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CLASS AND THE PUBLIC SPACE IN AFRICA


By Wambui Mwangi


Friday, July 01, 2011.


I am 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 speech.  


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.

Which 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.  

A 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?

Apart 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’?

It 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.  

In 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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