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DESCRIBING URBAN ‘NO MAN'S LAND’ IN AFRICA

  • Jane I. Guyer

Extract

Cities as elusive, invisible, yet to come. ‘[T]he city is no-man's land’ (Grace Khunou, p. 240 in Mbembe and Nuttall). ‘Lagos is no man's land’ (heard in Lagos by the present writer, August 2010). A picture of a strangely empty and disrupted man-made landscape (William Kentridge, pp. 349–350 in Mbembe and Nuttall), balanced by a dense but also personless urban scene (by the same author, pp. 35–6 in the same text). … The slippage between conventional social scientific terms of runaway urbanization, the teeming human vitality of African cities, and the elusiveness of the titles, sayings and images of these three books, opens up the rich vein for research and writing into which these authors work their ways. Johannesburg. Kinshasa. Pikine (Dakar). Winterveld (a South African urban area outside Pretoria). Douala. Jeddah. The books reviewed here are based on detailed field research in six particular cities. They all juxtapose the categories of ‘metropolis’ and ‘modernity’ to the category of ‘Africa’, all positing the anomaly this move may represent in the categorical social scientific mind. The subtitles immediately indicate a different starting point from the analytics of population, geography and governance. With an approach through ‘tales’ (De Boeck and Plissart) and ‘reading the city’ (Mbembe and Nuttall), the authors indicate an alternative intellectual reach. They start from visual imagery, the language arts and the social mediations through which the lives lived in urban ‘modern’ Africa are expressed, communicated, understood, configured and conserved. Their aims evoked in my mind the modern art – rather than the analytics – of other cities. So here we have ‘circulation’ and vehicles as symbols and sounds without too much attention to traffic (the Lagos ‘go slow’; the accidents); ‘bodies’ without much attention to food or toilet needs or aging; ‘authority’ evaded or permeating rather than personified in mayors, town councils and multitudes of other officials and employees. In the ether of the invisible, what circulates are symbols and expressions; what emanates from bodies is sexual tension, aesthetic sensibility and physical vulnerability (‘bodies in danger’, De Boeck and Plissart, p. 117); what bears down oppressively is constraint and neglect of all kinds. In brief, what strikes the perceptive mind is precisely what bursts out of the conventional forms and has not yet taken a newly conventionalized shape. Through this orientation, all three books bring the humanities and artistic sensibilities to the question of the spirits, souls, inspirations, dangers, images and memories that inhabit the crowded spaces between buildings and people, insects and people, people and people.

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DESCRIBING URBAN ‘NO MAN'S LAND’ IN AFRICA

  • Jane I. Guyer

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