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  • The Matrix Reloading:On African Bus Stations
  • Ato Quayson (bio)

The somewhat irreverent reference to the Watchowski's cult classic Matrix films from the early 2000s in opening my remarks on this collection of articles on African bus stations is not entirely accidental. The combination of apparent disorder with a supervening orderliness that we find in the films is very much in consonance with the impression to be gained from any acquaintance with bus stations on the continent, even if in the latter case no evil genius is orchestrating the subservient somnabulence of denizens of the matrix. For the kinetic intensity of the bus stations annuls any possibility of sleepiness and calls for alertness at all times on the part of all users of the stations. But the reference to the Matrix movies also serves another purpose altogether: to highlight the degree to which space, not as an inert container but as the simultaneous symptom and producer of social relations, is shaped by a dialectical interplay between transparency and opacity, something that requires a particularly heightened form of critical analysis for understanding that space. In the films, it is Morpheus, Neo, and the other rebels from Zion who possess the capacity to discern the difference between transparency and opacity; but for users of Africa's bus stations, the discernment is an inherent experiential aspect of immersive usage, rather than something that can simply be recognized from the outside coming in. It is within this dialectic of the discovery of what to users of the bus stations must appear as banal know-how, but to the scholars gathered in this special issue requires layers of methodological orientation, that the strength—and indeed, beauty—of the articles gathered here are located, for each of them leavens participant-observation with the requisite multidisciplinary embedding of the object under study in history, sociology, anthropology, and politics. Some might note with disappointment the absence of literary or aesthetic disquisitions on the phenomena of bus stations, but that would be to ignore the already fine work that has been produced on the dimension of automobility by Lindsey Green-Simms (2017), Jennifer Hart (2016), and others.

The central thematics for the analysis of African bus stations are readily in evidence in the essays: for Michael Stasik and Gabriel Klaeger, bus stations represent the intersection of various organizational matrices [End Page 111] (the word is inescapable) operating in such a way as to produce both stable protocols of hierarchy and interaction among various actants in the bus station, and several degrees of fissure and reconfiguration that then trigger the realignment of the original matrices. Even though Stasik and Klaeger do not state this here, combined with other pieces Stasik has written on Accra's bus stations (lorry parks is the local nomenclature), his work shows the competing spatial logics of these stations and the ways in which different characters deploy these logics for pragmatic purposes, or, in cases of ignorance, are taken advantage of. The cast of characters he enumerates for the Neoplan Station are replicable for other stations of the continent. Evidence of this replicability is to be seen in the description of the bureaucratic hierarchies that order the taxi rank at the Dakar Airport that Peter Lambertz and the cooperative practices in the Hiace station in Santiago Island that Gerard Horta and Daniel Manet Calvo so adroitly elaborate. Robert Heinze deploys the modular crucible of the organizational dynamic of bus stations to analyze the historical character of matatu associations in Nairobi, but inflects this to accommodate the changing and contradictory political energies of the Kenyan state itself—a point similarly brought home by Richard Zouhoula Bi on the street-level governance of Abidjan's woro-woro drivers. As a saying in Nigerian Pidgin would put it, Nairobi's matatu and Abidjan's woro-woro associations are not "sidon' look"—that is to say, they are not just there to sit down and look while the world goes by. They want to be active agents of urban transformation, starting with the fundamental unit of the urban relation that is fundamental to the African city, namely, that between transportation, bus routes, and passengers. That these various bus stations...


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