* Paolo Cascone, engineer and designer. Founder and director of COdesignLab, he teaches Environmental Design at the University of Westminster and is the director of the project African Fabbers
A few months ago, I was ready to depart for Douala, in Cameroon, to complete a project that is very important to me, which began 3 years ago. African Fabbers, springing for over ten years of experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, consists of the development of a cultural platform that explores the controversial relationship between neo-vernacular knowledge and digital processes in the field of eco-sustainable design and self-sufficient architecture.
That trip to Douala, which seemed fundamental, did not take place due to the pandemic. I wondered when I would see my African students once more, and how the construction would be taken forward by the craftsmen and workers with whom we set off on this adventure.
The western media and the WHO (World Health Organization) were so insistent in their ‘Afro-catastrophism’ that I almost felt like a coward for not being able to finish my project with the young people of Douala. Fortunately, a few messages swapped on Whatsapp – and a rereading of the book Afrotopia by the Senegalese sociologist Felwine Sarr – brought a pair of confirmations and a doubt.
The first confirmation, which is also the reason why I have been interesting in emergent design in Africa for years, is that the communities of these places have been based on self-organization for thousands of years. Relying on this apparently very simple principle, which actually generates complex systems, they are able to respond to extremely critical conditions (economic, environmental, health, etc.), implementing endogenous solutions thanks to widespread creativity and a strong idea of community.
This approach that strives for self-sufficiency consists in knowing how to live in osmosis with one’s own territory, optimizing resources. This is probably also one of the reasons why many African countries, in spite of the lack of adequate healthcare structures and the authoritarian drift of certain governments, are managing to limit the effects of Covid 19 on people and the society. As soon as the problem became apparent, in the big cities of the continent people immediately got organized to self-produce masks without halting their social and economic activities.
The second confirmation is that this crisis can become a major opportunity for African countries, as Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has asserted in an open letter co-signed by over 100 intellectuals of the continent and addressed to their governments. Soyinka believes that Africa has to reawaken and regain control over its own destiny, in the light of the enormous material and human resources it contains. The various forms of resilience and creativity activated by many young scientists and researchers are proof of the enormous potential of the continent.
I hope this paradigm shift can happen soon, because the doubt – which perhaps is a certainty – is that maybe the time has come for us Europeans to look to Africa as a major cultural opportunity to learn new forms of social resilience.
I therefore believe that to get out of this systemic crisis we will have to look with greater attention at ‘African solutions to solve global problems,’ passing from the paternalistic culture of emergency design to the culture of emergent design that imposes a better balance between nature and tekné.
Furthermore, I cannot help but admire, through Whatsapp, Instagram, etc., the creative force with which the students in Douala are coping with this moment, and the commitment of the workers and craftsmen who are completing the worksite we began together, in perfect autonomy.
The culture hub and the off-grid house prototype we have recently created in Cameroon are architecture that breathes, although they were conceived prior to Covid 19, developing a logic of the circular economy with the aim of distributing wealth in place while reducing CO2 emissions. In the end, big revolutions are not necessary, in order to rethink a better post-Covid world. It is enough to apply this approach in a widespread way.