Today, 41 percent of Africa’s population—over 500 million people—lives in cities. When Todd Webb visited Africa in 1958, about 18 percent—less than 50 million—were urban. At the time, many policymakers and politicians considered urban development necessary to “modernize” Africa, together with schooling, industrialization, commerce, and political reform. Webb made these the principal themes of his photography, as his United Nations–financed mission aimed to show a continent changing in ways that Americans and Europeans considered progress.
“Modernization,” an ideology of the Global North, was based on the false assumption that Europe provided the sole model of social advancement. In fact, large urban centers prospered in many parts of Africa long before the arrival of Europeans. One city photographed by Webb, Mogadishu, dates back to antiquity. For over 2,000 years, Somalia’s capital was part of a vast trade network connected with Phoenicia, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, and India. This historical depth tends to fade in Webb’s photographs, which primarily focused on a Western-looking future.