On the importance of urban intersection, when integration is not necessarily on the cards
Posted on behalf of AbdouMaliq Simone
The discussion that has taken place on this weblog over the last weeks concerning urbanization in the Sudan has raised many critical points to which I do not take issue. These discussions have provided incisive attention to how the complex and multiple historical trajectories—of movement, political mobilization, and economic exigency—that have given Sudanese urbanization a particular character now interact with the contestations around how the country is articulated to various facets of the global economy. So in certain respects the struggle for Sudan is the struggle for Khartoum. As a ramification of these struggles is the rapid urbanization of other areas of the country—an urbanization that proceeds without discernible economic substance, and thus intensifies skewed markets in land and opportunity.
The point of the following comments is more to offer some further texture to the analysis so far, and to complement the concerns expressed over the lack of urban integration with some questions as to what cities are actually capable of in terms of integrating diverse populations, interests and aspirations. Even when the absence of integration poses many dangers for the city, a focus on how diverse peoples and agendas intersect may provide an important perspective in thinking about what can be possible.
Many cities in Africa have long histories of being at the confluence of different trade routes, contestations over political and religious influence—all of which push and pull existing populations in various directions, and prompt the additions of new peoples and economies. Therefore, it is impossible to ever assume that cities existed at some point as integrated entities, their residents and activities all effectively coordinated under an overarching set of values, rules or institutions. Yet, the operations of European colonialism, as well, as much of the structure of post-colonial investments and affiliations with cities in Africa, have been particularly oriented toward operating through highly partialized institutions and powers. The continued reproduction then of customary chiefs, military cliques, dominant ethnic entrepreneurial groupings, ruling families, and political associations makes it difficult for effective state structures to emerge—ones that have the interest of a general urban citizenry in mind.
Thus, city life in many parts of Asia and Africa simply becomes the purview of the few, and where the viability of the city—its economic output, accumulated revenues, and development resources—is generated by only a small proportion of its territory and population. Even when so-called slums demonstrate economic capacity, in terms of all the goods and services that its residents do and can produce, governments tend to operate in highly punitive ways—forcefully evicting residents from areas where no matter how bad the living conditions they have established an entire fabric of relations critical to their livelihoods or always cracking down on so-called illegal, unlicensed businesses and trades. In many cases, where small entrepreneurs attempt to rationalize their status in terms of security property, capital, and licenses, they are shut out from such prospects by municipal agencies and banks.
In most ways the picture of contemporary urban life for residents of much of urban Africa is bleak. Too often political regimes enforce their power by making life as precarious as possible for a significant part of urban populations. Despite disadvantageous colonial histories, many national governments were once able to cultivate elites from competing regions and/or ethnic groups within a nation through a balanced investment in education opportunities, human services and accumulation opportunities, and tie them to the state. But marked changes in the position of nations within global economies have substantially diminished public resources available to states. At one time, these governments ensured access to wage labor within the public sector for elites across various ethnic and regional communities. Urbanization and state employment produced at least the semblance of solidarity across these communities. At the same time, the range of mechanisms employed for distorting markets, and thus extracting implicit forms of taxation from the non-urban areas in favor of urban elite, are legendary.
Yet, these distortions were aimed at maximizing resources for the state, which in turn were to be distributed throughout the country. Increasingly, with massive budget reductions in education forced upon states, they no longer have the resources to engineer such solidarity across different regional and ethnic divides—although it remains to be seen the extent to which states that have been availed substantial debt relief will manage the retention of funds that otherwise would go to service highly levels of indebtedness.
As states over the past two decades shed many of their former responsibilities and oversaw a substantial retrenchment of public employees, resulting in the subsequent decline of urban incomes and the privatization of major economic interests, governance itself became more informalized. Specific dominant groups use this process of dismantling to transfer significant resources to private spheres, and the state then uses its authority to mask these transfers. Widespread privatization of state assets has frequently been used as a vehicle to maintain control of these assets in the hands of those occupying state power but now acting in a private capacity. The state facilitates distortions in the procedures through which these assets are sold and subsequently organized.
Those who are disadvantaged in this process increasingly resort to various forms of plunder and looting. Employment of any kind—formal and informal—is increasingly difficult to access. As a result, extended family and residential support systems find themselves overburdened. It is estimated that roughly 75% of basic needs are provided informally in the majority of African cities, and that processes of informalization are expanding across most sectors and domains of urban life. Whereas unemployment has long been a persistent reality for African cities, available compensations now require more drastic action. At the same time, various components of economic rationalization have opened up possibilities for the appropriation of formerly public assets—land, enterprises, services—by private interests, particularly for the emerging elite well-positioned in the apparatuses managing structural adjustment. In its impact on the public sphere, structural adjustment policies have been more than simply instruments of institutional realignment or fiscal calibration.
While a semblance of social cohesion and collaboration continue to be reproduced or reworked, how people are connected to each other is something that has given rise to great anxiety, conflict and experimentation, particularly in urban Africa. Increased mobility of urban populations among locations marked by ever-increasing disparities in economic capacity means that city residents witness more people suddenly accumulating and losing material wealth. As a result, the pressures for maintaining a sense of cohesion within the framework of extended family systems and the practices of resource distribution that go with it are enormous.
But the challenge also rests in trying to understand how the deepening and extension of urban impoverishment, the shedding of national and metropolitan responsibility for taking care of urban residents onto urban residents themselves, and the increasing dependence on work outside formal, waged jobs (and thus work of all kinds) are themselves urbanized. Cities remain places where relations of all kinds unfold. Residents, forced to operate outside of stable regulatory frameworks governing how they put food on the table and how they will deal with each other, must come up with all kinds of tactics, practices, emotions, risks, and commitments in order to survive. Therefore, how do the combinations of all these aspects—in a given place and time—produce particular kinds of urban residents, particular kinds of conflicts, possibilities, skills, vulnerabilities. The sheer numeration of how bad slums are—a practice certainly not new in urban history—does not in the end tell us what specific cities are capable of, and where attention should be placed in terms of trying to begin to change things within a specific city.
Mayo, a district of 300,000 inhabitants, 20 kilometers outside of central Khartoum, is probably one of the most difficult slums in Africa. Over the past three decades, its four sub-districts have come to contain political refugees escaping war in Southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, economic and political refugees from the West, including Darfur. Many residents of Southern Sudan are considered displaced persons with no formal rights to the city, even though many have lived nowhere else but in Khartoum. Far from any available work, most residents are unemployed. Those that do find work as domestic servants, construction workers, or tea sellers exhaust a large proportion of their earnings simply in transport costs. The illegal brewing and sale of alcohol, as well as sex work, constitutes a major part of the local economy, as do raids on trucks and other petty criminality. The district retains a mostly strict territorial order according to ethnic and regional identification—with different groups of Dinka, Shilluk, Nuer, Nuba, Azande, Equatorian, Baggara, Borgho, Fellata, Fur and Zaghawa peoples living in their own zones.
Years of deprivation and constant harassment by national authorities and the police have greatly undermined the coherence of each group’s cultural practices, and rampant demoralization has produced new generations operating largely outside the ambit of either household or local cultural authority. Despite being grouped into their sub-territories, different ethnicities have been forced by their circumstances to thicken and broaden all kinds of interchange, giving rise to a hybrid form of Arabic for their communications with each other. Implicit in this "urbanization" of interchange has been an orientation toward an affiliation with either Islam or Christianity, with its emphasis on individual responsibility, moral culpability and salvation, and away from indigenous belief systems that emphasized the interpenetration of the visible and invisible in all aspects of social life, in that social life was the embodiment and integration of forces of all kinds. Here harmony, custom, and reciprocity were to be valued over individual efficacy and success.
But as the organization of relationships according to shared monotheistic affiliation and secular concerns provides a platform in which to think about local development and governance, as well as a way for a younger generation of Mayo residents to try to link themselves with the larger city, much of the framework that ties individuals within a particular cultural group is lost. Yet, as these links with the larger city become increasingly problematic, and communities experience greater levels of disintegration within the household and neighborhood, people turn to accounts of invisible forces—no longer domesticated and familiarized within a prevailing cultural practice—in order to explain what is happening to them. In other words, the invisible world becomes an antagonistic one, one of forces no longer known, no longer rooted in the day to day experiences of people enjoined together by common understandings of who they are for each other, and what they are expected to do with each other.
Yet, if these forces have then nothing to do with how Dinka, Shilluk, or Nuer, for example try to maintain a sense of coherent practice constantly in touch with a past that remains vibrant, then they can possibly be put to use in other ways. For example, while the alcohol and prostitution business has severely disrupted local moral orders, it has meant that these slums do have some vehicle through which the city "comes" to them in order to buy these services. In recent years, residents in these businesses have tried to take some note about where their regular "customers" come from, and have sometimes gone to elaborate efforts to track the cars, using lookouts stationed at various key junctions with cell phones, and hiring taxis at key points once cars are tracked back to Khartoum in order to pinpoint the person’s office or home. On future visits then, calls are made on cell phones for "operatives" in the town to leave mystifying amulets or signs, or even to attempt to rob the house. Even if there are absolutely no connections made, even when these efforts produce no discernible result, which they almost never do, residents still talk about the fact that they make some impact on the city, that they are steering it in a particular direction that will ultimately have some kind of payoff.
The effect of cell phones has been substantial. Even for households who can barely feed themselves, it is not unusual for the household to have at least one phone. In Mayo most of them are stolen (or the benefits of some international NGO "conflict prevention programs"); sim cards and air time are shared, but even here some residents have found ingenious ways to manipulate using them for almost no cost. So when women spread out across Khartoum, going to their different domestic jobs, or scouring the city looking for them, they pay attention to the surroundings, perhaps now in new ways. Groups gather at night talking about the city, not only in terms of developments that directly affect the security of their camps and districts, but also the facets related to the city’s explosive development, the construction of new districts, buildings, and shopping malls. In their excursions to and from work, or searching for work, calls will be placed regarding the offloading on building materials on a particular lot, or a house that has been left weakly guarded, or a car seemingly abandoned in spot for several days, or the arrival of new stores of food or other supplies where the workers have smuggled off part of the proceeds to some near-by bushes, vans or crevices to be disposed of later. These calls will be relayed to others and then to others more capable of taking direct advantage. Sometimes groups of women will rendezvous themselves to intervene in an opportunity where just a few hands are needed, to carry off some pipes or tin sheets into the desert, or to stuff their dresses with calculators that a hole in a warehouse fence have left exposed.
Most often it will never be clear to them just what was done with the observations they report or by who, but they are convinced that somewhere down the line some effect has been registered–a merchant selling bits of cloth in the main commercial area of Mayo offers a discount as a returned favor for something that transpired a few weeks before, or that their sons have a few extra pounds in their pockets because some Fellata with a truck picked up on a load of cement blocks that had been delivered to the wrong address. Significant here is that many of these residents explicitly see themselves turning into the invisible forces that have haunted them—that have brought illness and misfortune. But if these invisible forces no longer are the familiar vehicles of consolidation existing within a set of coherent cultural references, and are rather signs of a simultaneous estrangement of Mayo residents both from a past and a viable future, then they are to be inhabited instrumentally as a way of trying to act on the city as a whole. Residents thus act as if they are some kind of invisible force moving across the city, finding the loopholes or, at least, acting as if there are many different ways in which the city is unable to defend itself, unable to keep the residents of Mayo out, to keep them from living a city life.
These invisibilities are combined with the equally opaque trajectories through which money pours into Khartoum from all over the world, with the built environment serving as a platform that concretely links repatriated earnings from Sudanese working in the Gulf, various earnings and payoffs related to the Chinese domination of national oil production, inflows of finance and investment from the Arab world, and the proceeds of the city’s distribution activities that link Asian imports to markets across the lower Sahel through Cameroon to Douala—just to take a few examples of such elements. It seems that more than paying attention to the conditions that presently exist, both rich and poor are looking at the city in terms of what can be destroyed and remade.
When John Garang, the former leader of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement arrived in Khartoum in July 2005 following the signing of a peace deal with the Sudanese government, two million Sudanese with origins in both Southern and Western ethnicities gathered in the center of the town to welcome him. Khartoum was sent into a kind of shock since most residents did not, and probably had refused, to acknowledge the number of so-called "foreigners" in their midst. Largely condemned to live at the periphery, any visual image of their consolidation was not readily available. Yet, impossible to stay put in the periphery, for decades they had continuously dispersed across the city, spreading out through its crevices, its layout among deserts and rivers—a quotidian invasion of the city practiced under the radar.
Together these invisibilities constitute the city as a place of play, as something always in play, immune to any overarching image or plan of what it is to be. The discrepancies within the dense relationship between the conversion of the poor into invisible spirits and the invisible deals that circumvent municipal development frameworks, as well as the opaque ways in which money is put to work in hasty constructions not really built to last—as if high class shanty towns–make it difficult to grasp what constitutes a clearly recognizable and stable citizenry or locations that would be brought together under the auspices of municipal justice or equanimity.
It is true, that changing urban conditions does require a groundswell of actions undertaken in a coordinated fashion by multilateral institutions, corporations, states, municipalities, research centers, associations of mayors, local authorities, builders, and providers of infrastructure. Such coordinated action does rely upon sweeping discourses that sum up a wide range of specificities across the world. But without a better understanding of what residents themselves are actually doing in specific sites and how those actions are reworked or abandoned for new ones, new policies and orientations may begin to shape the actions of politicians, technician, bureaucrats, and service providers without them having any foothold in the lives and worlds of the urban poor. Even the many NGOs, community based organizations, and urban social movements that attempt to represent these lives and to consolidate new ways of improving them often end up reducing them to a bare minimum or overestimating their capacities.
Many of the so-called lacks—of amenities, infrastructure, livelihood, markets, and governance—become occasions for residents to assemble ways of working together that otherwise would not be occasioned given existing cultural norms, political practices and urban experiences. These are collective efforts that cannot be characterized as associations or community organization. On the one hand, the efforts to secure urban resources or opportunities may seldom look efficient or viable in their own terms—for these efforts requires individuals to "stretch" their performance beyond either the prevailing terms of what is acceptable, normal, or worthwhile.
But once these lines are crossed, the efforts to, for example, retrieve water, share tools and space, or put various consumables or services together often force a reworking of power relations and privilege—of what can be kept apart and put together. If and when such residents "hit the road" and migrate elsewhere, these particular sensibilities of creating possibilities where there are apparently none constitute a kind of "archive" that can be re-tried in other settings.
Despite disparate distribution patterns and impoverishment, as well as the fact that many urban residents in a given city would rather be somewhere else, city dwellers do make concerted efforts to invest in an urban existence. Even when their consumption levels decline significantly, they continue to come up with new ways of securing access to at least the bare minimum. Thus, the collective orientation of the poor—i.e. to engage the city as an embodiment of specific long-term aspirations—can contrast markedly with the almost parasitical inclinations of ruling elite, who are not adverse to running cities into the ground as they pursue sometimes perverse levels of consumption.
Integrated or not, cities remain arenas of intersection. This process of intersection doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone and everything taking place has to take each other into consideration, has to meld their actions into some kind of hybrid way of doing things that incorporates bit and pieces of the actions and interests of everyone. Part of every intersection is the prospect that things will not come together and take something from each other. Instead, some fundamental divides and impossibilities of translation will remain. The idea of local intersection among heterogeneous actors here means that accommodations—in the form of giving rise to new consensually determined ways of speaking, relating, deciding, distributing, sharing, and so forth—do not necessarily take place. This absence doesn’t mean that people are not paying attention to each other or taking each other seriously, but that the differences of others are not experienced as conditions necessitating some kind of challenge or motivation for any particular group to have to now enact their lives in a different manner.
Instead there is the simultaneous performance of ways of doing things that have no obvious concurrence or fit. In "neighborhoods" of actions and styles that appear to operate at cross-purposes, it is these very cross-purposes that provide a concrete manifestation of the different things that can be done and imagined in any given place. It is a materialization of different possibilities, different routes in and out toward the rest of the city; it is a reiteration of the possibility that specific prospects can be pursued by individuals and groups without them being perceived as threats and competition to others and that their effectiveness need not be predicated on having to somehow appeal to or subsume what others are doing.
This situation of proximity amongst radically different daily performances doesn’t mean, obviously, that fear, threat, and anxiety about others simply disappears. There will be contestation over rights and resources, access to opportunities and privilege; as there will be times when it seems that one’s way of doing things cannot proceed without the other being eliminated in some form—even if symbolic. The aspirations of residents for more space, resources, time, support, and opportunities will often be conceptualized as entailing a diminution in the capacities of others. Conversely residents will completely ignore each other, not deem what the other is doing as having any importance whatsoever to anything. People will just get on with what they are doing, heads down, mouths and ears seemingly closed. The density of diverse residential and economic situations is never a guarantee that the constituent players will necessarily take each other into consideration. The point is not that intersection is some kind of a cure or developmental resolution for heterogeneous actors and activities operating in close quarters or that fights and contestation is a reflection of the inadequacies of intersection, or even that intersection has to come up with some consensus about how things will be done from now on in order for everyone to get along. Rather these possibilities themselves exist side by side and in different kinds of relationships with each other—ones that go beyond cause and effect, or compensation, or development. They constitute a kind of material force that pushes residents along varying lines where life becomes predictable, but not too predictable, stable but not too stable, and so forth—so that in increasingly complex urban environments linked to a larger urban world in many different ways, residents always have a range of options for themselves.
About the author
AbdouMaliq Simone is a professor at Goldsmiths College, London. He is the author of For the City Yet to Come: Changing African Life in Four Cities (2004) and In Whose Image? Political Islam and Urban Practice in Sudan (1994).
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