Accepted paper:

'Njeri complains too much': On urban space, primordial debt and appropriate relations with state authority


Brigitte Mutengwa (Aalborg University)

Paper short abstract:

The paper explores how state power, space and citizenship are entangled for street traders in Nairobi. When traders gain access to urban space by entering into exchange relations with municipal inspectorate officers, citizenship emerges as a particular type of debt relation with state authority.

Paper long abstract:

On the day that Njeri was arrested for hawking in the Nairobi Central Business District and assaulted by municipal inspectorate officers, I had expected her fellow street traders to express a little more solidarity with her. Instead, most would tell me that 'Njeri complains too much'. Based on conversations with street traders about the arrest of Njeri, this paper explores notions about what constitutes appropriate relations between street traders and municipal inspectorate officers in Nairobi, and how these relations are conditioned by control of and access to urban space. I argue that street traders are in a position of primordial debt towards inspectorate officers, since they need access to urban space in order to make a living, and that this indebtedness prompts not only material exchange in the form of bribe payments but also expectations about how to socially relate to officers. Conditioned both by exclusionary forms of urban planning and policing, which continue the colonial-era positing of street traders as 'dirt' that must be 'cleaned' off the city streets, and by everyday exchanges and understandings with street-level officers, citizenship emerges for street traders as a particular type of debt relation with state authority.

panel P125
Everyday Citizenship: entanglements of state power, space and citizenship in contemporary Africa