Thursday, November 12, 2015

ESSACA: an architecture school for Cameroon

Since Cameroon’s independence in 1960, the country’s architects have all been educated abroad: many in France, as the country was a French Protectorate after World War I, but also in Germany, Greece, the United States and in neighboring Nigeria.
Jean-Jacques Kotto, a Cameroonian

architect, former President of the ONAC (Ordre National des Architectes du Cameroun, the Cameroon architects’ association, which manages architectural registration) and current President of the Union of African Architects, decided to take the leap and created ESSACA in 2009. ESSACA stands for Ecole Supérieure Spéciale d’Architecture du Cameroun – translated literally, “Superior Special School of Architecture of Cameroon” which, in French, does not sound incongruous! In practice, it is a private architecture school, offering B.Arch, M.Arch and doctoral degrees.

The school started out with all of seven students. Five years later, in 2015, there are 45 students, and the school is celebrating its first class of graduates with an Open House week, November 16-20. Many guests are expected, including from other architecture schools in Europe and in Africa.

The architecture school in Bordeaux, France, for example, has 1,000 students; at ESSACA, the smaller student population ensures for much personalized attention.

To date the most collaborative partnership is with the Architecture School of Bordeaux, France: the ensap Bordeaux (Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture et de Paysage), part of the Université Bordeaux. Students from Bordeaux can study abroad for a year at ESSACA, and select ESSACA students also go for a year to study in Bordeaux.

J.J. Kotto, founder of ESSACA
How did the school get its start? I interviewed the founder, Jean-Jacques Kotto, to find out.

The first spark was lit in 2006, when Mr. Kotto was president of the Africa Union of Architects (AUA). He traveled extensively throughout the continent and realized that, with the exception of North Africa and the country of South Africa, there was a true void in architecture schools. The African continent only has 2% of the world’s architects; however, a large percentage of architectural professional fees are generated in Africa. Upon his behest, the AUA Council convened and a task force was created.  The ensuing report’s findings, based on the economic and political realities, were that interested individuals would need to use their own personal resources to ensure that a project could become reality.
Mr. Kotto’s proposal for a school in Cameroon was approved by the AUA, as well as by the International Union of Architects (UIA). He convened a founders’ association from his personal network, many of whom were also expected to pitch in financially. While awaiting institutional approval by the Cameroonian government, they put together 30% of the funds needed to purchase a piece of land in the central Bastos neighborhood of Yaounde, the Cameroonian capital; a local bank approved a seven-year loan for the remaining 70%. ESSACA opened in 2009, on the ground floor of the unfinished building, with eight students hailing from Cameroon, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – and eight professors, so the teacher-student ratio was one to one!

The initial team included Jean-Jacques Kotto as Founder and Director, along with a Chief of Staff and an Academic Director.

Students at work in the classroom
November’s thesis projects will be: multi-family housing, a cultural complex, and a fish market.

Informal partnerships have been also forged with architects and schools in other African countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast (school to open in 2016) and Senegal. Curriculum was developed in collaboration with UNESCO.

One of ESSACA’s signature programs was the brainchild of the Academic Director, the architect Caroline Barla, and inaugurated in 2013. AIRA (Atelier d’Initiation à la Restructuration et à l’Aménagement des Quartiers Aléatoires – Workshop: initiation to restructuring and improving randomly built neighborhoods) is an ongoing workshop in which the students study a neighborhood to collect data, make note of “incidences” in the area, make recommendations and create micro-projects to improve daily life in the Tsinga neighborhood of Yaounde. Tsinga is not a slum, far from it; most buildings are built with concrete block; the inhabitants are working people, including civil servants; but urban amenities and infrastructure are sorely lacking. ESSACA also collaborates with the mayoral agency working in this neighborhood.
ESSACA students working alongside City staff in Tsinga

ESSACA aims to continue growing its student body, and to offer a sustainable answer to the need for African professionals, trained in the continent, closer to the problems they will encounter in their working lives.

(Full disclosure: This blog post was planned months ago, but in the meantime I have been asked to assist ESSACA in their social media outreach for the Open House Nov. 16-20.)

Links: ESSACA on Facebook

On Twitter: @Essaca_Yaounde 
Wall painting at ESSACA made by the students
under the guidance of their art teacher,
showing Yaounde architectural landmarks

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Back to Africa – Douala first impressions

Douala is not the same as when I left it over twenty years ago. The city has sprawled, rather than grown upwards; what used to be almost countryside, is now covered with construction, unfortunately mostly without any design process. Architects are perceived to be expensive, so any neighborhood, sometimes self-proclaimed draftsperson, will do the job of drawing up a building and finding a way to obtain a building permit (or not).

Almost every square inch of sidewalk is taken up by tiny businesses. There is so much unemployment that it is totally understandable, and I salute the young person with a technical degree in electronics selling peanuts from a wheelbarrow. He is trying to make a living on his own, rather than sit home and ask for funds.
Motorcycle rider with bags of bread

Motorcycles are everywhere, and beware when you cross the street. The bus agency closed years ago, and now motorcycles are many people's preferred mode of public transportation: inexpensive, and they can squeeze through traffic jams. Of course there is, it seems, a section of the hospital, just for motorcycle injuries. You'll find mom, dad, and two kids on a motorcycle; a vendor juggling a basket of wares on their head; another with two large bags of bread, one on each shoulder. 

A colorful note of whimsy
On the other hand, some things don’t change – friendship bonds first and foremost. I rang someone’s bell at 9:30 pm – I hadn’t been in touch with this person in 20 years – as
Douala's favorite dish: N'dole
soon as he realized who it was, joy and bear hugs ensued! (And the next day, a wonderful lunch...)

As the spouse of a Duala, himself born and raised here, and having lived here for over a decade, I am happy to return, despite the challenges and the ever-tenacious insects (especially the mosquitoes). It is not easy to be the lone pale face; everyone notices you, and little kids stare. Fortunately, you can also make a crying child smile, just by waving to them, as they are not expecting it!