Urbanisms and Archipelagic Space-time

Mobilities across time and space are reshaping African lives, communities and imagination. As people make lives across multiple sites – connections forged through travel, media and the circulation of goals, memories and values – they are generating novel forms of mobile urbanism and belonging. Within cities, rapidly expanding, diversifying and mobile urban populations now interact with each other in ways largely unstructured by state regulations or hegemonic social norms. The results are urban socialities that often deviate from the models of solidarity, integration or membership described in classic urban sociology or more recent debates around multiculturalism. Loosely following the French sociologist and ethnographer Émile Durkheimer, these spaces appear deeply anomic: relatively unregulated by officials or constitutional orders and deeply fragmented by ethno-linguistic, class, religious and political allegiances. Yet these are not genetically antisocial or disconnected sites. Nor are they singular in the histories, morphologies or trajectories. Yet despite the diversity and distance between them, they are linked: archipelagos of people and sites interlinked across and within spatial and temporal horizons.

African urbanism and mobility conform poorly to patterns of industrial, Western urbanism, making it tempting to shroud African cities in the language of Malthusian dystopia and state failure. Precarity and hardships are undeniable across many African spaces, facets likely to become more pronounced in the face of a rapid demographic growth without enhanced employment opportunities. Yet amidst this, individual ambitions and mobility are potentially empowering, offering the possibility of resilience and expanding networks. Even where economically unprofitable, the dispersion of families, communities and life courses transform and contribute to novel, emerging socio-economic and political orders. Some of these will look familiar from other increasingly diverse urban centres: ethnic groups hunkering down and forming enclaves; neighbourhood associations formed around spaces, debates or themes; home-town associations. Others will take the forms of localised disconnection, where individuals actively resist local incorporation while building relationships – platonic and intimate, material and imagined – that may be fleeting or far-flung. These ‘new possibilities for social life’[1] reinforce the necessity to see individuals, cities, villages and camps across multiple geographic and temporal scales.

What is emerging across Africa is more than the simple translocalism and transformation fostered by oscillating movement: of people coming to the city while investing in rural villages for purposes of economic advancement and social respectability.[2] Such oscillations continue, but current African migrations and mobility reflect structural, institutional, social formations far less stable. The continent’s remarkable urbanisation produces continued mobility, with people regularly shifting locations and connections due to uncertainties of housing and employment or forging or fragmenting relationships that enable and bind.[3] Even those who never move far from their birthplace or find themselves entrapped in refugee camps are ‘inscribed’ not only in specific space, but also in forms of translocal consciousness.[4] Such inscriptions offer a global imagination filled with possibilities both real and chimerical. These produce longings and frustrations: an awareness of processes and possibilities elsewhere and the barriers to accessing them. Geographic movements are shaped by these varied imaginations, visions of home, diasporas and other ‘multiple elsewheres’.[5]

Even the most seemingly materially untouched sites are rapidly becoming parts of continental and global archipelagos: islands of space and time interconnected through material exchange, social recognition, moral disciplines and future imaginations.[6] However distorted, images, news, moneys, goods and gadgets continually arrive, those on the receiving end embed them in spatialised practices and perceptions in ways that shape perceptions of possibilities and generate metrics of success and measures of failure. This leaves few people across Africa self-contained, free of dependence on money, information or status from other spaces and times.[7] Even those excluded from the benefits of material circulation are nonetheless affected by the mobility of resources, ideas and values. They may become economically marginalised as neighbours accumulate wealth and opportunities or be shamed by their translocal exclusion and parochialism.

Within the continent’s burgeoning cities, people are almost universally translocal, even if they rarely leave the neighbourhoods in which they live. We increasingly see various forms of fragmented yet connected systems of moral authority centred on individuals who are nodes in networks spanning space and time.[8] Jeanne Vivet and her colleagues describe the position of a local authority figure, Alhaji Abdullahi Salihu Olowo, ‘whose title is Oba Yoruba Kano. In order to maintain traditional loyalties in his home town, Ilesha – where he has never lived – Olowo holds chieftaincy titles but accepted the Hausa Muslim turban as a symbol of authority to rule of the Yorubas in Kano.’[9] Those under his leadership remain villagers of a certain kind with urban futures: urbanites who must simultaneously maintain status in multiple sites – some urban, some rural – where they may have never been or only occasionally visit.[10] Elsewhere, people attend churches, go to community meetings or help repatriate corpses to maintain their status in villages they otherwise visit only now and then. Disconnection from distant relatives and projects not only separates them from ancestral sites, but can also alienate them from those embedded in such translocal systems of economic and social generation. Offending people at ‘home’ can close urban opportunities just as easily as shame shared in an urban area blocks the possibility of eventual ‘return’. In spaces where people straddle multiple, distinct yet connected social worlds, status and stigma travel, shaping what is possible and what is required.[11]

Yet it is not only the precarity and multimodal aspect of contemporary urbanism that are shaping subjectivities. For urbanites, migrant workers, the displaced and those who barely move, imagined spaces and futures are often shaped by colonial and post-colonial discourses of modernity and progress: by religiously informed masculinities; by spatial planning that links lifestyle and location to one’s life chances; by material measures of success.[12] People increasingly map these aspirations with fantastic images of contemporary achievement: the wealth of Nollywood films, hip-hop videos, or selfies from friends and relatives fabricating successes at odds with their material conditions.

Pentecostalism, one of Africa’s most muscular social forces, is perhaps the greatest driver of archipelagic belonging. Although there is insufficient space here to reflect the diversity of testimonies and preaching included in even a single day-long mass, a large number of them build on their strong connections to institutions in Nigeria, Ghana, Congo and the United States. For many of the churches’ founders – themselves often migrants – their current pulpit is merely a place where they can enter a global social universe. In the words of the Nigerian pastor at the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in Johannesburg: ‘Africa is shaped like a pistol, Nigeria is the trigger and South Africa is the mouth from where you can shoot out the word of God.’ Their preaching is often extraterritorial, overtly denying the legitimacy of state laws while speaking of the dangers of local connections. Both the state and the sullied are enemies of salvation.

As they pray, parishioners draw on variegated liturgical language to make demands on cities while positioning them in an ephemeral, superior and unrooted condition in which they can escape localised social and political obligations. This is a kind of particularistic, parochial cosmopolitanism that is not necessarily grounded in normative ideas of ‘openness’ or intended to promote universal values of any form. Rather, they co-opt the language and imagery of the global cosmopolitan elite – planes, cars, mansions, endless travel – to position themselves as global players through discourses melding the individual with distinct and indistinct spaces in this world and the next.[13] Their church in Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg connects those cities with others in Alabama or the Parisian banlieues. Such an approach often leaves them – as intended – ‘betwixt and between without being liminal […] participating in many worlds without becoming part of them’.[14] Underlying these messages is the possibility of living in multiple spaces – the space you are in and in the global space. The church also compresses multiple temporalities: the ancient battles of good and evil that led to Jesus’ death; a death that allows Jesus to provide his followers with success in the here and now as a down payment for eternal grace.

Whether liturgical or popular, informed by current affairs or historical and cultural bequests, archipelagic imaginations include trajectories and markers of progress often closely associated with geographic mobility: a move to the city, a move across borders, a journey to Europe or America. Yet due to economic circumstances – most notably the precarity and absence of employment[15] – and forms of economic or coercive sedentarisation, people experience what Ramakrishnan terms ‘spatiotemporal disruption … where their futures within the city remain stalled and fixed in uncertainty, ultimately influencing notions of belonging and urban governance’.[16] Under such circumstances, people may move with expectations of improvement but feel unable to reach the next milestone of success. Without such achievements, they cannot return ‘home’, but nor can they move forward. Others simply wait for the state or others to provide.[17] Cindi Katz characterises Sudanese youth as being ‘marooned by modernity’.[18] People can remain stuck in time: experiencing endless, empty days peppered with temporal panic for having not reached their geographic or material aims.

Nowhere are the possibilities of being stuck in space and time more evident than in the continent’s archipelagos of refugee settlements, a distinct form of global humanitarian urbanism.[19] Although regularly geographically fixed for a generation or more, residents of these displaced cities – sites filled with displaced people typically on lands rejected by others – remain deeply embedded in their histories and geography of movement and in circuits of power and meaning centred in Washington, Brussels and London.[20] Such density of settlement spatially compresses people in ways that generate social fissions and fractions, enabling the circulation of rumours and transforming social and material production. Not only are their bodies dependent on the food and medicines authorised by global aid agencies, but their imagined futures elsewhere can only be made when the global elite recognise their suffering and desires. This hope is for a recognition that is unlikely to come, yet it connects them explicitly to futures in which they escape from their de facto entrapment, from ‘the strange limbo of camp life’.[21] In many ways, these geographic and temporal archipelagos are fictions, for the recognition they seek is from a global community increasingly content with its containment. Yet the refugees – or at least some – are inscribed and imbricated in global systems of circulation and meaning.

Conclusions: Mobility, containment and the making of Africa’s future self

African mobilities are redefining urbanism, sociality and the scale of politics. What will become of these connected islands of space-time? Undoubtedly, given vast contingencies, the future for people and the spaces they create will require time to ‘work themselves out’.[22] Translocal or oscillating lives, diasporic imaginaries and deterritorialised politics may become the new normal. Yet Séverine Awenengo Dalberto et al. remind us that there is not one African history nor will there be one future.[23] African settlements originate from alternate bases, some with deep histories of trade and exchange, others planned into being as colonial or post-colonial administrative centres. In the absence of the strong unifying disciplines of market integration, powerful political principles or effective formal institutions, contemporary patterns of mobility may present a form of ‘critical junction’[24] in which some forms of patterns established by colonial or post-colonial regimes may be overwhelmed, overcome or simply substantially reshaped: a period of ‘openness and contingency’.[25] Yet while variations will continue, mobilities among these sites are likely to stabilise, creating isomorphism that concentrate connection and entrench archipelagos. Within the planetary urbanism described by Schmid (2014) and others, micro-level socialities and individual and familial projects will make real, and reshape, global forms of extraction, exclusion and expectation.[26]

African mobilities will not be structured only by Africans, their leaders or global capital and cultural flows. Following the European migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016, we are witnessing an attempt to redefine African space-time driven by a series of coercive controls and processes of subjectifications that may create a kind of externally imposed isolation. In the first instance, enormous resources are being dedicated to militarising borders and preventing migration out of and through a dozen or more African countries. These include crude coercion, intensive intelligence interventions and new sociologies of knowledge that will bring into relief processes, places and people who had remained bureaucratically invisible and shrouded from a global gaze. Ultimately, such knowledge is intended to usher in an era of ‘containment development’ aiming to control movement and normalise sedentarism by geographically localising Africans’ desires and trajectories. Under this emerging rubric, those outside Africa are coming to see success as Africans’ disconnection. Within this reconfigured yet imagined space-time,[27] Africans will be excluded from the freedoms of movement intrinsic to globalised late capitalism.

Yet while Europe may now imagine an Africa disconnected from global imaginations and temporalities, African mobility within Africa will undoubtedly continue as people move in the constant search for profit, protection and passage. As is the case now, those trapped by poverty or persecution may be geographically sedentary, but their position in local and global social and material hierarchies will remain shaped by the circulation of goods, images and ideas. The forms of sociality, time and space that this will produce remain objects of speculation about our own futures and the futures being created by the people around us.


[1] J. Robinson, ‘The Urban Now: Theorising Cities Beyond the New’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 16, no. 6 (2013), p. 660.

[2] See, L.J. Bank, Home Spaces, Street Styles: Contesting Power and Identity in a South African City, London: Pluto Press, 2011; D. Potts, Circular Migration in Zimbabwe and Contemporary Sub-Saharan Africa, Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2011; A. Portes ‘Migration, Development, and Segmented Assimilation: A Conceptual Review of the Evidence’, Annals, AAPSS vol. 610 (2007), pp. 73–97; P. Geschiere, The Perils of Belonging: Autochthony, Citizenship, and Exclusion in Africa and Europe, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009; R. Cohen, Custom and Politics in Urban Africa: A Study of Hausa Migrants in Yoruba Towns, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

[3] See L.B. Landau and I. Freemantle, ‘Beggaring Belonging in Africa’s No-Man’s Lands: Diversity, Usufruct and the Ethics of Accommodation’, Journal for Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 42, no. 6 (2016), pp. 933–51; A. Simone, City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads, New York: Routledge, 2009.

[4] J. Auyero, ‘The Hyper-Shantytown: Neo-Liberal Violence(s) in the Argentine Slum’, Ethnography vol. 1, no. 1 (2000), p. 111.

[5] A. Mbembe and S. Nuttall, ‘Writing the World from an African Metropolis’, Public Culture, vol. 16, no. 3 (2004), pp. 347–72.

[6] For reference, see E. Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places, Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

[7] See V. Dzingirai, P. Mutopo and L.B. Landau, Confirmations, Coffins and Corn: Kinship, Social Networks and Remittances from South Africa to Zimbabwe, Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium, Working Paper 18, Sussex: University of Sussex, 2014; also Potts, 2011.

[8] J. Vivet, D. Bregand, R. Olaniyi and A. Spire, ‘Changing Minority Identities in Urban Africa: Cotonou, Kano, Lomé and Maputo’, in S. Bekker and L. Fourchard (eds), Governing Cities in Africa: Politics and Policies, Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2013, p. 78.

[9] Ibid., p. 78.

[10] Dzingirai et al. 2014 (note 7); Geschiere 2009 (note 2); Vivet et al. 2013 (note 8), pp. 80–81.

[11] P. Kankonde, ‘Transnational Family Ties, Remittance Motives, and Social Death among Congolese Migrants: A Socio-Anthropological Analysis’, Journal of Comparative Family Studies, vol. 41, no. 2 (2010), pp. 225–44.

[12] See J. Ferguson, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt, Berkeley: University of California Press,1999; J. Johnson-Hanks, ‘On the Limits of Life Stages in Ethnography: Toward a Theory of Vital Conjunctures’, American Anthropologist, vol. 104, no. 3 (2002), pp. 865–80.

[13] See R. Cazarin, ‘Pentecostalism and a Global Community of Sentiment: The Cases of Nigerian and Congolese Pastors in Diaspora’, in O. Bakewell and L.B. Landau (eds.), Forging African Communities: Mobilities, Integration, and Belonging, London: Palgrave, 2018, pp. 255–75; also T.W. Pogge, ‘Cosmopolitanism and Sovereignty’, Ethics, vol. 103, no. 1 (1992), pp. 4875; V. Roudometof, ‘Transnationalism, Cosmopolitanism and Glocalization’, Current Sociology, vol. 53, no. 1 (2005), pp. 113–35.

[14] See S. Vertovec, ‘Fostering Cosmopolitanisms: A Conceptual Survey and a Media Experiment in Berlin’, in G. Lenz, F. Ulfers, and A. Dallmann (eds.), Toward a New Metropolitanism: Reconstituting Public Culture, Urban Citizenship, and the Multicultural Imaginary in New York and Berlin, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006, pp. 310; G. Simmel, The Sociology of George Simmel, translated by K. Wolff, New York: The Free Press, 1964.

[15] F. DeBoeck, ‘Spectral Kinshasa: Building the City through an Architecture of Words’, in T. Edensor and M. Jayne (eds.), Urban Theory Beyond the West: A World of Cities, London: Routledge, 2012, pp. 311–28.

[16] K. Ramakrishnan, ‘Disrupted Futures: Unpacking Metaphors of Marginalization in Eviction and Resettlement Narratives’, Antipode, vol. 46, no. 3 (2013), pp. 755.

[17] See S. Oldfield and S. Greyling, ‘Waiting for the State: A Politics of Housing in South Africa’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 47, no. 5 (2015), pp. 1100–12; also C. Jeffrey, ‘Timepass: Youth, Class, and Time among Unemployed Men in India’, American Ethnologist, vol. 37, no. 3 (2010), pp. 465–81.

[18] See A. Appadurai, ‘Deep Democracy: Urban Governmentality and the Horizon of Politics’, Public Culture, vol. 14, no. 1 (2002), pp. 21–47; J.F. Bayart Global Subjects: A Political Critique of Globalization, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007; D. Mains, ‘Neoliberal Times: Progress, Boredom, and Shame among Young Men in Urban Ethiopia’, American Ethnologist, vol. 34, no. 4 (2007), pp. 659–73; Cindi Katz, Growing Up Global: Economic Restructuring and Children’s Everyday Lives, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

[19] See A. Siddiqi, ‘Architecture Culture, Humanitarian Expertise: From the Tropics to Shelter, 1953–93’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 76, no.3 (2017), pp. 36784; The Invisible City: Kakuma, dir. L. Corthouts, 2016.

[20] S. Turner, ‘Suspended Spaces – Contesting Sovereignties in a Refugee Camp’, in T.B. Hansen and F. Stepputat (eds.), Sovereign Bodies: Citizens, Migrants, and States in the Postcolonial World, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 312–32; L. Malkki, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

[21] B. Rawlence, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, New York: Picador: 2016, p. 5.

[22] J. Rast, ‘Why History (Still) Matters: Time and Temporality in Urban Political Analysis’, Urban Affairs Review, vol. 48, no. 1 (2012), p. 6.

[23] S.A. Dalberto, H. Charton and O. Goerg, ‘Urban Planning, Housing and the Making of “Responsible Citizens” in the Late Colonial Period: Dakar, Nairobi and Conakry’, in S. Bekker and L. Fouchard (eds.), Governing Cities in Africa, Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2013, pp. 43–64.

[24] See D. Collier and R.B. Collier, Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America, South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991; I. Katznelson, City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

[25] Rast 2012 (note 21), p. 9.

[26] C. Schmid, ‘Patterns and Pathways of Global Urbanization: Towards Comparative Analysis’, in N. Brenner (ed.), Implosions / Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization, Berlin: Jovis, 2014, pp. 20317.

[27] See D. Massey, Space, Place, and Gender, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.