CLASS AND THE PUBLIC SPACE IN AFRICA
By Wambui Mwangi
Friday, July 01, 2011.
curious about ‘the public sphere,' wondering always what we mean by
this space of ‘the public.’ For a start, where is it? If you fell
into it accidentally, would you know? What does it taste like, look
like? Who inhabits it, how do we traverse it and how does it translate
into our politics? The questions are anchors; holding onto them I can
read Bracha Ettinger
without fear of falling into an infinite well. But thoughts change the
textures and shapes of the material world around as well.Power shapes
our psyches by shaping our worlds; ‘world-making’ is not a figure of
Take roads, for instance. Even without having read Soyinka's play,
roads are a suggestive metaphor in any political community for 'the
public sphere' as well as being fascinating in their own. It is always
instructive to consider where they go, what movements they make
possible and what others they prohibit.
I drove from Nairobi to Kisumu once and realised very concretely then
that the Kenyan state would prefer that I get no further west than
Kericho, and nor should anyone else. Beyond that point and all the way
to Lake Victoria, the side of the road was littered with the corpses of
cars whose owners had ventured further than the state’s
road-maintenance policy not so much suggested as enforced. These days,
of course, construction is all around Nairobi dwellers, especially
those who come into the city from the Thika road.
Large yellow machines dog the daily commute, dust and diversions are
the order of the day, and yet complaints are at a minimum. Apparently
we are putting up with it because the alternative, which is to do
nothing and leave things as they are, grows daily more untenable as we daily add new cars and are already out of space for the existing ones.
kinds of enhanced communications is the new roads initiative proposing,
deploying, and imposing? Which alliances and connections is this
policy making invisible and unthinkable because there no roads to or
from there? What kinds of people are implicitly prevented from
travelling and which others seem to have an imperative placed upon them
to interact, to enable movement to and from themselves? The topography
of a power structure is in the roads: it used to be a joke that the
first road African dictators built was from the airport to the state
house. (Of course, that strategy pays well in case hasty exits become
necessary, as well).
Our roads are also where we all meet each other without prejudice or prior consultation. It
is a space in which, as in our politics, we attempt to make many goals
run along common trajectories, individual desires merge into
disciplined flows. Our entanglements in the international realm meet our local conditions and contestations
on our roads: generated by them and generating them. The state
attempts to shape our movements and purposes; we insistently insist on
deploying variations and difference in the ways we understand this
goal. We contend with each other as well as with the state's plans, on
the roads. We work out strategies for our interwoven existence and raise concerns about our common fates. We're all equally frustrated and equally late, sharing responsibility for the problem along with our rage.
sublime space of citizenship indeed, although and perhaps because it is
mediated as always by economic forces and structures of power. The humblest bicycle has as much right as the largest SUV or luxury car on our public roads, in principle, of course. Still, the gap between principle and actual praxis is itself illuminating: for whom are the roads built?
from the provision of a few pedestrian bridges after the massacre of
pedestrians crossing busy roads and highways becomes too much, we seem
to have an abiding bias against providing sidewalks for those citizens
who walk. Evidently, we think that if you cannot afford mechanical
means of locomotion, you should not be on the road, out there, in
public with ‘us.’
Who is ‘us’?
is as clear a declaration of class hostility as I have ever seen. Yet,
the story is never one-sided, for in response, the pedestrians simply
move their pathways and trading places onto the vehicles’ part of the
road, and the contestation over space rights and space usage ensues.
The pedestrians win at least some of the time, perhaps because in some
places, vengeance has been exacted for the road-side killings of
members of the popular class.
the restless borderlands and overlapping spaces, interests and desires
created by the twinned growth of Nairobi's enclaves of wealth and the
slums that grow alongside them to supply their services and servants,
these incidents become especially acute. In some circles, I have seen
security announcements advising that in case of an accident, it is
better not to stop at the scene of the crime but to proceed immediately
to the nearest police station or risk being subjected to mob violence.
The implicitly enforced class distinctions and alliances proposed by
this kind of apocryphal speculation is clear. Those who can afford to
ride are arrayed against those who are compelled to or prefer to walk. The middle classes and the rich aligned with the state.
Power is never subtle nor shy. Yet, power can own the loom, and still be unable to control all of the weaving.
Wambui Mwangi is a photographer, writer and academic. She is the founder of Generation Kenya and she blogs at Mad Kenyan Woman.
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