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Africa's Obsession with Shopping Malls

Al Shabab attacked the perfect symbol of Kenya's rise

Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

A year ago, a friend from rural South Africa called me full of excitement. His hometown, a large village called Burgersfort, was finally “getting on the map,” he said. I had read that the Burgersfort region had been selected to host 15 new chrome and platinum mines, a huge source of jobs in an otherwise jobs-starved country. I assumed it was the mines he meant, and congratulated him on them. But that’s not what he meant at all, he said. “We’re getting a shopping mall.”

There’s a reason the Al Shabab terrorists who attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on Saturday chose a mall instead of a government building, a downtown street, or a transport hub. Malls are increasingly central to urban African life; they’re the social hearts of the continent’s rapidly expanding cities, places where everyone from Savile Row-tailored diplomats to surfer-shorts-clad backpackers to the upwardly-mobile local middle class and even to the slum-dwelling poor, gather to act out a dream of the African future, one without the gates and barbed wire that divide the rich and poor in their residential areas, without the provisionality and roughness that mar the continent’s public infrastructure. As the Westgate shooting unfolded, a narrative settled that the attackers chose it because it’s frequented by white expats. But the photographs that emerged from the scene showed a different story: An amazingly wide range of people got caught in the crossfire. Attacking a mall struck right at Kenya’s emotional heart, at its new consumer-class vision of itself, like the attack on the World Trade Center towers struck at America’s core vision of itself as a place where hard work lets you touch the sky.

When I first moved to Africa, I was confused by the place of malls in modern African life. In America, for city dwellers, malls are deeply uncool. In Johannesburg, South Africa, though, malls were hot. Everyone wanted to meet me at Sandton City Mall, a sprawling complex half the size of some New York neighborhoods with a cobblestoned village square at the center—even artists and intellectuals, the kind of people who wouldn’t get close to a mall back home. A friend of mine, Yedit Fessehaie, travels all over the continent as a development economist. In many of the capital cities she’s visited, she told me, malls have become “practically the only place where people socialize.” In Lusaka, Zambia, “people dress up the same way you dress up for an event” to go on Saturdays to the Manda Hill Mall, which boasts eleven electronics stores alone.

Africa is urbanizing incredibly fast. In 1990, just over a quarter of Africans lived in cities. By 2025, more than half of them will—a population of 700 million. At the same time, Africa has the world’s fastest growing middle class. At the confluence of these two trends are malls. Retail is the hottest investment area in Africa right now, surpassing even natural resources, forever the continent’s main investment draw. Hundreds of malls have opened all over the continent in the past couple of decades. A single South African development company is currently building some 50 mega-malls with grand names like the Mall of Kigali, the Mall of Mauritius, the Mall of Mozambique, and the Mall of Zimbabwe, which will cost $100 million to construct and features an interior “wetland.”

These malls aren’t just about convenience. They’re also spaces in which to try on new identities. In Zambia, Fessehaie said, traditional elders have “an issue with miniskirts. But in the malls girls wear them with gold stilettos. It’s a free-for-all.” These identities are at once consumerist and cosmopolitan. Along with big-box stores resembling Wal-Mart and Bloomingdales, these malls always feature pleasant, chi-chi open cafés serving Italian delicacies or sushi and placed right in the middle of the corridors, allowing diners savoring berry cheesecake to be visible to a maximum number of other shoppers. These corridors function as a sort a Champs-Elysées: a place to present yourself and your family to the world. The ArtCaffé at Nairobi’s Westgate, where the attackers began shooting, was an especially famous one; its immense, marvelous display case of French pastries was a work of art.

We think of malls in America as sites of bland conformity. In Africa, though, they can be sites of unexpected diversity. Much to my surprise, I soon came to prefer writing in the open-air cafés inside malls than in stand-alone coffee-shops. I saw a wider range of people there. Stand-alone restaurants in Africa often retain a rarefied, country-club atmosphere; their gates are protected by doormen; once, spying my beat-up car, the gatekeeper of a fancy South African restaurant kept insisting the establishment was closed, even though I could see people eating inside right over his shoulder. They reify the social divide between the upper and middle classes and the mass of poor: Despite the growth of the middle class, 70 percent of urban Africans still live in slums. The divide is visible in residential areas in the barbed wire and high, thick walls that surround fancy homes and apartments.

Malls, by contrast, are wide open. At Kenyan malls, security guards sometimes lackadaisically wand you on arrival, but all are basically welcome. Caroline Kihato, a Kenyan urban planner, told me that even her friends from Kibera, a notorious Nairobi slum of shacks and open sewers, love to go to the mall. “You can sit there and have a cup of tea,” she said. “You can actually just walk around and window-shop. No one’s going to say, ‘Are you buying anything? Otherwise, get out.’” And the mall’s draw isn’t merely imaginative: “Going to the mall is one of things they do because they can go to a proper bathroom.”

The interiors of African malls are always strikingly spotless, cleaner than American malls, and beautifully decorated, with chandeliers, fountains, and glass elevators that never break. They make a stark contrast to the environment outside, often dominated by unfinished roads billowing dust and buildings peeling paint that speak to the inefficiency of the central government. Inside the malls, private development groups exert pristine control over the landscape. Many African malls are explicitly designed to give the impression of being little worlds unto themselves, with “waterfronts” and “river walks.” In the 40-mile radius around my house in Johannesburg, there are three different malls called “Village Mall” set up with quaint European-style cobblestone streets within. The malls function as parallel cities. Inside the mall, you never have to glimpse a failure of the government. You can forget its failures. You can imagine yourself, if briefly, in a perfectly-run country.

In this way, malls in Africa offer a reprieve from a rough public infrastructure that hasn’t caught up with the sophistication of its citizens. There’s an idea in Africa that private endeavor is “leapfrogging” over development that would normally be done by the struggling state. In Congo and Madagascar, Chinese companies are building the roads. Massive South African cell phone conglomerates are putting phones in the hands of people whose governments never managed to provide them with landlines; Africa now has more mobile phone subscribers than America or the E.U.

It’s comforting to think that social progress could run completely independent of political progress, sluggish as political progress seems to be in so many African countries. Malls are the ultimate representation of this concept. The erection of a new mall in Nairobi, said Kihato, became the “real sign the city and the people are doing very well.”

But the Nairobi mall attack shows it isn’t true. The Westgate Mall, for its very claims to difference and cosmopolitanism, turned out to be the most terribly vulnerable and targeted space of all. Kenya’s troubled relationship with Somalia, its neighbor to the north, came home to Westgate; it couldn’t be a place apart.

I expect the attack will greatly heighten security at all the malls in Kenya, and perhaps elsewhere in Africa. Perhaps rougher-looking people will start being turned away; perhaps they will become places more of a part with the stand-alone restaurants and barbed-wire-bound private apartment complexes, rich people’s playgrounds. Maybe the golden era of the open shopping mall will have been a short-lived one.

That would be a loss. Kihato already looks back on the early days of shopping malls in Nairobi with nostalgia. In the 1990s, when one of the first fancy malls, a complex called the Yaya Centre, opened, “they had security guards watching over people,” she recalled. The guards were there to make sure people didn’t slip on the escalators, a new innovation in Nairobi then. It sounds now like a tale from before a Fall.