Pressure to Succeed: From Prosperity, Stress (A reflection on aspiration in the new Kenya)

Wherever you go in contemporary Nairobi, you will find yourself confronted with images of economic success. Whether the suited and smiling young professionals on the Safaricom billboards, celebrating the speed of their new data bundles, the fleet of range-rovers that block the streets in the gridlock hours of commuting, or the synthetic marbled fortresses (the office towers, the luxury flats) – Nairobi’s wealth announces itself over and above the streets below: Streets of kiosks selling warm soda, vendors (‘Mama Mbogas’ – the stereotypical figure of market trader women selling vegetables and fruits from the city’s rural hinterlands), construction workers eating chapo (chapatis)on breaks; Streets of boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers talking to each other in the sun, streets of fundis (mechanics) hammering crumpled matatu minivan doors back into shape; Streets where students gather in groups outside the University of Nairobi, where aspiring politicians argue in Jevanjee Gardens. Images of wealth barely conceal inequality, the reality of the informal economy in which the majority of Kenyans work with their ingenuity and hands to accrue cash, the lifeblood of social reproduction.

Drawing on over 21 months of fieldwork conducted on the changing peri-urban peripheries of Nairobi,[1] this blog draws attention not only towards the city’s shifting landscape of urban inequality, but also desire – of aspirations for better lives, membership in a developing Kenya evoked by the visible presence of vast wealth, evident especially in the material lifestyles of the city’s nouveaux riches, whether wealthy business and political elites or the posh ‘mapunk’, a pejorative Sheng term for those youth wealthy enough to have grown outside the ghetto. But for the Kenya’s aspirant youth, the city’s landscape of inequality is experienced not so much as a fixed condition but as a subjective and personal challenge to succeed, to ‘make it’ to a middle-class standard of living possessed by others. The failure to do so produces subjective experiences of stress, failure and disappointment, the product of comparison with the wealth of others. Rather than purely economic pressure, this blog seeks to foreground the mental pressures produced by this landscape of desire, and the pressure to succeed.

As the editors of this blog series write, ‘economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor’. Of Kenya’s ‘hustler masses’, the 80 per cent of the country’s inhabitants who work in the informal economy. The figure of the ‘hustler’ regularly evokes a young man, living in one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, struggling day-to-day for his immediate needs. And yet, as this brief portrait of Nairobi suggests, finer grain distinctions are possible that reveal more complex relationships with ‘economic pressure’ that do not simply amount to the short-term temporalities of day-to-day survival. Whilst short-term needs are hardly absent from Kenyans’ economic subjectivities and their careful modes of economisation, in the long-term Kenyans work hard to accumulate the wealth that affords participation in the New Kenya, and, not incidentally, status and recognition from others. Consider, for instance, the Kenyans pursuing success from such predicaments of economic uncertainty.

Lazima huu mwaka niwashangazi’, sings Jaguar in his 2015 hit Huu Mwaka’(This Year). ‘This year I’ll blow their minds!’. Jaguar’s narrator is an aspirant Kenyan whose motivation is not simply self, but self in relation to others – a rural migrant who desires the status and recognition from his kinsmen and neighbours whence he returns from the city with the wealth he has won. ‘A good job, a good house, a good wife’ (‘Kazi nzuri! Nyumba nzuri! Bibi nzuri!’), he sings, imagining the future that lies ahead. ‘I’ll be a rich man like Sonko’, he tells us, a play on words in reference to Nairobi’s now former Governor Michael Mbuvi Sonko, a man who has quite literally appropriated the term ‘sonko’, meaning ‘rich person’ (or sometimes ‘boss’). Regardless of the true origins of his wealth, his identity is one of a ‘hustler’ who has ‘made it’ in life.

Such optimism recalls the now famous narrative that the African continent is ‘rising’ – that economic growth is catapulting countries towards middle-income status, creating new middle classes able to live lives of conspicuous consumption. Since the end of Daniel arap Moi’s de facto one-party state, and the political and economic liberalisation ushered in under Kenya’s Rainbow Coalition (2002-2005), economic growth has shaped the intensification of desires for middle-class lifestyles and their material trappings.

At the same time, such narratives belie the immense economic pressure faced by Kenyans on their pathways towards prosperity. Indeed, the sheer discrepancy between piecemeal incomes (gleaned through irregular labour in Nairobi) and the pressure to succeed, gives rise to feelings of failure, shame, and distress. Such affective states readily evoke ‘pressure’ rather than aspiration, as the authors of this series call it: ‘a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them.’

Peri-urban neighbourhoods under pressure

The contradictions between material means and hopeful ends are palpably visible on the northern peri-urban outskirts of Nairobi where rural Kikuyu families have seen their lifestyles shift over the last half century from smallholder farming to full-time wage labour, supplemented by what small amount of food they can grow on their small shambas (gardens). Families turn to local towns and the nearby cities to accumulate wealth to reinvest in their homesteads. Whilst no one there would call themselves ‘poor’ (maskini), neither would they claim to have ‘made it’. ‘We are somewhere’, says Mwaura, the now 21-year-old son of the family I lived with throughout my doctoral fieldwork there, between January 2017 and July 2018.

In a ‘localised patriline’, where sons have inherited land from their fathers in increasingly smaller patches, people live in close proximity to their neighbour-kin. Within neighbourhoods, families find themselves competing to display the wealth they have won in the city. Many choose to invest their incomes in constructing fabulous stone houses, sometimes (according to local gossip) to the detriment of educating children. In conjunction with such pressure to display wealth, to signal one’s membership in Kenya’s new landscape of prosperity, rivalries play out within neighbourhood spaces where the success of others is keenly visible, piling further pressure on those who feel they have not ‘made it’, intensifying subjective experiences of stuckness, shame, and failure.

In 2017, during a long stint stuck on his family’s small homestead during the strike action of university lecturers, Mwaura recalled the pressure his parents put on him to succeed in school. He told me how they had claimed to be the most successful students in their classes, and that the burden was on him to follow suit. But Mwaura joked about the common nature of this claim – that even his friends’ parents were telling them the same. ‘Everyone was number one, so who was number two?’, he laughed. His parents were evidently proud of his success, and clearly hoped Mwaura would go on to better things. He was one of a handful of youths from the area to attend university.

In spite of Mwaura’s relative privilege, his dreams lay out of his reach. Mwaura found himself dreaming of a better life, often a life lived elsewhere, in the USA or in Dubai where he could accumulate enough wealth to live a comfortable life, one where he could live in a stone house, have a large television, earn good money and eventually provide for his own children. By contrast, by mid-2017, he had spent practically half a year ‘idling’ on his family’s homestead, his university lecturers on strike, yet more evidence to Mwaura of Uhuru Kenyatta’s failures. 

There’s this friend of mine, I did better than him in high school. He used to be my very good friend, we used to waste a lot of time together. We used to hang out a lot. After high school – right now he’s in US doing medicine and I’m in Kenya doing nothing! Man, you feel challenged. As much as he’s my friend […] [PL: He’s in US?] Imagine! Maaan […]

From the pressure to succeed come comparisons between self and other. Kenyans acutely experience the gulf in economic status as a personal affront, and a personal failure. As Mwaura put it: ‘you feel challenged’. His experiences speak to those of graduates across Kenya whose educations have raised their privileges. ‘Being a graduate is like a curse’, said Dedan (27), one of Mwaura’s neighbours who worked as a mechanic. Though he lacked university education, he recognised that his aspirations were modest relative to his income and his background. To have gone to university was to have one’s expectations for the future raised beyond all reason. ‘The only thing is starting from the bottom’, he said. ‘We just don’t want to admit it.’

Pressure in Africa – from precarity to accumulation

The experience of such gulfs between future aspirations and economic means is hardly confined to aspirant families and their university student children. As I have recently shown, young, low-income men from Nairobi-adjacent towns find themselves trying to ‘simulate’ the wealth of the businessmen and politicians whose free and easy consumption they admire. The desire to dwell in wealth – temporarily, phenomenologically – even if only for a moment, marks these acts as forms of ‘impatient accumulation’ and ‘immediate consumption’.

But such economic activity remains a weak balm for the existential despair these young men face – the knowledge that one might never ‘make it’, that, in a world of low and piecemeal cash incomes, no amount of economising will ever allow one to transcend one’s status ‘in the street’. The ‘pressure’ these men face is regularly articulated as a form of ‘stress’ that must be controlled. ‘We drink our stress’, as one of my interlocutors put it. A range of substances are used to do so – from alcohol, to bhang, to cheap khat leaves (mũgũũka) that provide short-term inspiration and focus, as well as an existential oblivion. ‘We chew to make time go’, Gaku, a 22-year-old on-off construction worker and youth footballer told me. He regularly spent his hours by the main thoroughfare of his home town of Chungwa, talking to his friends, waiting for a work opportunity to arise.

Clearly, ‘stress’ amounts to short-term concerns over money. But returning to Mwaura’s discourse, I want to argue that even for youths like Gaku, a definition of ‘stress’ can be extended to evoke not just money worries, but deeper forms of despair about a failure to achieve a good life. As Gaku’s 21-year-old age-mate Cash claimed, ‘When you come back, Peter, you will find us all married, with children. We won’t be living like this anymore.’ The desire to become ‘serious’ evokes not just adulthood, but the wealth required to reach it – the wealth to purchase land, to create home of one’s own, to provide for dependants. That such claims were made to me as a relative outsider speaks to their normative morality. These men claimed that one day, at least, they would become publicly recognised and upstanding persons.

If Kenyans live with aspiration as a burden, one that practically forces status competition, then it suggests that a greater focus must be placed not simply on the temporalities of uncertainties lived by people who generate their incomes in the informal economy, but on concrete aims and aspirations, and the material constraints that limit their achievement. Whilst anthropological accounts of precarity and precarious labour tend to favour a description of uncertainty itself, I suggest that my interlocutors are facing a more straightforward problem of accumulation under a form of capitalism that might produce growth, but rarely concomitant employment. In a world where accumulation is essential to accruing the signs of living a good life, pressure arises from a gulf in status that is transposed onto the difference between self and other. Such comparisons speak not only to despair, but to a terrain of envy emerging on Nairobi’s northern outskirts – a landscape of jealous dispossession under the shadow of rising aspiration.

Peter Lockwood is a Postdoctoral researcher on the Project Self-Accomplishment and Local Moralities in Eastern Africa (SALMEA) based at the Graduate Institute, Geneva and an Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Social Anthropology.

[1] This included a long period of doctoral fieldwork (January 2017 – July 2018, August 2019) spent living amongst smallholder farmers in Kiambu county experiencing Nairobi’s urban expansion approach them, and a further month of fieldwork (February – March 2022) following these transformations two years on.

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