Stories of Young Urbanists: Meet Aisha Mugo

21.10.2020, Regina Schröter

Aisha Mugo is an aspiring urbanist and cultural geographer from Nairobi, who uses film photography to archive African urban culture. After graduating with a focus on Global South urbanism and migration, Aisha worked at an international NGO. She is currently pursuing a Master’s at Malmö University and is Creative Content Curator at Matri-Archi(tecture). # STUDYING THE INS AND OUTS OF THE EARTH I studied at the University of Cape Town, where I did a double degree in Geology and Environmental Science, and decided to focus on the latter for my postgraduate. Initially, I had felt the pressure to go into economic geology until I realized that mining is feeding into the exploitation of the earth and people. After studying so much about the earth’s inside, I realised that the real magic is happening on its surface. # MIGRATION AND AFRICAN CITIES My mother is Somali and a first-generation migrant whose family emigrated from Somaliland to Kenya many years ago. I am Somali-Kenyan and was always interested in understanding how migrant communities build, change and adapt to built environments. They may not necessarily call them home but have been able to make cities work for them through various types of labour such as sex work, cultural exploitation or manual jobs, while also seeking hope, fulfillment and belonging in new spaces. I often ask myself: what does it mean for a migrant body to live in African cities that were built to serve colonialists, but not the native population and even less the migrants? {{Pic1: Photography by Aisha Mugo}} # CITIES SHOULD WORK FOR PEOPLE After graduation I was trying to find out which direction to go in the field of urbanism, because on the African continent at large, and specifically in East Africa, you are either an urban planner, an architect or an engineer. Considering the human element of the built environment is not very common, but I believe it is about getting cities to work for people. I would really want to see the future African city to be accessible and inclusive. # WORKING AT AN INTERNATIONAL NGO After eight months of unemployment, I got an internship at an international NGO and was positioned in the Land, Housing and Shelter Division. I could not have had a job title that fit me so perfectly and I was very excited. Due to the high unemployment rate in Kenya, most graduates are out of work for one to two years and I didn’t even have a Master’s at the time! I worked under various migration projects, such as providing housing for Sub-Saharan migrants who go through transition cities in North Africa before they, unfortunately, make the dreaded jump to Europe via the ocean. Under this project specifically, I felt like I found my perfect niche since this was exactly what I wanted to do. {{Pic4: Photography by Aisha Mugo}} # EXPERIENCING DISCRIMINATION As a Black African woman coming from a migrant family, I started to question the migration policies and how international NGOs are actually being used to “protect“ other countries from migration. The projects I worked on get enormous budgets that should be used more diligently to solve the core issues of why Sub-Saharan migration is occuring. But instead, they are funding migrant housing in North Africa, where Sub-Saharan Africans experience widespread violent discrimination and have very shallow chances of staying. As a migrant, it often feels like the water is safer than the land. I learned a lot during this internship, especially about who I would want to lend my talents to, and about the fact that international NGOs are a complicated place. Also, as a person of colour and a woman, I faced a lot of social challenges in the department I was working in, in addition to being unpaid. Knowing the body I possess and the systemic prejudices that exist in institutions, I know I still have a lot of fighting ahead of me, not only for myself, but also for the others coming after me. # HOW TO AVOID A BAD INTERNSHIP The most important thing you should do when applying for internships, is to reach out to interns that held the position before you and ask about their experiences. As someone who has gone through a negative experience, I would want to let anyone know what they are about to embark on. If you are already into an internship and realize there is something going wrong, you should reflect on how you and others want to be treated. # STARTING AN AGENCY FOR AFRICAN WOMEN In the future, I would love to start an agency for and by women in all aspects of urbanism to connect them as consultants and managers for various projects. I would want to curate a place and space that would put marginalized people first and where I could help those who need it the most in cities. Ideally, the agency would be Africa-centered but connected with women based elsewhere. I really believe in collaboration to fight systemic inequalities. {{Pic2: Photography by Aisha Mugo}} # RESEARCH THROUGH A CREATIVE LENS Next to being an urbanist, I am a cultural geographer who uses film photography to archive and humanize cities. I was featured in a [group exhibition]( at the [International Center of Photography in New York]( about emerging analog photography curated by Kodak. I have also been published in the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa’s annual journal which focuses on issues surrounding the rule of law, democracy building, human rights and economic development. [My work]( is grounded in showcasing the dynamism of African youth, especially women, and focuses on (re-)claiming agency and (re-)imagining African narratives beyond the Western lens. This approach is strongly connected with my role as Creative Content Curator at [Matri-Archi(tecture)](, an online publication that serves as a platform focusing on African women as producers of spatial and architectural knowledge, encouraging diverse identities and visions, and acting as a network that aims to reframe various sectors related to the African city. {{Pic3: Photography by Aisha Mugo}} Most recently, I curated an exhibition in collaboration with Nairobi Design Week (NDW) where I featured my film photography exploring the dynamism of culture and heritage in Kenya. More so, during NDW, I created an installation featuring young Kenyan women’s stories and memories of Nairobi. Through photography and oral recordings, the installation explored the importance of archiving the self and the city, and worked towards building a repository of female-based collective memory of the post-colonial city. # CHANGING PERSPECTIVE ON THE GLOBAL SOUTH In the perceived “Global South”, there is a desire to emulate Global North cities. However, I believe we must first consolidate our different histories - how and for whom our cities are designed. During my internship I realized that I needed to broaden my perspective to a more global angle. I had to understand for myself why Africa, or rather why our leaders, aspire to emulate European cities to make African cities better. I decided to go for a [Master’s in Urban Studies]( at the University of Malmö, to challenge myself personally in a very different environment. Given the current situation of the world right now with the Covid-19 pandemic, I am currently undertaking it through distance learning for my first semester, and hopefully will be able to relocate to Sweden soon. # RETURNING HOME SOMEDAY - OR NOT I am definitely keeping it open about whether to return to Kenya or not afterwards. However, Kenya is and will always be my first love. The work I do and continue to pursue is built on my hopes for and imagination of a better city for all. Sticking true to my nomadic genes, I may go wherever opportunities take me, but ultimately I would want to be based anywhere on the continent - South Africa, Ghana, Kenya - because in all honesty, there is truly no place like home.