P130 – Urban Kinship: The Micro-Politics of Proximity and Relatedness in the African City
9 July, 16:00 – 17:30

Jesper Bjarnesen / Nordic Africa Institute
Utas Mats / Nordic Africa Institute


de Boeck Filip, KU Leuven

Current debates in urban African studies tend to reproduce a confrontation between two legacies: on the one hand the place-based approach of the Chicago School neighbourhood studies, on the other hand, the social network approach of the Manchester School. Some scholars argue for the trans-local connectivities of urban dwellers but at the same time, the terminology of landscapes, localities, places, and neighbourhoods are being employed and discussed more frequently in urban analyses.
This panel suggests an empirically oriented exploration of neighbours in the African city. As a particular form of urban emplacement, neighbourhood describes both a social relationship (of living in the physical proximity of other residents) and a material infrastructure that is shaped by, but also takes part in shaping, the concerted efforts and unintended effects of the everyday practice of social actors.
Whether in an urban or a rural setting, neighbourhood may be one of the most important sources of relatedness, providing the foundation for forming new bonds of kinship and alliance. Neighbours are potentially important collaborators and allies but also harbingers of gossip and ill will, and neighbourhood in this sense implies both an acute sense of collectivity and of being monitored and judged.
The panel thus invites empirically informed explorations of urban neighbourhood and its implications for the micro-politics of proximity and relatedness in the city.


Paper 1

Bank Leslie / University of Fort Hare

The Limits of Ubuntu. Suicide, Mutuality and Migration in Mandela Park, Hout Bay, Cape Town

The paper focuses on the moral panic and controversy that has emerged around a series of male suicides in the urban settlement of Mandela Park since 2012. About a third of Mandela Park’s residents come from the same rural areas in the Eastern Cape Province. The reason for this is that Xhosa-speaking labour migrants from that area all lived in the migrant labour barracks in the Hout Bay harbour precinct during apartheid. As they gained access to space, they invited their wives and children to join them. The old migrants served as gatekeepers, favouring people from their own home areas and excluding others. In the initial years of settlement, social solidarity amongst the ‘Gatyana people’, as they called themselves, was strong. They expressed admirable traits of ubuntu (human solidarity), supporting their neighbours, cousins and clansmen to settle in Hout Bay. By 2012, a different ethos prevailed amongst Gatyana neighbours and kinsmen in Mandela Park. There was enormous suspicion amongst them and some very serious accusation of witchcraft and murder. Many of these accusations were associated with incidents of suicide amongst young male breadwinners in Gatyana urban households. The accusations connected town and countryside and cut across families. The aim of this paper is to explore these extraordinary circumstances and explore some of the social and cultural dynamics at work – especially those related to questions of mutuality, relatedness and kinship.

Paper 2

Le Marcis Frederic / Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon

Bonnet Emmanuel / IRD & Caen University

Negociated Neihgbourhoods. Understanding Neighbourhood in the context of political and sanitary crisis (Ivory Coast)

The development of Abidjan is largely the product of Houphouët Boigny’s urbanisation policies, which aimed to foster the emergence of black middle class. As a result, Abidjan has become a highly segregated city and has been the site of a major political crisis following the 2008 elections. Abidjan also has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in French-speaking Africa. This paper begins with these three realities (socio-spatial inequalities, HIV, political crisis) to question neighbourhood and relatedness in relation to the notion of territory. Building on anthropological and geographical fieldwork carried out within a clinical trial on early HIV prophylaxis in Abidjan, we analyse how these realities depend on circumstances (Retaillé, 2012). We show how these circumstances are blurred with an ontology of experimental subjects (Brives, 2013) on the one hand, and with social capital, on the other. The locally salient notion of neighbourhood emerges as a negotiated and unstable reality. The paper argues that clinical trial logics partake in producing territories but that these are not definitive. They belong to specific temporalities and are the product of negotiations between structural constraints and actor’s capacities: they shrink, expand and transform relatedness accordingly.

Paper 3

Desplat Patrick / Institute of Social Anthropology, University of Cologne

“The House is not to be Exposed”. Navigating Proximity and Distance in Urban Neighbourhoods of Mahajanga, Madagascar

This paper explores the desires for privacy as well as social articulations and materialities of fearing other’s envy among Middle class families in the cosmopolitan port city of Mahajanga, Madagascar. A common expression in everyday talk demands tokatrano tsy ahahaka, the house is not to be exposed: Private matters belong to the family and should not be brought to the public, while at the same time their members are expected to block off external negative influences. To retreat to a private space is particularly important within Middle Class families, who are driven by their aspirations for a Better life as well as anxieties about losing their status and the few materiel things they were able to accumulate. Most present is the fear of the envy of others which is perceived to be responsible for the omnipresent gossip and the occasional ill-will with rather severe consequences like witchcraft or other forms of violence. Shielding food, house, everyday life at the house from curious eyes through curtains, plants, verandas and proper fences are common material practices to keep others at distance, an often fruitless attempt given the limited housing space of popular residential quarters of the neighbourhood, which demands – at the same time – an open door of sociality and solidarity. Drawing on recent fieldwork in Mahajanga, the paper engages in questions of how Middle class families navigate and balance social proximity and distance in their urban everyday life.

Paper 4

Cesnulyte Egle / University of Warwick

Solidarity, competition and witchcraft among Mtwapa sex workers in Mombasa, Kenya

The Kenyan Coast and Mombasa City are popular sex tourism destinations hosting many sex tourists from Kenya and international destinations. Mtwapa is a neighbourhood of Mombasa that is notorious for its clubs, bars and beaches where one can find a sex worker; the high number elderly European men owning properties and having ‘wives’; as well as a great number of sex workers who live and work there (renting properties or owning them). This paper relies on life stories and in-depth interviews with women from Mtwapa who identify as sex workers, and aims to explore the cooperation and competition that prevails among women in the sex industries.
The sex trade is a dangerous occupation –there are many risks posed by violent clients, the police, and lifestyle. In order to remain safe, groups of women selling sex often cooperate with each other and create certain ‘codes of conduct’ that they comply with. Being part of such ‘friendship’ circles makes one’s work at night safer and gives a degree of protection. At the same time, sex workers also face fierce competition and possible violence from their colleagues, because good clients are few, and competition for them can get out of hand. This paper will explore how competition in Mtwapa’s sex scenes interacts with threat of violence related to prostitution and results in the discourse and practices of witchcraft that are employed to cope with such ambiguities and fears.

Paper 5

Malefakis Alexis / University of Zürich, Switzerland

Too familiar to trust. Ambivalent social proximity among Wayao street vendors in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Close social relations are crucial for rural migrants in Dar es Salaam but in the city their positive value may be inversed. For a group of Wayao street vendors, social relations with relatives, age mates and fellow villagers were important for their migration to the city and their debut in the streets. But subsequently they re-evaluated their social relations to their colleagues and neighbours dramatically. Individually challenged by urban life, they viewed their interdependence as keeping them from developing the faculties necessary for success in the city and often denigrated themselves as uneducated, untrustworthy, and lacking foresight. In that social narrative, all colleagues were considered similar. The ambivalence of social proximity became most apparent with respect to the question of trust. Trust here is understood as an epistemic operation of interpreting a situation and suspending incomplete knowledge in order to reach to a favourable expectation of the future. According to their narrative, the Wayao were intimately familiar with one another since they considered all to be similar in terms of education, social background and economic performance. In addition, they observed their peers closely in the small backyard where they worked. Thus they could not suspend incomplete knowledge, as in their understanding their mutual familiarity was all-encompassing, and therefore could not establish trust in their relations. The paper is based on 14 months of fieldwork.

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