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  • Introduction Urban kinship:The micro-politics of proximity and relatedness in African cities
  • Jesper Bjarnesen (bio) and Mats Utas (bio)

African cities have long been perceived as emblematic of the vibrancy and contradictions that characterize public spheres in an African context – from breathtaking monuments of wealth and oppression to overwhelming destitution and despair; from vibrant market places and artistic expression to dilapidated infrastructures and rampant criminality. Through depictions of the hectic pace of different forms of movement – from the innercity traffic that seems to be buzzing even in the midst of a complete standstill to public protests and food riots – African cities become lenses through which social and political life is assessed and synthesized; a canvas on which national politics and global inequalities are laid bare, for all to see. Indeed, the visual has long been the preferred prism for documenting and evoking the dynamism and decay of urban Africa. Many of these dualities hold some truths but have also contained the enduring simplifications of prejudice and exoticization. The 'urban jungle' is easily seen as the continent's true Heart of Darkness; a pre-conceptualized dystopia (Robinson 2010); a micro-cosmos of the most frightening and fascinating facets of primitive humanity. This special issue challenges such simplifications by emphasizing everyday sociality, and by giving priority to the narratives and practices of urban residents themselves.

The selection of articles represents a broad geographical and conceptual range that nevertheless converges on the forging, transformation and reproduction of strong bonds of relatedness in urban contexts, characterized by dense residential areas or public spaces that provide the stage on which these relationships are brought under collective scrutiny. In these interactions, an emphasis on the ambivalence of social and spatial proximity is suggested here as an original conceptual contribution to the anthropological literature on urban Africa, which continues to grapple with the complexity of socio-spatial relations in the city. In the remainder of this introduction, we outline a conceptualization of urban relatedness, centred on notions of continuity, proximity, kinship and ambivalence. [End Page S1]

Beyond quantitative urbanism

As countless observers have noted, the African continent is expected to continue its urbanization in the coming decades at a pace that will see existing cities expand and new urban centres emerge. A recent synthesis estimates that, in 2030, Lagos, Cairo and Kinshasa will each house over 20 million inhabitants, while Luanda, Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg will grow to over 10 million inhabitants. By 2035, close to 30 million people could live in Lagos alone (Bello-Schünemann and Aucoin 2016). In combination with the projected population growth on the continent, concerns are raised about the challenges that these expansions will pose to social services, urban infrastructures and labour markets, from Cairo to Cape Town and from Dar es Salaam to Dakar (UN Habitat 2014). The general atmosphere surrounding such observations are, justifiably, seeped in concerns about the threats of an 'African urban revolution' (ibid.; Pieterse and Parnell 2014) to political stability, off-continent emigration, and the overall well-being of urban residents in African cities. These fears seem to confirm the pessimistic views of global trends towards 'the modernisation of misery– 'the rise of a new regime of urban inequality and marginality' (Wacquant 1999: 1640), if not a 'planet of slums' (Davis 2006).

At the same time, growing urbanization has also sparked more optimistic expectations with regard to the plight and responsiveness of urban residents in the global South, for example when urban marginalization is seen as the source of insurgent citizenship (Holston 2009). Whether 'the revolution' is seen in the sheer numbers of present and future residents of Africa's expanding cities or in the political capacities for resident mobilization, these views seem to share a preoccupation with overarching political and economic (infra)structures and leave little space for a peopled infrastructure that includes the activities and preoccupations of urban residents in everyday life.

Concerns about the inadequacy of African urban infrastructures and the human costs of increased urbanization have been with us for a while. In fact, the sense of an explosively growing, uncontrollable urban landscape in Africa has been a dominant force in urban theory for decades, with – 'at times – 'alarmist undertones...


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pp. S1-S11
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