Reuben: helping citizens in Bulawayo to help themselves

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How do you make a city work? If you ask Reuben Mategu of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, the answer is simple… good neighbours!

The growth of cities in Africa is a huge challenge—but one that can’t be dodged, According to the World Bank, “the share of Africans living in urban areas is projected to grow from 36% in 2010 to 50% by 2030,” The continent is moving away from being primarily rural to being urban, and that is creating one of the biggest changes that will define Africa’s future.

According to the country’s 2012 census, there are around 650,000 residents in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, but independent estimates put the number at at least 2 million. It’s one of the 50 largest cities in Africa. In order to have functioning services such as youth clubs that seek to keep young people off the streets and away from crime, to clean streets and functioning swimming pools, council men and women (who are elected from among the residents) say community involvement has been key.

Reuben Mategu is a councilor in a low-income suburb, and everyone there seems to know what their contribution is toward making things work. Unlike some elected officials who live away from their constituencies, Mategu lives among his constituents.

He organises a group of elderly citizens who choose one day each week to go around the suburb under his watch and clean up the streets. “There actually is a scramble among residents to be part of this initiative,” Mategu explains.

From picking up litter to cutting back bushes that create blind spots on the roads, these resident volunteers have played their part in trying to keep Bulawayo clean, despite a nationwide lack of funds. It’s an innovative approach that seems to be working.

Only a few weeks ago, the municipality announced to residents that it was “swimming season” and that swimming pools dotted across the city would be opening after the winter break (local kids are already excited!).

It was welcome news, as many residents had long believed swimming pools had been shut down. Once more, the city council has relied on volunteers, this time to work as lifeguards and to provide swimming lessons to children.

Thanks to these volunteers, the municipality can still maintain swimming pools, even in low-income suburbs.

Many things will affect how Africa’s great cities tackle their growing pains: money, politics, technology, transportation… it’s a huge set of issues. But being good neighbours and learning to live with each other in a shared city will be part of the solution.

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