Employment-tied housing in (post)colonial Africa

  • Employment-tied housing in (post)colonial Africa is a comparative research project reflecting upon how one learns about housing, what housing means, and why it matters to talk about it.

Applying a historical perspective we research housing projects and schemes implemented for workers by colonial powers and later independent African nation-states in the period from 1940s to 1970s in three different yet inter-related settings: DRC, Kenya and Zambia. We use housing as a lens, through which prevalent social, political, economic and cultural processes are reflected. Housing, in our understanding, is an expression of intersections and changing relations between involved actors, be they employers and employees, men and women, owners and subtenants, powerful and powerless.

Linking local experiences to transnational and global developments, we aim to deepen our understanding of how hierarchies and power relations became constructed in and through colonially and post-colonially planned housing projects. In addition, our project seeks to explore possibilities for an integrated discussion between historical and more contemporary approaches to housing and urban studies.


 Our activities

'Congo Conference' in Oxford

Daniela presenting her paper on Gécamines workers in Lubumbashi, Oxford, 26 April 2018 @Francesca Pugliese

On 26 and 27 April 2018 the Congo Research Network Conference was held at St Antony's College at the University of Oxford. Daniela presented her first findings under the title "Kazi na kuwa mfanyakazi  - c’était bien à l’époque – conception of work and life by Gécamines workers’ in Lubumbashi" in the panel "Worker housing in Congo. A comparison in past and present". The conference brought together junior and senior scholars across the humanities and social sciences, sharing a common interest in the DRC.

Field research in Kenya

Research room in the Kenya National Archives. Martina viewed hundreds of files on colonial housing in Kenya there. @Martina Barker-Ciganikova

During her field research stay in Kenya in Spring 2018, Martina focused on the ‘owner-occupier’ Vasey Housing Scheme launched as pilot scheme in Thika in 1951.  The immediate objective of the Colonial Government while initiating this ‘sites and services scheme’ was to promote stability and to create a responsible African middle class. The scheme has proved to be an experimental blue-print for the whole colony. Martina also conducted qualitative interviews with tenants of Vasey scheme (nowadays Majengo) in Thika. 

Archival research in Brussels

Mwana Shaba, No. 138, Dec. 1966, Library of Contemporary History of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren ©Daniela Waldburger

In February 2018 Daniela continued to scour the state archives in Brussels and the library of Contemporary History of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren for minutes, reports, statistics, photographs, company journals, etc. of the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga and Gécamines concentrating on decisions and policies regarding housing and conditioning measures of the workers. 

Field research in L'shi, DRC

Plan 1967 water supply for Cité Gécamines, Lubumbashi, private property, recognized Aug. 2017 @Daniela Waldburger

In the summer of 2017 Daniela conducted dozens of qualitative interviews with former employees of UMHK in Cité Gécamines and Makomeno neighbourhoods in Lubumbashi.

By combining historical and contemporary approaches, she gained invaluable insights into their past and present working and housing situation. 

Field research in Zambia

A cyclist passing a row of houses in the streets of Libuyu in Livingstone, Zambia @Carl Bodenstein

Over a period of four months (March to June 2017) Carl divided his research time in Zambia between the National Archives  in Lusaka and conducting interviews with town dwellers in neighborhoods of Livingstone.

To complement her findings on the official perspective of the Colonial Office gained in Kew, Kirsten, a passionate historian, dedicated her energy entirely to archival research in Lusaka. 

Archival research in Kew, UK

Colonial Office file on African Urban Housing in Kenya from 1953, Kew National Archives @Martina Barker-Ciganikova

Digging through endless archival records, including memoranda, ordinances, pamphlets, statistics, and meeting notes, Martina and Kirsten concentrated on British colonial housing and labour policies in Kenya and Zambia from 1940s to 1960s. Going beyond their individual case studies, they discovered a transfer of ideas, designs, concepts, experts, policies and practices across regions and continents. 

Our lecture series

Winter Term 2017 lecture program Housing for workers (and others) in African cities. @Martina Barker-Ciganikova

In winter term 2017 we organised a lecture series entitled 'Housing for workers (and others) in African Cities.' We welcomed Luce Beeckmans, Cristina Rodrigues, Robert Home and Garth Myers as our guest speakers. For details on their presentation topics click here.  

Housing workshop

Workshop participants Donatien Dibwe Dia Mwembu and Nicholas Sungura with Daniela Waldburger, @Kirsten Rüther

In November 2017 we held our first three-day core workshop in Vienna. With participants from three continents we discussed colonial and post-colonial housing in interdisciplinary perspective. For more details and detailed program of the workshop please click here

Brainstorming retreat

Housing project team at Attersee, Austria: Carl, Ella, Martina, Kirsten and Daniela; @Derek Barker-Ciganik

To reflect upon our impressions, ideas, and all gathered data in the first six months of our project we found retreat at the beautiful Austrian Attersee. For two cold November days we intensely discussed and exchanged our preliminary findings and planned our activities for the coming two years. 

 Outlook 2018

  • Field research

The first half of the year 2018 we will dedicate most of our time to conducting field research to gather further findings for our respective case studies. Daniela will return to the archives in Brussels (February) and Cité Gécamines and Makomeno in Lubumbashi (July-September), Carl is planning his second visit to Lusaka and Livingstone (April-June) and Martina is looking forward to kick-off her field research in the Kenya National Archives in Nairobi and on housing schemes in Thika (March-April). Our PI, Kirsten will use the time to analyse data from her previous research stays in Kew and Lusaka archives. We will regularly update you on our findings from the field in our blog.


  • Teaching

20th century perspectives on town planning and infrastructure in Africa within the colonial/metropole divide

Lecture, University of Vienna, Summer Term 2019

We organise a new guest lecture series in the coming summer term: 20th century perspectives on town planning and infrastructure in Africa within the colonial/metropole divide. We look forward to welcome scholars from the field of urban planning, architecture, geography, history, environmental studies and other disciplines. 


  • Academic events

Conference, Oxford, April 2018

In April 2018, Daniela will present her first findings at the Congo Research Network Conference at the University of Oxford.

The working title of her paper is Kazi na kuwa mfanyakazi  - c’était bien à l’époque – conception of work and life by Gécamines workers’ in Lubumbashi

Conference, VAD Leipzig, June 2018

We will be in Leipzig at the 'African Connections' conference of the Association 
of African Studies in Germany (Vereinigung für Afrikawissenschaften in 
Deutschland/VAD e.V.) from 27 to 30 June 2018. Our panel is called: ‘Reframing’ (post-) colonial housing through African workers and takes place on Thursday 28 June from 8:30-10:30.