DirtPol's blog posts tagged with 'colonialism'

Who is Project Dirtpol?

Mar

28

DirtPol is an international cultural studies research project based at the University of Sussex with Professor Steph Newell at the helm and with all the research currently being done in Kenya and Nigeria. 

 

Meet the Kenyan DirtPol'ers: (l-r) Rebecca, Job, Dr Mbugua wa Mungai (regional coordinator) and Ann.

The Kenya-based DirtPol team, Rebecca, Job, Dr Mbugua wa Mungai and Ann

 

And introducing the Nigerian DirtPol contingent: (l-r) John, Jane, Toyosi and Dr Patrick Oloko (regional coordinator).

Team Lagos

 

For more information on the DirtPol project, please stop by:

// our website at www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

// our blog at dirtpol.wordpress.com

What is meant by "Cultural Politics"? By Professor Steph Newell

Apr

01

For more information on the DirtPol research project, please visit www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

 


I wrote the following in response to a question from John in Lagos, who asked what is meant by "cultural politics"? What follows is a version of my reply to him:

The first thing to note is that “cultural politics” does not signify two separate categories: it is not culture separated from politics. The term cultural politics refers to the way that culture—including people’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and perspectives, as well as the media and arts—shapes society and political opinion, and gives rise to social, economic and legal realities. To give an example that is relevant to DirtPol: in February this year, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia described homosexuals as “vermin” who should be tackled like malarial mosquitoes. Over in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s new toughened legislation against homosexuality arises from similar underlying beliefs relating to contamination and disgust (i.e., the category of moral filth). In these two examples, we can see how culture (public opinion, arts and media) imbues politics (government and the law) with perspectives about homosexuality that are predicated on the category of vermin, infestation, contamination. Sexual violence against women often follows a similar discursive pathway.

 

Our project seeks to make visible and understand a multiplicity of similar processes, not always negative nor as extreme as the above case. The case of the media/communications fieldworkers, for example, you can trace a pathway from perception/opinion via the media to the political and social outcome. Thus:

 

Homosexual (a label) =

vermin (a metaphor) =

filthy (a moral/evaluative category used in the media and by politicians) =

elimination (proposed action at social and legal level)

 

In another extreme historical example, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was initiated by a media campaign, especially on RTLM (Radio Télévison des Milles Collines), to “exterminate/crush the cockroaches”. Here you see how the media made use of the “cockroach” metaphor in a similar way to “vermin”: but this time it was used in relation to ethnicity, and the metaphor became murderous. This is “cultural politics” in its most violent manifestation. But it is important to look out for the ways that labels such as “cockroach” can be used satirically or ironically by the very people they are designed to describe (“queer” is an example from the UK where homosexual people regularly describe themselves as “queer”).

 

The above examples are negative and unsubtle, but I hope they show the process of how opinion on the streets enters media/communications/political networks. In other words, the use of particular vocabularies about dirt gives rise to political and legal interventions in people’s social lives. As the website www.culturalpolitics.net states, “cultural politics … [is] an arena where social, economic, and political values and meanings are created and contested”. Creation and contestation are words that sum up the focus of the DirtPol project., In taking a category like ‘dirt’—with its vast spectrum of different connotations, words and interpretations—we can create a starting-point to understand people’s changing definitions of home and the city, and ideas about beauty and ugliness, marriage and sexuality, multiculturalism and migration, the past and present.

 

In the Information for Project Researchers document we circulated when you started your job, “cultural politics” was defined like this: “the ways in which urban identities, encounters and relationships may be marked and transformed by categories denoting dirt. Crucially, the project asks about how the retrieval of local people’s voices and perspectives challenges or changes existing paradigms and methodologies for examining the everyday lives of urban African subjects and the environmental challenges they face,” through popular art forms, the media and ethnographic research.

 

The key point is that urban encounters and identities—relationships with others, as well as the implementation of environmental and public health policies, and anti-racism initiatives—may be understood differently if they are filtered through concepts relating to dirt rather than to hygiene and cleanliness. The DirtPol project thus asks: what are the implications of locally situated understandings of dirt for current debates about urbanisation, the environment, sexuality and ethnicity?

 

The questions this raises for further investigation in research (especially through questionnaires, focus groups and one-to-one discussions, about which there will be training in Sussex in May, so do start to design draft questions to bring over and work on in May) include:

 

  1.        i.         What words and phrases (including proverbs, jokes, etc) exist in African languages and English to describe the dirt or dirtiness of others? Who uses these words and about whom are they used?
  2.      ii.         What words, categories, proverbs, etc., are used to interpret a) health and environmental issues; b) the topic of sex, sexuality and (im)morality more generally; c) the topic of neighbours and strangers in one’s vicinity and in other neighbourhoods? By whom and about whom are these words/categories used, and how many of them relate to dirt?
  3.     iii.         What words, categories and/or proverbs are used to express positive evaluations of dirt (esp. in the sense of earth/mud), including the artistic transformation of ‘rubbish’ into beautiful or useful objects? By whom and about whom are these words/categories used? What are the social and cultural factors that influence these representations and perceptions?

 

DirtPol's PI Prof Steph Newell shortlisted for Herskovits Award

Nov

17

DirtPol's principle investigator, Professor Stephanie Newell, has been shortlisted for the Herskovits Award, an annual prize given by the African Studies Association to the work perceived as the most important scholarly work in the field published that year.  The award is well established, having been running since 1965 when it was named after one of the founders of the ASA.

"Between the 1880s and the 1940s, the region known as British West Africa became a dynamic zone of literary creativity and textual experimentation. African-owned newspapers offered local writers numerous opportunities to contribute material for publication, and editors repeatedly defined the press as a vehicle to host public debates rather than simply as an organ to disseminate news or editorial ideology. Literate locals responded with great zeal, and in increasing numbers as the twentieth century progressed, they sent in letters, articles, fiction, and poetry for publication in English- and African-language newspapers.

The Power to Name offers a rich cultural history of this phenomenon, examining the wide array of anonymous and pseudonymous writing practices to be found in African-owned newspapers between the 1880s and the 1940s, and the rise of celebrity journalism in the period of anticolonial nationalism. Stephanie Newell has produced an account of colonial West Africa that skillfully shows the ways in which colonized subjects used pseudonyms and anonymity to alter and play with colonial power and constructions of African identity."

 

For more information on the book: http://www.ohioswallow.com/book/The+Power+to+Name

 For more information on the award and the ASA: http://www.africanstudies.org/awards-prizes/herskovits-award

 To buy the book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Power-Name-Anonymity-Colonial-Histories/dp/0821420321/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1416229897&sr=8-13&keywords=the+power+to+name

 For more on Professor Newell's DirtPol project visit: www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

GUEST POST: The Politics of Decay in a Nairobi Council Estate by Constance Smith

Dec

22

The Politics of Decay in a Nairobi Council Estate

On 14 May this year, an article appeared in the Nairobi News with the headline “In Comes Chinese Money, Out Go Eastlands Estates”. The article describes a memorandum signed between Nairobi County Government and two private Chinese companies to demolish current council housing and build 55,000 apartments on the site, as part of the city’s so-called ‘urban renewal’ programme. The Eastlands estates are several neighbourhoods of colonial-era housing in the east of Nairobi, built by the British colonial government between the 1920s and 1960s to provide affordable housing for Africans in Kenya’s rapidly growing capital city. Although today they are dilapidated and in disrepair, tens of thousands of Nairobians still call them home.

According to the article, the new apartments are to be designed, constructed and then sold by the companies, in effect suggesting that this will be the end of public housing in this area of Nairobi. One of the targeted estates, Kaloleni, is the focus of my PhD fieldwork on architecture, history and materiality, where I have been exploring residents’ responses to this looming threat of redevelopment.

Kaloleni

The Eastlands Urban Renewal Strategy was developed as part of Nairobi County government’s plans to combat so-called urban decay in the city.

In Kaloleni, after years of neglect, most residents would welcome some form of state-instigated investment and construction within their estate, but many reject the label of urban decay.

As a policy category imposed by the state, urban decay is a judgement. It implies material and social failure and the condemnation of a whole community, whilst simultaneously allowing those who built or manage the estate to avoid being held accountable. In their refusal to be branded as a site of urban decay, Kaloleni residents object to the state’s evasion of responsibility.

They argue not only that they live in a historically and architecturally important site but that the neglect of their neighbourhood is politically motivated on the part of the local government, as they seek to condemn and redevelop it.

As with so much public housing all over the world that gets labelled as ‘dangerous’ or ‘decayed’ and earmarked for regeneration, Kaloleni was once a model estate, intended to generate a bright future for its new residents. Built in the 1940s and based on the garden city ideals of urban design, it was one of the first estates in Nairobi aimed at African families. It marked a period of British colonial urban planning in Africa that moved away from functional “bed-spaces” for migrant labourers towards a more ideological model that would refashion domestic life and build the exemplary colonial subjects of the future.

By the 1950s and 1960s, Kaloleni was at the heart of a growing urban middle class in Nairobi, and it was an aspirational place: it was the most well-to-do of the African estates, and it was a marker of some success to live there. Today, older residents are nostalgic for a time of order and maintenance, with neat lawns, playing fields, daily milk delivery and a well-equipped music room and library. But from the 1980s, widespread corruption and mismanagement at both municipal and national levels meant that the administration and upkeep of Kaloleni began to decline, and today there is almost no formal state presence in the estate at all. Despite still being council tenants, residents are now largely left to fend for themselves.

Whereas once the council swiftly managed repairs, these days any pretence at maintenance has been abandoned and it is up to the residents to fix their own homes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet there is something of a paradox apparent in Kaloleni. Though residents dispute the label ‘urban decay’ and the ramifications it entails, decay is nonetheless a powerfully affective force in Kaloleni. Homes are dilapidated, previously tarmacked roads have turned to dust. Water no longer runs in the pipes, broken streetlights lean precariously at awkward angles, the bulbs long gone. Rubbish is no longer collected, electricity is intermittent and the sewerage system is at breaking point. Families are now at the poorest end of the spectrum, and the estate has become dirty, congested, and unsafe.

What this makes visible is an important slippage between decay as a governmental category and a material process.

Many residents regard the material degradation of Kaloleni as a political act on the part of the city authorities. They feel that the council are deliberately running things into the ground so that they can condemn the estate as decayed, and so justify the demolition and redevelopment of the site, evicting the current residents in the process. This gives a very different gloss to the visible signs of neglect. These are not neutral processes, the product of some natural cycle of decay, or the consequence of Kaloleni being simply ‘forgotten’ by city authorities. Household maintenance is a political issue for residents, and their practices of management and repair inscribe the houses with their own personal histories. They are not simply repairing their homes for functionality and comfort, but in a small way trying to stem a much bigger tide of institutional neglect, and making a statement about their right to reside in the estate.

In some ways, there is a sadness and nostalgia to this decay, a loss of pride in an estate which was once desirable and orderly. But Kaloleni should not be regarded as a ruin, a relic of a colonial past destined for oblivion. Much recent scholarship on decay implies ruination, abandonment and desolation. The quintessential image of architectural decay is one of loss, a monumental relic of a ruined past: a decrepit fort, an abandoned factory, a deserted village.

Instead, the processes I have been following suggest that ‘ruin’ and ‘decay’ should not be conflated. Rather than headed for ruination, decay in Kaloleni is more productive: a sedimented history with which residents are increasingly engaged.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Ann Laura Stoler has encouraged us to consider the political life of imperial debris, “the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities and things” (2008: 194). This afterlife is vibrant in Kaloleni. Far from being abandoned, the population is today many times higher than its original intended capacity, thanks to residents’ construction of ‘extensions’, one room corrugated iron dwellings that they rent out privately. Amidst the decay is also a sense of opportunity, as formality and stricture give way to informality. Where previously economic activity was limited to formal outlets in the centre of the estate, today kiosks, hair salons, cafes, car mechanics and market stalls are flourishing across the neighbourhood. Governmental failure to fulfil mundane responsibilities of maintenance is countered by opening a front door to reveal a dramatic modification and vivid redecoration of a proud resident’s home, whilst many others have hedged and planted beautiful front gardens to create private outdoor space and keep the encroaching rubbish and mud at bay.

What is this kind of decay that is not ruination? In one sense, we could simply say that this is what happens when formality is replaced with informality. The failure of the council to manage their social housing has led to a ‘making-do’ culture, in which residents come up with ingenious fixes and creative solutions to issues such as lack of piped water, unreliable electricity provision and poor sanitation.

Whilst at a certain level this may be true, for me, it doesn’t really get at the social and material implications of such neglect. As I followed the materiality of decay in Kaloleni, tracing what was disintegrating and what was not, and questioning how people felt about it, I began to see decay not as something associated with loss and oblivion, but to see it as accumulation. What I was observing was a build up of material traces, a sedimentation of the remains of lives lived. If rubbish is not collected, broken objects are not removed, houses are not repainted, what we are left with is not less, but rather more – what we might term an excess.

There is no ruined enchantment to these residues, they are not often beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, but they reveal the way in which a landscape can be inscribed with multiple ordinary histories as they accumulate in the estate. I began to suspect that living within and among such sedimented histories generates an engagement with the past, a way of relating to the material structures of the estate that has helped to shape the resentment and rejection of the label urban decay.

front gardenThis was particularly clearly articulated by one resident, Limush. He compared Kaloleni to the new Thika Superhighway, one of the Kenyan government’s flagship infrastructural projects in recent years. He commented how the area bisected by the road has now changed so much that it is unrecognisable to him. It has been cleared, obliterated, all traces of what was once there removed. Importantly, he said not only can he no longer remember what was there before and how it looked, but “I can’t remember what I used to do there”. That is to say, he has lost his embodied knowledge of that area, its location in his lived experience. He said “if the buildings come down, Kaloleni will be gone” – not just physically but gone from history: “without the buildings you cannot remember, you have no memories”.

In this way, oblivion and loss may emanate not so much from decay itself as from its elimination. Once branded as a site of urban decay, that place becomes dead-end, futureless. It is a condemnation, an obliteration of slowly amassed material and corporeal micro-histories. Conversely, by starting to see decay as a process of accumulation rather than loss, new possibilities begin to emerge. Instead of a descent into oblivion, decay remains unforeclosed, an ongoing process of sedimentation. We start to see how the relationship between people and architecture is generative; the accumulated traces of decades of habitation leave their mark – both on buildings and people – in an ongoing process of place-making. Interior - me and Georgio

Constance Smith is a PhD candidate at University College London, a Social Anthropologist specialising in Material Culture