Global influences have long had an effect on the development of African cities, but the degree of influence was enhanced by the increased frequency of contact with the outside world in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. African cities are home to Africans from throughout the continent as well as foreigners who came to the cities at different times and for various reasons. The hybrid nature of the urban environment was determined by immigration, religious factors, and the continuing conflict between “traditional” and “modern” space. Global influences, however, do not imply a lack of African agency. We must recognize the cultural and political synthesis that was undergoing continual transformation. The essays in this section reflect these themes and show that identities were also linked closely to these processes of change.
The early colonial era witnessed an increased flow of people and ideas between African areas and from abroad. Jeremy Rich looks at the connections that tied Libreville, Gabon, to the Atlantic and imperial worlds and attracted Africans from not only the interior but from the coastal regions of West Africa. Senegalese workers, sailors, soldiers, and religious clerics, for example, immigrated to Libreville during the early colonial era and helped shape the physical and social space of the city. Vietnamese laborers, brought into the region by French administrators to do menial labor, also contributed to the diverse character of the port community. Both groups faced difficulties in adapting to their new environment but were instrumental in determining the spatial development of the city. Rich calls for historians to pay greater heed to the level of global influences in the early colonial era and acknowledge their importance in the economic, social, and cultural development of coastal African cities.
For many years, the focus of urban scholarship in Africa was on the changes that rural-urban migrants underwent during their early adaptation to the urban environment. Too often, however, their histories stopped there. Maurice Amutabi looks not only at the problematic legacy of colonialism in Kenya, but also suggests a move away from migrationist histories toward an analysis of what happened to immigrant groups once they had settled in their new cities.