looks to Surge in New Hampshire

    Republican presidential candidate has moved into second place in several recent surveys and appears to be gaining ground on longtime frontrunner Donald Trump

    UN Calls for Global Ban on Female Genital Mutilation

    Recent UNICEF report finds at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries

    UN Pilots New Peace Approach in CAR

    Approach launched in northern town of Kaga Bandoro, where former combatants of mainly Muslim Seleka armed group and Christian and animist anti-Balaka movement are being paid to do community work

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibiti
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 05, 2016 4:30 PM
    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video Former Drug CEO Martin Shkreli Angers US Lawmakers

    A former U.S. pharmaceutical business executive has angered lawmakers by refusing to explain why he raised the price of a life-saving pill by 5,000 percent. Martin Shkreli was removed from a congressional hearing on Thursday after citing his Fifth Amendment right to stay silent. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Super Bowl TV Commercials are Super Business for Advertisers

    The Super Bowl, the championship clash between the two top teams in American Football, is the most-watched sporting event of the year, and advertisers are lining up and paying big bucks to get their commercials on the air. In fact, the TV commercials during the Super Bowl have become one of the most anticipated and popular features of the event. VOA's Brian Allen has a sneak peek of what you can expect to see when the big game goes to commercial break, and the real entertainment begins.
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Solar Innovation Provides Cheap, Clean Energy to Kenya Residents

    In Kenya, a company called M-Kopa Solar is providing clean energy to more than 300,000 homes across East Africa by allowing customers to "pay-as-you-go" via their cell phones. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from Kangemi, customers pay a small deposit for a solar unit and then pay less than a dollar a day to get clean energy to light up their homes or businesses.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.
    Video

    Video Apprenticeships Put Americans on Path Back to Work

    Trying to get more people into the U.S. workforce, the Obama administration last year announced $175 million in grants towards apprenticeship programs. VOA White House correspondent Aru Pande went inside one training center outside of Washington that has gained national recognition for helping put people on the path to employment.
    Video

    Video New Material May Reduce Concussion Effects

    As the 2016 National Football League season reaches its summit at the Super Bowl this coming Sunday (2/7), scientists are trying to learn how to more effectively protect football players from dangerous and damaging concussions. Researchers at Cardiff and Cambridge Universities say their origami-based material may solve the problem. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Saudi Arabian Women's Sports Chip Away at Stereotypes

    Saudi Arabian female athletes say that sports are on the front line of busting traditions that quash women’s voices, both locally and internationally. In their hometown of Jeddah, a group of basketball players say that by connecting sports to health issues, they are encouraging women and girls to get out of their homes and participate in public life. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
    Video

    Video A Year Later, Fortunes Mixed for Syrians Forging New Lives in Berlin

    In April of last year, VOA followed the progress of six young Syrian refugees -- four brothers and their two friends -- as they made their way from Libya to Italy by boat, and eventually to Germany. Reporter Henry Ridgwell caught up with the refugees again in Berlin, as they struggle to forge new lives amid the turmoil of Europe's refugee crisis.
    Video

    Video Zika Virus May be Hard to Stop

    With the Zika virus spreading rapidly, the World Health Organization Monday declared Zika a global health emergency. As Alberto Pimienta reports, for many governments and experts, the worst is yet to come.