Reflection on the UTA-Do Workshop: the Importance of Place and Being Present

ACC PhD candidate Alicia Fortuin, reflects on her attendance of the UTA-Do African Cities Workshop for Early Career Researchers, hosted in Nairobi, Kenya from 23-27 May 2022. 

The first UTA-Do African Cities workshop was an emerging southern urban scholar/researcher’s dream. Hosted by the African Centre for Cities and the British Institute in Eastern Africa in Kilileshwa, Nairobi, a true reflection of a vibrant and energetic African City. It offered emerging scholars, early career practitioners and artists the opportunity to truly see themselves as thinkers and writers of and in their own cities.

To begin with, I now understand why so many scholars have based their work in Nairobi, for me, a truly African city. Perhaps because this was my first time abroad and perhaps because I’ve lived my whole life in Cape Town; and my intellectual work, thinking, theorising and writing have all been based in Cape Town, coming to a city like Nairobi presented many novel experiences.

The UTA-Do workshop, equally, was significant to me. It reinvigorated in me the importance of collaboration, getting together in person, and networking. It brought together scholars, activists, artists, and practitioners in their respective fields, working in the urban. Many scholars, surprisingly, were based at academic institutions outside of the continent but were led to the workshop via their PhD or Postdoctoral work in African cities. And many of them have lived and grew up in the cities of their research sites. All of this offered a near perfect blend of experiences, backgrounds, expertise, skills, knowledge, perceptions, and prior constructs about how participants viewed themselves, their work, and others in the room. However, perceptions and constructs were quickly dispelled when we realised, we all had a common goal; to learn what it means to theorise from the south and to learn the tools to do so in our own work. We realised we had much to learn from one another and our respective contexts, and that each brought a unique perspective. We learnt we had a significant opportunity to come together in one space for an entire week; to think, learn and unlearn about work that is important to us. Work that made us pack our bags and get on a flight in a world that is still grappling with what it means to be post-COVID-19 society. And it was worth it!

The workshop expanded the concept of an academic. It extended and offered new meanings to being a global south, southern urbanist scholar. From the beginning it offered me a provocation that said: ‘when we change ourselves, we change the city’. I found this useful as of course the point of doing ‘the work’ is so that we can transform our cities to being more liveable and dignified, equitable and safe. But how can we do this important work if we aren’t transformed ourselves? I’d like to extend that provocation further: How can we know the city if we don’t know ourselves? Although the workshop was not meant to “tie our academic shoelaces” as pointed out by our keynote speaker, Jethron Ayumbah Akallah, on day one. It emboldened within me, ideas of how to be a better academic; to look inward first; to be an activist in academia when speaking about rights of marginalised people. The seminars, speakers and my peers encouraged me to learn from my own experiences; to be rigorous and relentless in telling my stories, in writing up and sharing my findings. I was reminded that in the global south there are many centres.

I was encouraged to add and contribute to the lexicon and vocabularies of southern urbanism and to stretch our collective understanding of what it means to be ‘urban’.

Alicia Fortuin

The learning in the workshop extended beyond academic learning. Rather it stretched towards personal lessons, which in turn, offers new opportunities to be a better academic. Through attending the workshop, I understand the value of visiting the cities that I often hear and read about. Such that when they come up in discussions again, I have a point of reference grounded in reality. 5D impressions resurface in my memory. I remember the sounds, engines from the boda- bodas, the constant flow of vehicles in traffic, the many people on the street. I remember what it felt like to be there. The feel of the place, the sense I got that that people are hustling. The sense of urgency of devising their livelihoods.

Through visiting locales, you don’t only fall in love with images, or journal papers or the scholars who write them; you fall in love with the people in the city. The movement, the ebbs and flows, the way the city makes you feel. Walking around in Nairobi made me feel safe. I was excited to jump on to a boda-boda to get to the workshop every morning, and everyone would tell me how brave I was. Visitors and locals alike. But I didn’t feel brave, getting on a boda-boda was a means of transport, a way to avoid the traffic and to get to the next place I needed to be in the quickest amount of time. Upon reflection I’m reminded not to romanticise or vilify a concept or phenomenon, the people, or a place. Rather to constantly interrogate taken for granted assumptions. To get closer to the truth and reality, or the many truths and many realities that exist in African cities.