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.’

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Living in the shadows of Dubai

Figure 1:. Dubai Marina, an affluent residential area in New Dubai. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015.  

By achieving economic success while embracing market friendly policies: lower taxes, free trade, privatization and deregulation, Dubai has earned the reputation as a neoliberal success story. As it is typical of neoliberal economic policies, economic growth has not trickled down to the people at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. Rather, inequality has been reenforced, and Dubai consists of two distinct parts: ‘Old’ Dubai housing and representing the distressed and economically disadvantaged, and ‘New’ Dubai where the economically and politically powerful live (see Figure 1 and 2).  Existence of poverty alongside wealth puts pressure on both poor and rich city residents. Among the poor, the kind of pressure they face usually is related to the lack of money to provide basic needs for themselves and their dependents, as highlighted in Dawson’s remarks on Johannesburg (Dawson 2020). On the other hand, the rich (and also the poor) face pressure caused by challenges that are psychological or social or both. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork with mostly African migrants in Dubai in 2015 and 2020, focusing particularly on their housing and labour market conditions, this piece’s central argument is that the extreme inequality in Dubai puts economic pressure on low-income migrants, the city’s poorest residents, while the juxtapositions of poverty and wealth right next to each other exert psychological pressure on the wealthy by instigating fear of low-income migrants because of crime concerns.

Figure 2: Deira, a district in Old Dubai where many low-income migrants live. Photograph by Jonathan Ngeh, 2015.  

With migrants accounting for over 80 percent of the population in Dubai and the UAE (de Bel-Air 2015, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2019), the city and country stand out as a leading immigration destination in the world. While some of the Africans I encountered in the UAE travelled for studies or tourism, the vast majority of them had migrated for economic reasons–in search of employment or with the intention to establish their own businesses. Convinced by the prospects of greener pastures in Dubai, these economic migrants spent their savings to pay for the migration journey. In some cases, migrants or family members borrowed money at high interest rates to cover the cost of migration. In either case, the financial obligations of African labour migrants in Dubai increased because of migration. Upon arrival in Dubai, they were shocked to realise that opportunities are limited and the living conditions for the majority of migrant workers are unbearable.

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Inner-city pressure and living somewhere in-between 

On a cold winter’s day in 2014, I sat awkwardly in the office of the person managing a high-rise apartment building in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD). The building is a former office block that has been renovated by the city’s largest private affordable housing company and is currently rented as residential accommodation. Affordable housing is commercial rental housing that caters to people who earn too much to qualify for state-subsidised housing, otherwise known as social housing, but too little to purchase their own properties on the regular market. Rents in the building in which this incident took place range from R1325 (£65 or Ksh9695) for a studio room to R3589 (£174 or Ksh26261) for a 2-bedroom apartment. I was in the building to interview the manager about the ins and outs of her job, and to then interview tenants living there. However, our interview was interrupted by a distraught tenant. She was visibly upset, and I soon realised that she had been locked out of her apartment. Unfortunately, this was not an exceptional situation. The housing company, like others working in Johannesburg’s inner-city, use lock-outs, or the threat thereof, to ensure that tenants pay their rent. Doing research into the inner-city rental housing market over a period of two years, I had frequently heard about the threat of lock-outs, but this was my first time witnessing the effects of one actually being enforced. Several building managers had told me that they find ways to avoid having to implement them, negotiating with tenants or giving them advanced warning so that they have time to scrounge money together to make a payment and stave off punishment. In this case, however, all efforts to prevent the lock-out had failed. It was the middle of the month, and rent, usually due on the 1st, still had not been paid. The building manager therefore had no choice but to adhere to the demands of her job, even though this had obviously disturbing and upsetting consequences. However, to mitigate the harm caused to the tenant and her young child, the manager, who also lives in the building, arranged for them to sleep in her own apartment that night, whilst they tried to locate some funds to begin repaying the debt. In this case, the pressures induced by fluctuating fortunes and a ruthless cost-recovery business model, as well as the strain to personal relations and consciences this induces, became stark.  

Although people living in affordable housing generally have stable salaries and employment, as the incident above shows, they too can experience downturns in luck, lose money and jobs and find themselves out on the street. Thus, whilst the plight of chronically un(der)employed people and those living in informal settlements is cause for concern and rightly receives much critical attention, it is important to bear in mind that the middle-classes too are caught between Johannesburg’s extremes. In what follows, I trace the (pre-covid-19) experiences of people living in social and affordable housing in inner-city Johannesburg. As will become clear, their lives are shaped by economic pressure, as they work hard to pay their rent and forgo other forms of social interaction whilst striving to get by. At the same time, they also encounter other forms of pressure, as they contend with difficult and unpleasant environments and navigate spaces marked by fear of crime and concerns about safety.  

Other pieces in this blog series have argued that pressure can be theorised as an imbalance between (real or imagined) economic demands and concomitant abilities to fulfil them. However, imbalances also extend beyond economic concerns and encompass desires about living situations, ease of daily life, and safety and security. In inner-city Johannesburg, pressure emanates from the fact that the prevailing urban reality does not match people’s aspirations for central accommodation that is close to jobs, schools and social services, but also provides comfort, peace of mind and liveable environments. Faced with this mismatch or imbalance between aspirations and reality, people are forced to live in-between, to reside somewhere and make do, whilst aspiring to be elsewhere, but simultaneously knowing that there are few avenues through which this aspiration can be realised. The cumulative effects of this pressure is a form of resignation and detachment, a sense of living in-between and accepting what one can get from a vastly unequal socio-economic landscape.  

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(De)pressurizing in urban centers beyond the megacity: notes on pressure from Nakuru, Kenya

On the 21st of November 2020, Mumbi Seraki – a YouTuber – uploads a new ‘prophetic update’ titled ‘They’ve CANCELLED CHRISTMAS!’. Her YouTube shows are followed by more than 60 000 followers across Sub Saharan Africa and deal with, what she refers to as, the ills of society, the struggles of African nations and ideas for a better Africa. She opens her ‘prophetic update’ with the following statement:

“I really do pray that you are well in all your ways and that you are moving into living life truly on your own terms and out of the ‘matrix’, so that you can be free and you won’t have to become one of these mask wearing zombies walking around. Really, get out of the big cities, if you can, don’t wait till the last minute.”

Seraki’s statements should be interpreted against the background of the Covid-19 havoc that raises questions about how safe it is to live in major cities such as Nairobi where most Covid-19 cases are being reported. Nonetheless, the image of cities populated by ‘zombies’ affirms questions about the (in)habitability of Kenyan cities increasingly beleaguered by the pressures and absurdities of late capitalism that were already relevant way before the pandemic. Her advice to liberate oneself from the ‘matrix’ of life in the capital by moving upcountry is particularly intriguing and will be further unpacked hereinafter.  

In this blogpost, I shed light on life ‘under pressure’ from the perspective of Nakuru, a vibrant secondary Kenyan city of approximately 500, 000 inhabitants situated 160 km Northwest of Nairobi, where I conducted more than 18 months of ethnographic research. My fieldwork shed light on how people in Nakuru made sense of their urban lifeworlds, yet did so with ‘heat’, a leitmotiv illuminating different ‘confrontations’ about a variety of opposing or cohesive uses, ideas and/or meanings of technologies, symbols, and substances that flow through the highland city.

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“There is a Lot of Pressure on Me. It’s Like the Distance Between Heaven and Earth” – Landscapes of Debt, Poverty-in-People and Social Atomization in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Jack Omondi Misiga

By Mario Schmidt, Eric Kioko, Evelyn Atieno Owino and Christiane Stephan

Everyday economic life in Nairobi has been transformed following the COVID-19 containment measures installed by the Kenyan government. In the immediate aftermath of Kenya’s first case reported on 13th March 2020, President Uhuru Kenyatta shut down air travel, introduced a nationwide curfew for the night hours, introduced a mask requirement, reduced passenger numbers in public transport, closed schools and institutions of higher learning and restricted social gathering. These measures set in motion transformations that span across various networks and scales of the urban. In order to analyze the effects of Kenya’s political elite’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic on urban households, we have teamed up with five Kenyan colleagues who conducted over two hundred qualitative interviews in different locales of Nairobi and Nakuru. In Nairobi, our assistants, who made sure that measures of COVID-19 containment and personal safety were respected, worked in the informal settlement Kibera, the low-income tenement settlement Pipeline (Embakasi), and Kileleshwa, home to richer Nairobians and expats. Our research assistants interviewed Nairobians from the age of twenty to over eighty years. Among the respondents were migrants and people born in Nairobi, casual, unemployed and laid-off workers, maids, housewives, Uber drivers, white collar workers, shop owners, club bouncers, artists, daycare owners, tailors who found a new job producing face masks, waiters, chefs as well as people employed by NGOs. 

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Blog Series: Pressure in the City

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The Covid-19 pandemic and the restructuring of the global economy it has triggered have exacerbated the need to study a topic that has flown under the radar of social scientists for too long: individuals and social groups experiencing economic pressure which manifests in myriad of somatic and psychological ways. The fallout from pressure — sleeplessness, ulcers, an atmosphere of hopelessness and social mistrust, gambling, suicides, as well as a growing concern about a lack of mental health facilities in cities of the Global South — now pervades urban as well as rural environments around the world. This blog series aims at taking a fresh look at the phenomenon of economic pressure through a decisively comparative and interdisciplinary approach. We will critically interrogate the role of economic pressure in the lives of both the rich and the poor, the unemployed and the workforce, across class and continents in order to answer, among others, the following questions:

  • What meanings does economic pressure take on as it travels between different contexts?
  • How do city dwellers of diverse class, religious and gender backgrounds experience pressure in their professional and private lives? How do they accommodate, negotiate and deflect pressure?
  • Does economic pressure offer new analytical possibilities vis-à-vis other concepts used to describe similar phenomena (e.g. poverty, uncertainty, precarity etc.)?
  • What is the relation between individually perceived economic pressure and structural changes of the economy or polity?
  • What moral valuations do urban residents assign to economic pressure? What logics underpin ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of pressure?
  • How can inter-disciplinary methodological and/or theoretical approaches deepen our understanding of economic pressure —the forms it assumes, the actions it motivates and the effects it generates?

We welcome contributions from a wide range of scientific disciplines (political economy, anthropology, economics, sociology, development studies, gender studies, international relations, geography, etc.) as well as other professions (such as practicing psychologists, counselors, activists, bankers, sports professionals etc.). As the blog’s organizers are all Africanists, the blog will, however, have an initial focus on sub-Saharan and, especially, Eastern Africa. We are confident that this will be balanced over time.

  • Pressure in the City: Stress, Worry and Anxiety in Times of Economic Crisis. The first contribution to the series, written by Jörg Wiegratz, Catherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt will detail the rationale of the series and provide necessary background information and context.
  • Urban Africa under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities. Written by the same four scholars, this post explains in more detail the objectives of our blog series intervention, and our observations regarding pressure as a social phenomenon in a capitalist city in the Global South. It introduces Nairobi as a city of pressure and critically discusses the scholarship on economic pressure. As such, it acts as an introduction to subsequent blogs on Nairobi as a city of pressure.
  • ‘There is a Lot of Pressure on Me. It’s Like the Distance Between Heaven and Earth’ – Landscapes of Debt, Poverty-in-People and Social Atomization in Covid-19 Nairobi. Written by Mario Schmidt, Eric Kioko, Evelyn Atieno Owino, and Christiane Stephan. This post sheds light on the multidimensional ways in which Kenya’s political elite’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has increased economic pressure on actors living in informal and low-income settlements of Nairobi (Kibera and Pipeline). It will be followed by a second post exploring the effects of the pandemic on inhabitants of Kileleshwa, a wealthier suburb of Nairobi.
  • ‘Life On These Stones Is Very Hard’ – House Helps in Covid-19 Nairobi. Written by Eric M. Kioko, Judith K. Musa, Mario Schmidt and Christiane Stephan, this blog focuses on the economic pressure experienced by women who lost jobs as house helps following the Covid-19 pandemic and how they manoeuvre their new economic situation within Nairobi’s richer suburbs.
  • “Under pressure”: negotiating competing demands and desires in a time of precarious earnings. Written by Hannah Dawson, this post examines the social and economic pressures faced by un(der)employed young men in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg. It highlights the multiplicity of demands on young men’s precarious incomes and the tension they experience from the simultaneous pressure to consume and improve their own lives while at the same time providing for their families and children.
  • (De)pressurizing in urban centers beyond the megacity: notes on pressure from Nakuru, Kenya. Written by Nick Rahier, this post sheds light on life ‘under pressure’ from the perspective of Nakuru, a vibrant secondary Kenyan city situated 160 km Northwest of Nairobi. It presents Nakuru as a place where pressure manifests itself as a highly volatile and affective state of being that is rich in meaning about what it means to (de)pressurize beyond the megacities.
  • Less flow, more pressure: accessing water in N’Djamena in times of Covid-19. Written by Ismaël Maazaz, this blog post looks at state policies designed to mitigate the economic pressure weighting on water end-users of N’Djamena, the capital of Chad in the midst of the pandemics in 2020. Such policies adversely affected the actual pipe water pressure, generating additional challenges.
  • Inner-city pressure and living somewhere in-between. Written by Aidan Mosselson, this blog post traces the (pre-covid-19) experiences of people living in social and affordable housing in inner-city Johannesburg. Inner-city residents contend with economic pressure, as they work hard to pay their rent and often forgo other forms of social interaction whilst they strive to get by. But pressures are also more-than-economic, and emanate from difficult and unpleasant environments and concerns about safety. Combined, these pressures create a state of resignation and being in-between, of living in an undesirable area, aspiring to be elsewhere, but unable to find somewhere better and still affordable.
  • Living in the shadows of Dubai. Written by Jonathan Ngeh, this blog post draws on the lived experiences of African migrants in Dubai to shed light on how economic inequality increases pressure on low-income migrants. Furthermore, it reveals how the existence of poverty alongside wealth puts pressure on not only the poor but also on the wealthy city residents.
  • Pressure to Succeed: From Prosperity, Stress (A reflection on aspiration in the new Kenya). Written by Peter Lockwood, the blog post draws attention towards the subjective experience of pressure to succeed, to ‘make it’, and live a good life, by Kenyan youth living on the northern outskirts of Nairobi. Departing from a purely economic understanding of pressure in the city, the blog highlights the feelings of shame and failure harboured by Kenyan youth unable to accumulate the wealth that would allow them to live good lives according to mainstream understandings of economic success’.

Blog series editors:

Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg. j.wiegratz@leeds.ac.uk.

Catherine Dolan is Reader in Anthropology at SOAS, University of London. cd17@soas.ac.uk

Wangui Kimari is a Postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. kuikimari@gmail.com

Mario Schmidt is Postdoctoral researcher at Collaborative Research Centre “Future Rural Africa” and a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities, University of Cologne. marioatschmidt@gmail.com

Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash

Pressure in the city: stress, worry and anxiety in times of economic crisis

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By Jörg WiegratzCatherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt

2020 may well be remembered as the year the global economy shut down. Airports have been closed, stock markets have crashed, and workers have been laid off en masse while politicians discuss if and how to reopen and restructure the economy. According to snapshot data, this economic turmoil has precipitated a global surge in anxiety, as people worry about their immediate and future financial situations. Their jobs, livelihoods and businesses, their incomes and finances, their assets and investments, their social relations and family ties, and their plans and dreams of economic progression, all seem on the brink of being fundamentally devalued. A now ubiquitous government response to COVID-19 – national lockdowns – has mandated the working class to stay home and worry about health first and livelihoods later. This dictate has pulverised the livelihoods of millions of people within a matter of days. Curfews, travel restrictions and other measures put into place to stop the spread of the virus are in the process of ravaging entire economic sectors (e.g. tourism and air travel, energy, export agriculture, personal services), undermining the prospect of growth for years to come. The hardest hit, however, are the poorest members of society: factory workers in India who left the cities and walked home to their villages in ‘an exodus not seen in decades’, Bangladeshi garment factory workers facing hunger and unexpected levels of poverty, as well as droves of US-Americans queuing for food stamps. All round is a picture of jobs lost, wages unpaid, contracts cancelled, futures foreclosed, and hunger and desperation for millions.Read More »

Urban Africa under Stress: Rethinking Economic Pressure in Cities

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By Jörg WiegratzCatherine Dolan, Wangui Kimari and Mario Schmidt

Research on economic pressure in Africa has been approached from diverse vantage points.  While economists frame ‘pressure’ as a consequence of market failures, or as a by-product of macro-economic measures such as structural adjustment reforms or technological and political change, anthropologists who zoom in on the economic pressures individuals face in their everyday lives, i.e. the lived experiences of those who are ‘under pressure’ have focused more on topics such as uncertainty and precarity. Alternatively, economic psychologists tend to naturalise pressure as an individual response to an adverse financial situation, eclipsing the varied ways pressure is intertwined with and shaped by broader societal transformations, power structures, social relations and obligations, and webs of exchange. There are currently no studies we are aware of that focus on the multi-faceted societal constitution of economic pressure in capitalist Africa, or that compare how pressure is experienced across gender, generation or socioeconomic groups.Read More »