Remaking the City: An #AmAnth2016 Panel Review

Remaking the City: Infrastructural Practices in Urban Africa

Presenters: Michael Degani (Johns Hopkins University), Michael Stasik (University of Bayreuth), Kerry Chance (Louisiana State University), Rudolf Gaudio (Purchase College, State University of New York), Julie Kleinman (Pennsylvania State University). Discussant: Nikhil Anand (University of Pennsylvania). Sponsor: Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology.

In recent years, infrastructure has increasingly been the object of anthropological inquiry. In the introduction to their Curated Collection for Cultural Anthropology, Jessica Lockrem and Adonia Lugo note that “rather than considering infrastructure to be something with static effects, anthropological approaches to the study of infrastructure look for its construction and maintenance through everyday practices in particular ethnographic contexts.” Among other things, what this processual attention to infrastructure has shown is a compelling relationship between social and material infrastructure. Brian Larkin (2008, 6) uses the term to refer to “this totality of both technical and cultural systems that create institutionalized structures whereby goods of all sorts circulate, connecting and binding people into collectivities.”

It is from this conception of infrastructure as both human and nonhuman, material and immaterial, that the invited session on “Remaking the City” proceeded. Many African cities have experienced the all-too-common (in the Global South) paradox of simultaneously being sites of rapid urban development and economic crisis, inequality, and conflict. In different ways, each of the presenters highlighted the strategies employed by African city-dwellers to negotiate this tension through their engagements with material forms. Importantly, the papers showed how such strategies do not merely enable the survival of these residents, but also manifest in new and innovative practices that transform the cities they live in.

Michael Degani focused on the informal privatization of a public service, Tanesco, an electricity supply company in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Key to this process are figures known as “hatchets,” who provide extralegal connections to Tanesco’s electric grid through unofficial repairs, theft, tampering, and bureaucratic shortcuts. Hatchets can be private electricians and contractors, but also part-time, moonlighting, or foreign employees of Tanesco itself. Degani’s talk centered on the lives of these hatchets, whose livelihoods are both more precarious and more profitable than those of formal Tanesco employees. On the one hand, there is no guarantee of work, and when work does come along, hatchets must somehow put together the right combination of circumstance and materials for each job. On the other hand, a former employee of Tanesco explained to Degani that as a hatchet he had been able build two houses, whereas he could barely afford to pay rent while working for the company. Degani notes that while patron-client relations mitigate against precarity in African cities, hatchets call attention to the strategies of mobility by which some clients are able to become relative patrons in their own right.

Though his work is primarily concerned with the informal transportation sector in Accra, Ghana, Michael Stasik addressed a bus terminal recently constructed on the outskirts of the city. The terminal is part of a broader state effort to modernize the country’s road regime; with a modern design resembling terminals across Europe and the United States, it was intended to serve as a blueprint for the supplanting of older types of transportation services. However, Stasik noted that since its opening, the terminal has been grossly underused. This relates first and foremost to its remote location, which is too far to walk to for many passengers. Additionally, the lack of scheduled departure times resulted in long delays for the few who were able to reach the terminal, leading to an unsatisfactory experience and ever fewer customers. While not politically motivated, Stasik observes that this collective nonusage by noncollective actors nevertheless thwarts state efforts to transform the road regime.

Accra's new transport terminal. Photo by Michael Stasik.

In her paper on “coughing out,” Kerry Chance discussed an aspect of her larger project examining highly differentiated breathing practices across urban geographies. In Durban, South Africa, one such practice employed in mass gatherings constitutes a literal coming out of silence about the effects of air pollution. Living in the shadows of South Africa’s oil refineries, the urban poor utilize coughing out both to establish public solidarity among residents and to give voice to the effects of climate change. Chance locates this breaking of silence in a broader genealogy of South African politics, including the anticolonial liberation movement, the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and postapartheid activism around corporeal and ecological hazards. However, she emphasized that coughing out reveals how ordinary citizens combine new understandings of climate not only with longstanding anticolonial practices, but also with contemporary claims to the city and democratic citizenship.

Centering his presentation on Nigeria’s modernist capital of Abuja, Rudolf Gaudio discussed the role of what he calls discursive infrastructure in the pursuit of African modernity. Conceived in 1979, Abuja was imagined as an ethnically neutral blank slate on the basis of which a modern postcolonial state could be constructed. This positing of Nigeria’s indigenous communities as obstacles to modernity was supported by official policy, which sought to resettle indigenes living on the land allocated for the new capital outside of the city. In the meantime, these communities were allowed to construct homes and small businesses to accommodate their growing populations; while they were not legally permitted to do so, they would sometimes leverage this presence to rent or sell land to nonindigenes. Guadio followed one of these nonindigenes as he purchased land and built a home, only to have it demolished shortly thereafter. Hoping to prevent this from happening again, Guadio’s informant navigated local power channels seeking to have himself designated as an indigene should the demolishers return. Gaudio identified the discourse around indigenes as a discursive infrastructure that facilitates policymaking, resistance, building, demolishing, and rebuilding in Abuja.

Abuja's City Gate. Photo by Chippla.

Building on the thematic trajectory of previous presenters, Julie Kleinman questioned what happens to social and material infrastructure as it moves across borders. Situating her work between Paris, France, and Bamako, Mali, Kleinman examined how migrant workers incorporate infrastructure from construction sites in the former city into house-building projects in the latter. This was exemplified by one of Kleinman’s informants, who each day took a piece of drain pipe from his worksite with the intention of eventually constructing a high-quality drainage system such as those found in Paris in his yet-to-be-constructed home back in Bamako. Kleinman observed that such movement of ideas and materials has created new physical and social landscapes that differ from those in both Paris and Bamako. On the periphery of Mali’s capital are neighborhoods of partially built homes, which attract internal migrants to live and work as housekeepers and guards. Similar to Degani’s observations about Dar es Salaam, Kleinman called attention to the transformation of patron-client relationships constituted by this arrangement.

Julie Kleinman presenting her paper, “Infrastructure on the Move: Translation and Improvisation on the Edges of Bamako, Mali and Paris, France.” Photo by Tariq Rahman.

In his insightful comments on Degani’s paper, Nikhil Anand asked how the role of hatchets in electricity delivery might push us to consider the various relations that come to form the state. Finding this question to be a provocative one, during the discussion period following the presentations I called attention to the difference between the role of the state in Stasik’s paper (attempting to curb informality) and Degani’s paper (seemingly allowing informality). Degani responded that the state indeed tolerates informal privatization. As he explained, this was the price of admission for Tanesco to keep its labor force flexible and pliable. However, he noted the interesting politics around what that price actually was: what and how much Tanesco was willing to tolerate. Returning to Anand’s point, it would be interesting to push on the substance of such a balance and the extent to which it informs the different roles of the state in each of these papers. In other words, where does informality form the state, where does it do something else, and how does this impact the state’s curbing or allowance of informality? More generally, if infrastructure in postcolonial states is indeed, as Larkin (2008, 248) says, “perhaps the key way that the state’s ambition was to be manifest to its people and their relation to it configured,” then how can informality help us to better understand the boundaries of state power in these contexts?


Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.