UCL Urban Laboratory


Transcript: Black Urbanisms and Theorising from Africa


urban, land, cities, simone, professor, settling, inhabiting, ucl, blackness, fragility, spaces, notion, residents, black, terms, podcast, land ownership, settlement, salaam, occupy


Dr Evance Mwathunga, Dr Wilbard Kombe, Dr Alana Osbourne, Professor AbdouMaliq Simone

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  00:00

There is a sense of being able to live within that place, not just by simply settling there but to inhabit. So it's going to break the equation between inhabitation and settlement.

Dr Alana Osbourne  00:16

Hi, and welcome to the final episode of this UCL podcast series on black urbanisms. In this episode, we continue to put Professor AbdouMaliq Simone's work on blackness and the urban in conversation with scholars who also presented during the At the Frontiers of the Urban conference in November 2019. We would like to clarify that the authentic way to pronounce his name is AbdouMaliq Simone. However, to keep in line with the pronunciation of his name in other audio excerpts, and to ensure clarity for who is being referenced, we will be using AbdouMaliq Simone across the series. This episode will focus on presentations that were part of the 'Urban Studies starting in Africa' panel. I want to start by probing the relationship between black urbanisms, and land governance in African cities. This leads me to Dr. Wilbard Kombé, professor of urban land management and director of the Institute of Human Settlements Studies at Ardhi University. Professor Kombe's research in Dar es Salaam and Mwanza in Tanzania shows us thaat unregulated transformations have given rise to spontaneous innovations at the grassroots level where local communities are creating informal platforms for negotiations and interventions. Here's a clip from his talk.

Dr Wilbard Kombe  01:40

I'm going to look largely at the regulatory framework, the policies which are in place and which ought to provide for land acquisition. Often land is acquired before funds are available, therefore, people are kept at bay for months, years and years before they are paid compensation. At the same time with land governance, is a problem - land records information are lacking. We do not have this yet in the country: who owns what. All about 12% of the land is registered, which means the rest of the land is not registered. Little transparency and accountability and democratic governance is the question and the question in terms of how the government officials and the government institutions operate and make a decision with the rest of the people in the land. Black deals, corruption and bribery, village leaders and the district authorities deciding and allocating land beyond their limitations. Villagers are supposed to allocate up to 50 acres but often corruptly does collude with the with the district officials who allocate hundreds of acres to investors.  Hi, my name is Wilbard Kombe. And I work for the Ardhi University in Dar es Salaam. My areas of specialisation are essentially town planning, low income settlements, as well as about service delivery, urban inequality, and a bit of climate change.

Dr Alana Osbourne  02:59

Hi, Dr. Kombe, really excited to be speaking with you. I want to further understand these ideas around urban precarity in East African cities like Mwanza or Dar es Salaam, and how this might relate to Professor Simone's notion of black urbanisms. Do you see a link between your work and black urbanisms as both precarious and creative urban strategies?

Dr Wilbard Kombe  03:23

Yeah, for example, in Mwanza we see fragility in terms of accessibility, in terms of of deprivation of basic services which are necessary, fragility in terms of the housing quality and livability of the environment, this will be apparent. There are a lot of spaces which offer opportunities and give us optimism. Despite being being dysfunctional, they remain vibrant, indispensable habitats of our people, of many of our people, and they are serving the roles of economic generators of their countries; still a larger part of our per capita is generated in cities. That's one thing. This is quite common in Dar es Salaam and in Mwanza. And in these cities if you are walking downtown in a neighbourhood, you will see these dynamics of activities formal and informal, woven together to create a very vibrant city.

Dr Alana Osbourne  04:30

Thank you for these insights Dr. Kombé. I think you've highlighted something really interesting here. This notion that despite infrastructural fragility, citizens often find ways to repair and get by creatively. In this context, black urbanisms are again, very generative. I now turn to Dr. Evance Mwathunga. In his talk at the UCL conference, he explained how important it is to start with what happens on the ground, as the basis from which to theorise urban practices. Here's an extract of that talk.

Dr Evance Mwathunga  05:05

So, as we are trying to understand how cities are produced, as we are trying to understand urbanism from the point of the global south, we cannot undermine the importance of the traditional authorities because of how they are perceived and how they are trusted by the urban residents. On the basis of these perceptions, you find that these urban residents, they find a way of producing urban spaces, and there are various tactics that people engage in. In the case of Lilongwe sometimes they can use temporal mechanisms of accessing urban areas, maybe temporal farming. This is where they just invade land in an urban area, they start engaging in farming, with the prospect of reclaiming that land later, as their own land, sometimes using temporary shelter to show that they have occupied that piece of land.

Dr Alana Osbourne  06:05

I want to connect this to Professor Simone's description of blackness and how it explores the idea of inhabiting without settling. Maybe like residents in Lilongwe, who claim land and build on it with the hope but without any guarantee of legal ownership. Let's hear Professor Simone as he explains it,

Professor AbdouMaliq Simone  06:24

We always usually conflated that is to inhabit means to settle. And is there a way in which that places can be inhabited without necessarily settling them or being settled in settled within them? Is there a way to participate in the experience of place through this notion of again, of passing? And again, the notion of thresholds about we're always going from one to the other and how is it that we do it? So it is the undoing of the world, if one looks at the kind of present situation in which the world is in some sense being really undone in the most banal re-invocations of white privilege that really are no longer able to secure themselves that prompts a kind of detachment.

Dr Evance Mwathunga  07:12

Hi, my name is Dr. Evanc Mwathunga, a senior lecturer in human geography and urban planning at the University of Malawi Chancellor College in Zomba.

Dr Alana Osbourne  07:14

Welcome, Dr. Mwathunga. I want to know if blackness as used by Professor Simone is a useful analytical tool to think about Lilongwe. So what are your thoughts on how Professor Simone redefines blackness in relation to the concept of inhabiting without settling and how do you relate it to what takes place in the land claims of Lilongwe's urban fringe?

Dr Evance Mwathunga  07:49

in understanding blackness in the context of Lilongwe city, the precarity that is observed among the landless, fits in very well with Professor Simone's notion of inhabiting without settling right from the beginning. Lilongwe city was designed in such a way that wealthier groups, the higher income groups were located closer to the city centre. Centrality and ability to occupy the city centre, the attractive and the most accessible parts of the city was a privilege of a European or the wealthier groups in society. The poor had their locations displaced to the outskirts of the city. And they have to commute on daily basis from the outskirts into the city centre. And in the evening, they go back to the outskirts. But over time, individual residents have continuously contested and challenged this notion of a garden city. They have ended up invading urban spaces. They have ended up appropriating urban land. They don't have legitimate titles and rights to settle or to occupy these spaces. So this to me demonstrates the ability and the power of those that are excluded in the production of these capitalist spaces. To be able to to exercise agency and produce spaces, according to their desires.

Dr Alana Osbourne  10:07

The way you describe relations of land ownership and the reclaiming of urban space, reminds me of Dr. Helene Neveu Kringlebach's work on performative practices in Dakar. What I see in your work is a similar invitation to rethink concepts of ownership and settlement, pushing us to consider how residents make sense of various patterns of land ownership and governance, and how they negotiate these through creative strategies. Thank you for thinking with me about how we might use Professor Simone's provocations in our work. In cities across Africa and beyond, it's clear that the concept of blackness is useful to think through precarity, unsettling and the creativity that many urbanites deploy to survive. It also invites us to think beyond the racialized frameworks often used to describe these cities and others. While Professor Simone uses the term blackness, his thinking requests that we work beyond black and white binaries. It gestures to the complexities that make up these terms. In thinking through this, we cannot extract these words from a context in which the struggle for racial justice is the backdrop. But it's important to continue challenging and reconsidering what these terms can point to. In this podcast, we've been gliding over the surface of something much deeper. And this is a first step into these conversations, as well as a small window into the work of Professor Simone. I hope this podcast has given you some tools as you continue to explore these ideas.  This has been Episode Four of the UCL urban laboratory podcast. This podcast was presented by myself, Dr. Alana Osbourne from the Free University in Brussels. Clare Melhuish is the UCL Urban Laboratory Director and was the podcast coordinator on this series. Jennifer Robinson is a UCL Urban Laboratory Co-director and curator of the two conference sessions mentioned in the series. Special thanks to Jordan Rowe, UCL Urban Laboratory Centre Manager, and Kamna Patel, Vice Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for the Bartlett Faculty. The producer was Deborah Shorindé, the executive producer was Anishka Sharma. This was a Whistledown production for the UCL Urban Laboratory.