- The Bulldozer and the Word: Culture at Work in Postcolonial Nairobi
Nairobi is easy to love and convenient to study—large and cosmopolitan enough to offer social complexities, yet small enough (despite the nostalgic yearnings of some residents about how much more compact, clean, and safe it used to be) to promise at least the illusion of comprehensibility. With The Bulldozer and the Word, Raoul Granqvist offers precisely the sort of fascinating study of Nairobi—a cultural geography of its urban landscape—that should provide engaging reading for anyone with an interest in the dynamics of that city, and especially for those of us with interests in human geography and in literature in its broad sense.
Granqvist's title sets up the opposing forces at play in this urban landscape. The "Bulldozer" evokes the coercive apparatuses of state control, both colonial and post-, as well as the vectors of crushing economic power that result from Nairobi's disadvantageous position in relation to global capital. (The etymology of "bulldozer," Granqvist reminds us, evokes the extreme violence of this system—since "bulldozing" referred, in its original context of US slavery, to dishing out a "dose" of the whip fit for a bull.) The "Word," on the other hand, encompasses all manner of cultural expression, including and especially those popular and counterhegemonic forms such as comic books, street theater, the matatu phenomenon, and popular music. These terms, however, are not permitted to face off in a simplistic opposition. Those familiar with Granqvist's previous work on African or European culture will recognize his interest in exploring the ways that these apparently opposite terms are themselves immensely complicated, meaning that an urban geography like that of Nairobi is inherently multilayered and polyvalent, requiring a model like that of the Swedish anthropologist Ulf Hannerz, who prefers the image of "the swirl" to describe this landscape. Thus, the grid laid out and enforced by the bulldozer may also undermine its own power, while those ostensibly oppositional cultural registers (like sheng) are not always as liberatory as one might hope. The point, Granqvist would note, is to embrace in its full complexity the cultural work that results in this creative and contradictory whirlpool.
The book opens with a cultural mapping of Nairobi, "with Michel Foucault and Mircea Eliade as our guides" (25), focusing first on the ways that Nairobi's grid was laid down by colonial powers but moving on to explore the gaps and fissures in this map that turns out to be (in Foucauldian fashion) a discourse. Granqvist argues that [End Page 193] we find a key to Nairobi's map in the popular literature that exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, and he offers a lengthy discussion of the paradigmatic Spear Books series from Heinemann. This is the best analysis of this phenomenon that I have yet seen, as Granqvist effectively investigates the dynamics of the popular Nairobi novel. His discussion of key differences between the Spear series in its earlier (1970s) and later (1980s and 1990s) manifestations is particularly insightful, the difference principally arising in how the later Spear books moved beyond a simple imitation of the American detective genre to emphasize more local concerns and as a result to present a still problematic but more "layered, complex and divided" mapping of Nairobi (74).
This leads to a discussion of gender, the overall message being that Nairobi always has been and still remains an overwhelmingly masculine city, something that becomes evident as we read the urban geography of its streets, bars, and public spaces. Granqvist ends his book with close readings of some of the most dynamic examples of Nairobi's postcolonial culture—street theater and the matatu. Highlights include thoughtful comments from Wahome Mutahi, whose contribution to Kenyan popular culture through his novels, plays, and humor column "Whispers" will be sorely missed following his premature death.
In keeping with its emphasis on the interrelated "swirl" of cultural phenomena, Granqvist's analysis occasionally waxes...