Anni Beukes from Stellenbosch University offers her reflections on the role of a ‘researcher-activist’, together with local communities, in re-thinking, remaking and re-inventing the possibilities for just and equitable locally specific and adaptive technologies for the provision of food, water and energy. Anni draws from her experience of working with communities federated to SDI in Africa.
My work for the past two and a half years has been with communities federated to SDI to explore and develop socio-technical possibilities – not solutions – for their data process which supports their search for possibilities for emancipation and real material impacts in their every-day lives.
At the Nexus Network Urban Nexus event, Cian O’Donovan, Nexus Network coordinator, described me as a ‘researcher/activist’.
And while the first part of that description is something I have been both comfortable and uncomfortable with simultaneously, it is the latter that I struggle to yield to. In the house and in the time I was raised, ‘activist’ is a term that conjures up images of dreadlocks and tie dye and on the other end of the scale, bloodied and beaten bodies.
The first would offend my conservative mother, yet, the devil has damned me to obsession for her details, and I have an inbred desire for justice. Not a pre-occupation with injustice, but rather an occupation with the possibilities for justice and emancipation. Both at the individual and collective level. Both in the margins and the mainstream.
It is important, even fleetingly, to occupy or hold a position. For the purposes of grounding and orienting a reflection, however partial and limited. For the hope of contributing some spark to ignite, or droplets to douse.
My work with communities federated to SDI is to explore and develop socio-technical possibilities for bringing and managing the vast databases of information, they themselves have been generating on their everyday lives, into the digital sphere. ‘Digitalisation’ has become an embodied act and process for the slum dweller leaders I’ve had the privilege of sharing this journey with, as well as a humbling lesson in possibility and why the sun rises every morning to it.
Reflecting on speakers at the Urban Nexus event; Dunu Roy from Hazards International Delhi, who took us through the history of planning for cities and Liz Varga from Cranfield University, who led us through the possibilities of blue, green and grey infrastructure connecting and interfacing with each other, I recalled the Mayor of the beautiful garden city of Blantyre, upon seeing the map the federations produced, saying ‘My city is a slum – who or what is at fault? The absence of planning or the planning of absence?’
I thought of the politics embodied in the struggle for in-situ incremental slum upgrading. Small gains like raising alley pavements in the dense labyrinth of foot paths in Nima, Accra to prevent the flooding of houses during the rainy season.
I remember the sound of women’s backs breaking as they cut away with pickaxes into the unforgiving long back of the mountain in Langrug in Stellenbosch, so they could convince the municipality that a drainage channel is what is needed to heal the inexplicable sores on the faces and bodies of their children.
The stories of the community gardeners in Brighton and Hove, reminded me of Peter Mutunga’s efforts in Kibera, Nairobi. When we first met in 2014, Peter told me he was growing spinach in sacks in front of his shack, because the ground was bad and also that by growing his own spinach he didn’t have to buy it from his neighbour which meant he could put the money in the savings books of one of his children to get a house.
In the places and the spaces where I walk and work, infrastructure for water, energy, food, waste, as well as, land, are highly political, politicised and contested goods, services, entitlements and rights. They may necessarily benefit from a more critical and social-political understanding and framing and perhaps even a more pragmatic consideration from urban nexus thinking.
Access in these places is hardly ever just or equal. Safe drinking water may come on the back of a truck, wrapped in the half-a-litre of plastic, and water for cooking and washing comes from the salted well which the municipality deems unfit but still does nothing about.
Waste is an everyday poison and gift. It can drain my resources and time, leave me vulnerable at night and at the same time provide the livelihood that feeds and clothes my children.
Electricity where and if it does come, is the often celebrated pre-paid metering system, which relies on a historic mega-grid. Slum dwellers have to buy at the premium rate because they can only afford 10-20 units at a time. Middle class residents can afford higher unit quantities at a lower cost per unit. Yet unlike their middle class counterparts, slum families utilise a smorgasbord of energy options, whether safe or unsafe, for cooking, lighting and even charging their cellphones.
I believe this is fertile ground for socio-technologists to re-think, remake and re-invent together with these communities the possibilities for just and equitable locally specific and adaptive technologies for the provision of these services and goods.
My friend and colleague Sizwe Mxobo, who is very much an activist, recently asked a World Bank representative what is wrong with our cities in Africa and how can we build better cities in Africa? Sizwe argues that African cities, where rich and poor live side by side have the potential to blaze some new trails in urban planning and design.
I am not trying to romanticise slums, slum dwellers and African cities. As evictions rage across slums in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo and Ghana at the moment, I pause to wonder how we can imagine a place for slums in the urban nexus discussion when our own governments are still on a linear drive for modernity and the modern and do not accept slums as part of the contemporary urban context and fabric and its production.
It took me a long time and much walking and sitting down to understand the SDI federations’ argument that their process is social and political, that their politics, if anything, strives to be relational rather than only about power.
I ask that, as we discuss nexuses of the urban and the framings that may emerge, that we remain aware of who is being included and excluded from these discussions and that we remain historically specific and contextually aware and considerate in our proposals.
Image: with thanks to Meena Kadri on flickr.