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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Less flow, more pressure: accessing water in N’Djamena in times of Covid-19

“You need pressure to make water flow” Nikhil Anand

Pressure is not always a metaphor for “constraints” or “burden”; it is also a concrete and basic requirement for municipal water supply. Across many cities of the Global South, end-users, city officials, development NGO professionals or agents of the water business (street porters, water fountain managers or public water tap owners) struggle to provide and access water services – a process often characterized by negotiation and contestation. In N’Djamena, Chad, hardships linked to everyday water access fuel two distinct paradoxes. First, maintaining water pressure is a constant source of economic pressure. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, end-users were already compelled to adapt their “hydraulic habits” to their needs and financial resources. Evidence on the ground indicates that the pandemic has introduced a second paradox: the Chadian state has taken official steps to mitigate economic pressure in the daily life of inhabitants in Chad funding a 6 month free water policy, but this has done little in practice beyond decreasing the water pressure (the necessary force that pushes water through pipe, makes it flow and available to end-users) for N’Djamenois who need it most. As such, this blog post argues that economic pressure for the poor has increased while water pressure has dropped as a result of the pandemic and a government intervention that explicitly aimed at addressing the issue Quite predictably, the pandemic has generated additional economic constraints on informal businesses and might have complicated an already knotty landscape in addition to tremendous climate-related problems, foremost among them flooding. However, available evidence suggests that the policy designed to alleviate the burden of bills on those in need failed. Instead of increasing water availability, it reduced and in some cases even cut the water flow. The limited extension of the water supply network also made the policy pointless to many, while wealthier end-users connected to the water supply network enjoyed the policy as a bonanza. This demonstrates that infrastructural expansion, not just emergency funding, is critical to any meaningful water and sanitation improvements.

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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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“Under pressure”: negotiating competing demands and desires in a time of precarious earnings

A few years ago, during a year of ethnographic fieldwork with young un(der)employed men in a poor shack settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I found myself sitting in Senzo’s one-room shack on a foldout camping chair. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. Popular R&B music was blaring into the air from the nearby tavern. Senzo sat on his double bed. Soon after I arrived, Senzo handed me an ornate invitation with gold foil on the sides and his name on it. It was an invitation to the wedding of his cousin that was set to take place the following weekend. I asked Senzo if he planned to go. “I’m not going”, he told me, explaining that he had declined the invitation because, as he put it, “I don’t want to put more pressure on myself” describing the difficulties he already had paying rent, keeping up with outstanding debts, and supporting his girlfriend and children. Going to the wedding would require him to buy a fancy suit and a gift for the couple. This required money he didn’t have. The “pressure” Senzo described was not just the monetary cost of attending the wedding. It was also the feeling (what Senzo called “stress”) of being overburdened by competing demands on his money including buying consumer items, sending his children to good schools, and supporting family members. To understand the continuous “pressure” young men like Senzo face requires we give attention to the changing nature of work and the changing world of families in contemporary South Africa. As I show below the pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives. As such, I show how the   “income-demands gap” (a key catalyst of “pressure”) in young men’s lives is produced in and through specific (increasingly temporary rather than enduring) social relations and ties. 

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‘Life On These Stones Is Very Hard’ – House Helps in Covid-19 Nairobi

Photo: Eric Kioko, August 2020.

By Mario SchmidtChristiane Stephan, Kawikya Judith Musa and Eric M. Kioko 

Panic! Rush! Empty sacks! Women running! Big cars passing by! Boom! All women stare at the same spot on the road: a car passing by. Within seconds, many of them rush towards it. One who was selling roasted maize, water and a few more goods leaves her place of work opposite the road and runs towards the vehicle as well. Panic and competition are in the air. Within a few minutes, the women come back, discouragement and lack of morale palpable in their bodies and faces. “What happened?”, one of those left seated asks. “The driver didn’t think we were this many, so he closed the car´s door and left!”

This scene gives insight into dynamic moments taking place along the roadsides of Nairobi’s affluent suburbs since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. It displays the intensified competition characterizing the job market for informal house helps looking for work and financial or material assistance. Suburbs like Kileleshwa or Kilimani present an unusual picture to those accustomed to see African cities through photographs of slums and shantytowns. Yet, here we have elegant residential areas mushroomed in leafy environments, roads with pedestrian walkways for cycling and jogging, cosmopolitan coffee joints, posh malls, and police patrols.

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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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