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18 Conviviality and negotiations with belonging in urban Africa • Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Ingrid Brudvig

18 Conviviality and negotiations with belonging in urban Africa • Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Ingrid Brudvig

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Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Ingrid Brudvig

create enlightening prospects for reflecting upon the complex and nuanced dynamics of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and their manifestations in the everyday frontier lives of intimate strangers

in urban Africa.

Urban conviviality has little room for neat dichotomies emphasizing distinct places and

spaces for different social categories and hierarchies, as urbanites, like porcupines compelled to

huddle together to keep warm in winter, can ill afford to insist rising above the messiness of

everyday realities. The entangled, interconnected, or even mangled lives of urbanites suggest

an approach at understanding them that seeks to marry the emotional and the rational which

they embody as social and relational beings. While scholarly accounts of African mobility are

rich, varied, and commendable (De Bruijn et al. 2001; Adepoju 2002; Crush and Tevera 2010;

Crush and Frayne 2010; Landau 2011; Landau et al. 2013), they stand to be enriched by a broad

range of perspectives and narratives distilled away from the ivory towers of academia and its

logic of practice. Quantitative and survey-type studies proliferate, while there is a near absence

of ethnographic studies even of the worst type (Owen 2011; Nyamnjoh 2013). Capturing the

intricacies of mobile lives beyond the imperatives of objectivity and its veneer of rigour, entails

an approach that privileges dignity, a common humanity and reflectivity as permanent work

in progress (Nyamnjoh 2012b). This calls for greater modesty and open-mindedness in our

pursuits as scholars, as we are challenged to be forever mindful that no one has the monopoly

of insights, and often such insights might not be found in scholars but out there, amongst those

on whom we base our scholarship. The standard expectations of what constitutes a scholarly

text often do little justice to ‘the multivocal and multifocal dimensions of everyday negotiation

and navigation of myriad identity margins’ (Nyamnjoh 2013: 653). In welcoming the fluid

boundaries of belonging, we are led towards fiction and personalized accounts of belonging, as

these intimate tales complement scholarly perspectives on mobility, thereby interrogating fixed

notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘citizen’ and ‘subject’, ‘urban’ and ‘rural’, ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.

Participatory research methods, however profoundly engaging, should be harmonized with

alternative accounts, formed through narrative dialogue and reflexive considerations to ensure

a multiplicity of perspectives that is critical to the production of knowledge (Nyamnjoh 2011,

2012a, 2012b, 2013).

Belonging, its trials and tribulations

While forces of globalization have fostered increased functional integration in the world

economy, trends towards cosmopolitanism are, quite surprisingly, often impeded by hardened

ideas of who belongs where, with whom, and under what conditions. The upsurge of political obsessions with belonging, best demonstrated by the excluding of ‘strangers’ from constitutional rights and social life and in various countries both in Africa and around the world,

appears counter to the prospects of global market integration and capital flows (Geschiere and

Nyamnjoh 2000; Ceuppens and Geschiere 2005). The exclusion of socially constructed ‘outsiders’ and the ever diminishing circles of belonging manifest through unexpected forms and

equally unexpected force with which individuals and communities are claiming authenticity

and autochthony over particular localities, cultures, and identities (Geschiere 2009; Comaroff

and Comaroff 2009). The rapidly increasing mobility of people nationally and transnationally

has generated a powerful renaissance of the rhetoric of ‘purity’ and ‘belonging’. Rooted in

local politics and at the intersections beyond the local and the global, claims to belonging – and

therefore to special rights and entitlement to resources and freedoms – are not new, but have

re-emerged with force in the twenty-first century. This has led to increasingly socially tenuous

predicaments for those who inhabit African cities as crucibles of composite identities (Devisch


Conviviality and belonging in urban Africa

1996; Simone and Abouhani 2005; De Boeck 2008, 2009, 2010; Freund 2009; Landau 2011;

Bekker and Therborn 2012; Ardayfio-Schandorf et al. 2012; Yengo 2012; Pieterse and Simone

2013), as density and diversity are frowned upon in the interest of fantasies of purity, beauty, and

autonomy (Jacobs [1961] 2011). However, negotiating the boundaries of being an insider or an

outsider should be always a work in progress. Belonging is permanently subject to renegotiation

and is best understood as relational and situational. This mandates the need to understand interconnecting global and local hierarchies – be these informed by race, place, class, culture, gender,

age, or otherwise – that shape connections and disconnections, and produce, reproduce, and

contest distinctions between insiders and outsiders as political and ideological constructs which

defy empirical reality (Nyamnjoh 2013: 654).

Urban modes of mobility in Africa

Mobility and migration are the order of the day in African cities and urban spaces (De Bruijn

et al. 2001; Adepoju 2002; Crush and Tevera 2010; Crush and Frayne 2010; Landau 2011).

Migration is often, but not exclusively, a survival response. The need to become mobile may be

imperative when citizens and subjects in urban or rural spaces and places endure insecurities that

limit their access to basic needs through normal channels. Further, when not simply relegated

from ‘townsmen’ to ‘tribesmen’ by apartheid-type legislation and inequalities (Mayer 1971),

without the certainty of regular employment or of a place to call home and without hope for a

sustainable livelihood or access to satisfactory medical and educational services, urban residents

become uncommitted to locality in the long term (Bank 2011). Despite family or other emotive commitments to locality, ‘home’ becomes an encumbrance when it no longer serves critical

needs. One may respond to emerging insecurities by moving more frequently and with short

notice, in which forging tactical alliances becomes critical (Murray and Myers 2006:119; Sharp

2008). Conviviality emerges through the formation of such tactical alliances, as they are often

crafted out of mutual need – a reciprocity that holds great value in the context of urban anonymity. Mobile encounters involve experiments with multiple, layered, and shifting identities that

are tried and tested through convivial interactions (Owen 2011; Nyamnjoh 2011, 2012a, 2013).

In Chinua Achebe’s novel Arrow of God Ezeulu advises: ‘The world is like a Mask dancing.

If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place’ (Achebe 1974: 46). To observe urban

Africa in motion we must take a closer look at mobile urbanites in urban transport. The experience of urban mobility is marked not only by encounters between and beyond cities, but also

by the experience of travelling within cities. Transit typifies both tales of travel and the experiences of urban life (Malaquais 2006: 38). Modes of transport are reflective of sociopolitical

histories, relations with public service, and local economies. In South Africa, for example, urban

public transport continues to be premised on the vestiges of urban socio-spatial and racialized

distancing instilled by apartheid geography. The post-national liberation period in South Africa

has witnessed continuing socio-economic marginalization of the majority of those previously

excluded under apartheid. Dawson elaborates: ‘Despite evidence of a burgeoning black middle

class – commonly referred to as South Africa’s “black diamonds” – the extension of citizenship to scores of poor, black South Africans has meant very little’ (Dawson 2010: 382). Cape

Town in particular, continues to endure urban separation and social segregation, characterized

by divisions of society based on identity, what Arturo Escobar (2008) terms a ‘political ecology

of difference’. Despite a discourse of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘democratic practice’, the city continues

to suffer from the effects of the past, which manifest through spatial distancing and social noninteraction amongst groups (Morgan and Guerrero Casas 2013). Thus, barriers to creating a

deracialized society persist, as space continues to define access to resources, services, and land;


Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Ingrid Brudvig

patterns of inclusion and exclusion; and relationships of power – both between socio-economic

and political groups and within specific communities (Harris 2003). Further, the trends towards

a discourse of cosmopolitanism are, quite surprisingly, often refuted by hardened ideas of who

belongs where, with whom, and under what conditions. This continues to create fragmented

spaces that prejudice inclusive means of transport, as township localities are dispersed and

located farther away from major industrial and commercial towns than localities of their rising

class counterparts. The spatial polarities of urban habitats create transport burdens that further

distance urban neighbourhoods (Adeboyejo et al. 2011: 57; Cross 2013; Landau et al. 2013).

Paradoxically, national citizenship and its emphasis on large-scale, assimilationist, and bounded

notions of belonging (Nyamnjoh 2007b) fares poorly in a context characterized by disparate

access, inherent urban contradictions, and facades of social unity.

The ubiquity of the kombi

Informal transport systems, such as that of the minibus taxi or kombi, an urban transport bus,

provide a critical source of transport given the predicaments of spatial distancing and lack of

transport alternatives in urban African cities. Celebrated as one of the most extraordinary socioeconomic phenomena (Khosa 1991), advocates of free-market enterprise see the growth of the

kombi industry as indispensible to the economy. Beyond their obvious utilitarian function,

kombis provide a window on many socio-economic and political facets of postcolonial Africa.

They are associated, as Mutongi writes,

with issues of organized crime, indigenous entrepreneurship and informal economies, transition to democracy and to free market economies, class and respectability, popular culture,

globalization, and rural-urban migration. They have also served as public sites where gossip

is exchanged, fashions are displayed, politics are disputed, and crimes are perpetrated.

(Mutongi 2006: 550)

Kombis provide a critical linkage between places of residency – including spaces of variants of

wealth and marginality – and places of employment and public life. Ubiquitous to African cities,

kombis represent a realm of mobility where socio-economic, cultural, and political ideas and

values become public and contested. Thus, informal transport in African cities allows for greater

public participation, social mobility, and perhaps even class abatement (Marshall 1963; Dawson

2010: 382) in ways that actualize both the possibilities and limitations of citizenship.

Dominant and often publicly preferred over formal means of public transport (Kumar and

Barrett 2008), kombis, maintained by self-employed drivers, perform a critical role in the public

transport industry. Since their profit is dependent upon presence, efficiency, and, critically, the

maintenance of conviviality – including safety and trust – within the industry, prejudices are

disincentivized in favour of collectivity, real or enacted. The often fierce competition among

kombi drivers rarely spills over to involve passengers, although, as Kenda Mutongi (2006) argues

in relation to the matatu in Kenya, passengers are sometimes co-creators of the fierce entrepreneurship and thuggery often associated with the minibus taxi industry. Conviviality in the

kombi industry is dependent upon a web of social and economic relations between drivers and

passengers, whose differences (which are often confronted in public spaces of mobilities) must

be put aside, if only momentarily, in order for individuals to continue to reap mutual benefit.

For many trapped in poverty and crammed ghettos this provides rare occasions to fulfil their

expectations of citizenship otherwise confined to abstract statements in constitutions and public

pronouncements by politicians.


Conviviality and belonging in urban Africa

Bellville as a place of transit

Drawing upon Bellville – a commercial trading area located approximately 25 kilometres from

Cape Town and centrally connected via kombi and train and bus stations – one may argue that

mobility is definitive of social life and citizenship, rather than exceptional. Mobility is ‘ubiquitous’ (Adey 2010: 1). It is experienced all the time and in many different forms such as through

transport, daily routines in and around Bellville, and by way of life histories that have become

characterized by movement. While people move in and out of Bellville, services, information,

capital, and goods too become mobile (Adey 2010: 3). This has created an infrastructure of

mobility that is characteristic of ‘spaces of flows’ (Adey 2010: 11). Bellville is representative of a

plethora of urban spaces, characterized by mobilities and interconnection in Africa, where mobility is distinctive both for those who come and go on a daily basis and for those who are – or have

become – more or less ‘regulars’ there. Public transport stations of Bellville are characteristic of

close and varied as well as anonymous and fleeting encounters (Frank and Stevens 2007: 78),

where social relations become constituted through various entities – what Latour (cited in Urry

2008: 13) calls ‘circulating entities’ – that bring about relationality within and between localities

at varied distances. As urban spaces characterized by transit become increasingly diverse – frequented, as Bellville is, by local and pan-African migrants seeking income-generating opportunities such as informal trading, shopkeeping, and other ad hoc livelihoods – the spaces too become

symbolic of movement and transition informed by ideas of being, redefining urban space in light

of its multiple connections that cut across citizenship, place, and locality. We might suggest that

belonging is, therefore, permanently subject to renegotiation – best understood as relational to

the space, place, and landscape of mobilities in which it is situated. In places such as Bellville,

belonging and citizenship are not inherently mutual and, as such, rights and privileges to the city

do not inherently conflate with both citizenship and the sentiment of belonging.

The functionality of public transport services and the significance of the stations as prominent landmarks in Bellville are dependent upon a fine line of conviviality. As a multitude of

travellers pass in, out, and through, each day, the kombi station becomes a place of intense

negotiation and interaction, sometimes good and sometimes bad. In a place where the national

reserve patrol commuter trains (Tyger Burger 2012) and migrants claim ‘you must ride in first

class, or they may beat you up and throw you out the window’ (interview on March 15, 2013

in Bellville), it is clear that daily mobility in Cape Town poses the potential for violence and

intimidation. Public transport stations are places where differences meet, where forms of collective life and collective experiences of otherness take shape. The kombi station may be analysed

as a ‘heterotopic space’ (Foucault, 2007) – a space where conviviality is often contested, critical

to the spatial dimensions of citizenship amongst migrant and local communities; or amongst

those who may not otherwise find themselves in such close encounters with perceived ‘others’.

The kombi station becomes a space of conflict and competition as people struggle to meet their

own personal objectives and to define their place and others’ spaces. Bursts of deadly confrontation and conflict frequently erupt between taxi associations over control of stations and routes,

‘pirates’ (illegal market entry), and the number of taxis that a single operator can maintain

without monopolizing the market. Known as ‘taxi wars’, conflict in the kombi industry is often

violent and frequently leads to death and the destruction of property (Khosa 1991: 239). As the

kombi station in Bellville demonstrates, conviviality may be a difficult force to cultivate and

maintain, requiring vigilance and even suffering in order to collectively deter negativity and

maintain equal accessibility to a critical service such as daily public transport.

Bellville, as a place of rapid movement and interchange of people, largely propelled by economic activities, daily transport services, and a myriad of other ways of getting by, is representative


Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Ingrid Brudvig

of the possibilities for conviviality. Bellville, as a space of mobility, is a place shared by international migrants (such as the large numbers of Somalis who have established businesses and diaspora networks that involve Bellville), South African migrants (such as those who have migrated

from other regions for work and income-generating strategies), and ‘locals’, as well as people

passing through. Conviviality emerges in public places of transit such as Bellville because of the

dynamics of social capital and forms of local governance that encourage notions of inclusion

and belonging for people whose affiliations to South Africa represent a spectrum of citizenship

possibilities. As a kombi driver who transits in and out of Bellville remarked, ‘The taxi rank is

the safest place of Bellville – if anyone steals from you then others will see and they will protect

you’ (interview on September 15, 2012 in Bellville). Furthermore, there is an informal office at

the taxi rank in Bellville where ‘if any taxi driver upsets a customer, the customer can report it to

this office and the driver will get the shit beaten out of him’ (ibid.). Public transport unites those

who otherwise may not associate; once conflict erupts and destroys mutual benefit, one realizes

that differences must be put aside. The thorny nature of human intimacy that is realized through

public transport leads us to question whether autonomy can bear the closeness that dependence

demands. Social codes while travelling in transit – so called transit mannerisms – are reflective of

the moderate distance which people discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse;

and those who transgress it are roughly told to keep their distance. This is representative of how

the sentiment of belonging rests on a foundation of collectivity within individuality. Collectivity

may be motivated by personal insecurity and communal desires for safety, generated by the

uncertainties associated with mobility.

Mobile lives and literary mobility

The marriage of ethnographic research techniques and fictional narratives creates enlightening

prospects for reflecting upon the dynamic interconnections of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ and their

fleeting interactions while in transit. Fiction techniques further contextualize the emergence of

conviviality in the lives and experiences of characters, highlighting the context of their mobility and their experience of negotiating the parameters of belonging. Most scholarly accounts

of African mobility and citizenship (including ethnography) are limited to the extent that they

often fail to capture the complexities and nuances of mobile Africans. However, fictional literature succeeds in narrating the everyday, thus mitigating the empirical nature of so-called

social scientific studies in which subjects are often represented as research subjects rather than

characters with personalities, feelings, and personal and social beliefs. Belonging has become a

fervent desire expressed through a deepening nostalgia for ‘indigenous’ origination, a patrolling

for ‘authentic’ citizens, and a discourse of heterogeneous group identity. However, such notions

are often left uncaptured by scholarship through its reproduction of bounded notions of belonging. It is, therefore, through fiction and the use of narrative techniques that the experience of

belonging in the everyday becomes compassionately portrayed (Nyamnjoh 2011, 2012a, 2012b,


Narrative fiction, the ethnographic imaginary, and citizenship’s nuanced forms

The case has been made for the need for ethnography in understanding the relationships that

make citizenship materialize in nuanced and complex ways that authenticate or challenge its

legalities and abstractions. Thus, for example, Nevue et al. (2011: 946), argue that an ethnographic approach ‘underscores the importance of being attentive to the specific ways in which

citizenship is mobilized, without subsuming it under a universal narrative or theory’. Just as legal


Conviviality and belonging in urban Africa

indicators are hardly adequate for measuring the meaning of citizenship in Africa (Manby 2009),

we argue that an ethnographic imaginary does not suffice to correct the limitations of an abstract

and legalistic approach to citizenship. There is great value in the twinning of ethnography with

fiction to demonstrate the resurgence of identity politics and guarded intimacy amongst intimate

strangers in contemporary Africa (Nyamnjoh 2011, 2012a). The everyday reality of insiders and

outsiders within the contexts of postcolonial Africa are explored narratively through works of

fiction such as Intimate Strangers (Nyamnjoh 2010) and A Nose for Money (Nyamnjoh 2006b).

The thrills and tensions, possibilities and dangers, and rewards and frustrations of social, cultural

and physical boundary-making and boundary-crossing are narrated, for example, in Intimate

Strangers (Nyamnjoh 2010). A complex fictionalization of ‘the everyday’, Intimate Strangers demonstrates the experience of navigating the waters of belonging in an African city as negotiator

and navigator of various mobility and identity margins. It evokes empathy in the reader, as a

reflexive reading creates a ‘mirror effect’; its messages may be wholeheartedly familiar to many.

In the tale, Immaculate, an outsider, a stranger, a makwerekwere, follows her fiancé to Botswana

only to find he has gone to the United States and refuses to marry her. Immaculate is, however,

determined to outwit victimhood. She recounts,

I was disappointed, and jilted, and thinking about my parents. Everybody asked me to

come home. But I thought, ‘Do I want to show them I failed?’ That’s what came into my

mind … Tough as the going was, I was determined to stick in there and hope for the best.

Like a proud hunter, I refused to go home until there was game to show and share.’

(Nyamnjoh 2010: 20)

Despite operating at the ‘margins of society’, Immaculate encounters a transnational researcher,

Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny, who takes her on as a research assistant. Through her research on

‘maids and madams’, Immaculate learns how maids struggle to make ends meet and how their

employers wrestle to keep them as ‘intimate strangers’. The reader is brought into Immaculate’s

everyday world – introduced to what it means to be an intimate stranger – as the relationships

that Immaculate forges with locals, citizens, and fellow outsiders of various backgrounds and

social positions shed light on the experience of negotiating belonging in a foreign country.

Immaculate’s encounters while travelling in kombis in Botswana demonstrates her experience

in negotiating the boundaries of identity and belonging as a foreigner. Local social codes and

mannerisms known and employed ‘naturally’ by so-called citizens leave her vulnerable, as she is

yet to be acculturated into the know-how and lingo of informal taxis in Botswana. However,

such proficiency is only gained through experience. She feels amateur in this new locality and

bases her actions on the mannerisms learned in kombis in her home country. Despite her perceived social location as an ‘outsider’ or makwerekwere in other public and fleeting encounters,

she is surprised to be neutrally, even positively, accommodated in the kombis in Botswana. She

is welcomed as an intimate stranger by those who might otherwise perceive her as profoundly

‘other’. Drawing upon Nyamnjoh’s fictionalized account, his character, Immaculate, notes:

When I would go forward to the kombi driver, he would say in Setswana, ‘Pay the fare.’

Although I didn’t understand a word, I knew he wanted the money. So all the coins I had

in my hand, I would just give them to this guy, which would sometimes annoy him, as he

would have to spend time counting the money to find the right amount … What really

impressed me about Botswana was, this guy didn’t say, ‘Oh, she is a foreigner! She doesn’t

know anything.’ Even when annoyed, he would count the money patiently, take his and

hand back my balance. I was so impressed. Back at home, there are situations where they


Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Ingrid Brudvig

will not bother about change. They will just take your money and go. But here, they have

done like the bus driver to me in several cases. If I give too much money, they’ll say, ‘No,

take your change.’ They will not just keep quiet the way people would most likely do back


(Nyamnjoh, 2010:32)

Immaculate’s experience travelling in the kombi evokes her comparative consideration of ‘us’

and ‘them’ – redefining her own self-perceived status and the extent to which she is perceived to

‘authentically belong’ amongst citizens who might otherwise seek to take advantage of her as a

newcomer. Rather than being subjected to social vulnerability, a victim on whom to prey, she is

treated as any other citizen would be treated. The kombi, as a realm of belonging, rests on a fine

line of conviviality, as the balance between autonomous, perhaps desirable, self-enhancement, in

the case of Immaculate, may be sacrificed for collective long-term business goals and professionalism. Of course, this is not always the case, and tales from Bellville and elsewhere demonstrate

how migrants and non-nationals, in particular, are taken advantage of – such as by being told

that they have not yet paid, when in fact they have, forcing them to pay triple the fare lest they

be harassed and further demonized for being foreign. As Intimate Strangers demonstrates, it is

through literary forms and emotional appraisal that the tensions of being, belonging and becoming that bring together different worlds are explored through dimensions of servitude, mobility,

marginality, transit and transition (Nyamnjoh 2013:664).

Fictionalizing the irony of citizenship and its encounters

In another instance in A Nose for Money (Nyamnjoh 2006b), Prospère, a migrant worker

employed by the Mimboland Brewery Company as a delivery driver, laments having to battle

traffic upon his return home to his wife Rose. The passage is reflective of convivial trials, bribing, and relationships that emerge while in transit and represent the performance of public

citizenship. It provides a metaphor for the experience of battling for upward social mobility in

Douala, Cameroon and of negotiating one’s relationship as an ‘insider’. While stuck in traffic,

people seek to enhance their prospects for any further mobility – drivers attempt to circumnavigate and in doing so challenge not only fellow-drivers but driving codes; street hawkers descend

on travellers who remain stuck without the prospect of mobility, their own mobility resting

upon the chance that travellers may be convinced towards gestures of goodwill to pass the time;

and police prey physically and emotionally on people’s desperation in the face of immobility,

accepting gifts as favours of institutionalized conviviality. Nyamnjoh writes:

It was noon and the traffic was heavy as usual. The sound of impatient hooting filled the air

as civil servants hurried home for their midday break. Cars jostled one another as they each

tried to take advantage of little openings here and there, now and again, on the intensely

pot-holed roads. Prospère was angry and impatient with the crawling traffic. Old battered

cabs in yellow claimed both the roads and the sidewalks, stopping and starting with no

regard for other vehicles. In connivance with their obstructions were policemen, stopping

them not to address such irregular driving but to bore their way into the day’s earnings.

There was nothing he hated so much as having to wait when he had something pressing to

do, and getting back home to Rose, who spent so much time alone, was pressing enough.

He fumed at the cab driver and policeman exchanging papers and money in front of him.

He worked hard for his money, and didn’t like the thought of passing it over to law

enforcement agents for nothing other than the right to go home. More than once he


Conviviality and belonging in urban Africa

gambled with a tum into a side street, but the situation was never any better, and he only

cursed his impatience or blamed others the more. Everywhere the traffic was thicker than

the number of trees in the rubber plantation of the Mimboland Development Corporation

of Kotim, and slower than a funeral procession. The fact that seven out of every ten drivers

on the road at that time knew next to nothing about the Highway Code, only made matters worse. Driving in this car-infested pot-holed city of Sawang wasn’t fun even at the best

of times. At least not for him.

(Nyamnjoh, 2006b:3–4)

Such traffic jams are a common occurrence in African cities (Mutongi 2006; Kumar and Barrett

2008), as the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti of Nigeria reminds us in his song, Go Slow, released in


In another instance, Prospère finds his fate suddenly changed upon meeting two men on the

side of the road desperate for car assistance after running out of fuel. Nyamnjoh writes,

Prospère decided to give them a chance, his fears notwithstanding. Drivers and road users

in general are forced to show solidarity towards one another. If you fail to help a fellow

driver out of his mechanical hiccups or fuel problems, tomorrow it could well be your turn.

One good turn deserves another. Who could drive on these roads without the assistance of


(Nyamnjoh 2006b: 33)

Prospère’s acquaintance with Jean-Marie and Jean-Claude, two counterfeiting and moneydoubling businessmen, is driven by the hope of mutual opportunity. Circumstances of conviviality that guide their relationship change his life prospects, which the reader experiences

alongside their unravelling. A myriad of encounters, negotiations, and navigations of difference

influence Prospère’s life, and he embodies the idea of flexible mobility and flexible identities –

the composite reality of being African in an urban context where individuals are challenged

to embrace, internalize, and celebrate multiple dimensions of being and belonging to steer (or

become steered by) their life circumstances.

Porcupines and the predicament of space

Cities in urban Africa may be seen as communities of ‘intimate strangers’, regardless of what

the law and fundamentalist tendencies towards frozen and fortressed articulations of belonging

might suggest.The occupation of a shared urban space and similarities of motives for journeying

towards a life in the city evoke an intimacy driven by collective experiences. However, intimacy is subjugated by the politics of belonging, creating tensions that forever hold ‘strangers’ an

arm-and-a-half ’s length away. Urbanites are like Schopenhauer’s porcupines, their quills out to

protect against even the most warm-hearted neighbours. Like the porcupines in Schopenhauer’s

parable – who shuffle closer together seeking mutual warmth, only to feel the mutual effects of

their own quills and shuffle back – an equilibrium point is reflective of the harsh contrariety of

their context (Schopenhauer 1974; Farmer 1998). Defensive quills create a ‘protective’ barrier,

reasserting notions of ‘self ’ and distancing from the ‘other’.

Physically intimate as a result of the overcrowded and often uncomfortable commute in

minibus taxis, kombis and matatus, passengers’ defensive quills are reflected through mannerisms

such as the agentive retreat into earphones or mobile phones, signifying unavailability to those

whose quills already reach too close. Yet, every daily experience of the tensions and dangers of


Francis B. Nyamnjoh and Ingrid Brudvig

quills are subtle calls to detect and institutionalize ongoing strategies towards conviviality for

all porcupines involved. The stories of Immaculate and Prospère demonstrate how intimate

strangers’ convivial encounters with one another reflect new and emerging identities, new social

paradigms, and emerging configurations of urban rights and employment.


The rapid growth of cities has gone hand in hand with social confrontations over the use of

urban space. Citizenship and belonging are negotiated in spaces of public transit, and, as demonstrated by way of example, Bellville’s transit points for trains, taxis, and buses are dependent

upon a fine line of conviviality. As a multitude of travellers pass in, out, and through each day,

the zones of mobility and public transport become places of intense negotiation and interaction, sometimes good and sometimes bad. Conviviality emerges in the frequent interplay

between dynamics of group autonomy on the one hand and interdependent communalism of

groups on the other hand. Tensions are often put aside out of mutual necessity to make one’s

way throughout the city. Conviviality emerges out of the necessity to earn one’s living, to

surmount the tensions and divisions of inequality with attempts at flexibility propelled by the

need to get by. Conviviality, in many ways, results from compliances with cultural implications of power. Its intricacies in the lived everyday are, in fact, steeped in tensions. Fiction captures the essences of conviviality as it is experienced in the everyday lives of intimate strangers

and insiders and outsiders, thus enriching empirical research methods and the knowledge they


As Immaculate recounts to Dr Winter-Bottom Nanny in Intimate Strangers, ‘Life in the

kombi, I think it just depends where you come from, who you meet, what makes them look at

you, and how you take it all in’ (Nyamnjoh, 2010:33). Urban negotiations over citizenship and

belonging emerge in individualized, yet anonymous spaces, frequented by ‘intimate strangers’

whose closeness and shared social codes become the basis for new and enlightening prospects for

inclusion. Kombis and other forms of informal public transport in African cities provide critical

spaces for understanding interconnecting global and local hierarchies – be these informed by

race, place, class, culture, gender, age, or otherwise – that shape connections and disconnections, and produce, reproduce, and contest distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Political

and ideological constructs prove themselves futile when those who might otherwise employ

a discourse of difference realize the economic necessity of maintaining a fine balance of collectivity. Such is the nature of conviviality, as it emerges from recognition of destruction and a

conscious effort to positively reconstruct.


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