Sam Okoth Opondo – Fearscapes / Securescapes : Urban Anxieties, Securities and the Domestic Scene


Event Date: 21 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security


Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University

Sam Okoth Opondo
University of Hawai’i at Manoa





In this essay, I examine how modern politics is related to everyday cultural practices concerned with ‘dangers’ and a desire to account for what can and cannot happen within the space of the postcolonial African city. Among other things, I engage the conceptions of risk emanating from a desire to manage the contingencies that modern science and the state have failed to address. Such a treatment of urban cultures raises fundamental questions that enable us to problematize the relationship between the management of contingency and a politics of security that is attentive to domestic anxieties and their manifestation in various spheres of public life. It also foregrounds a vernacular micropolitics and the minute texture of everyday life and suggests a treatment of security that is concerned with more the official macropolitics of the postcolonial city. For example, rumours and banal profiling practices that implicitly figure the immigrant or the diseased body as a threat acquire new meaning as they are presented as part of a postcolonial fearscape/securescape. Similarly, the turn to ‘occult economies’ and healing processes aimed at enhancing lives, acquiring and securing property and relations present some useful sites for thinking about the production and management of threats to urban sociality.

In order to supply a critical perspective on the aforementioned postcolonial securescape, I summon a number of fictional, ethnographic and historical accounts of urban life that illustrate how relational techniques of the self and new subjectivities are produced as a response to these threats. As such, much of my engagement with Nairobi’s domestic spaces seeks to illustrate how discourses on danger are deployed to actively organize perceptual experience, consolidate habits and compose ethical dispositions that are central to the idea of proper urban and civic life. What is at stake here is the recognition that in an attempt to secure certain forms of urban domesticity, a variety of bodies, spaces, identities and functions are marked as a threat to ‘peaceful and developed’ city lifestyles and livelihoods and therefore subjected to policing practices and modes of surveillance that limit their circulation or the forms of ambiguity that they articulate.

Attentiveness to these vernacular aspects of urban security reveals the multiple ways in which conceptions of danger and risk in the postcolonial city exceed official security discourses. It also illustrates how statist, secular and techno-scientific modes of abstraction and standardization of threats translate or transform the constantly changing social reality into something that more closely resembles the administrative and epistemological grid familiar to official observation, calculation and policing. Generally, a more open conception of urban anxieties and threats reveals the complex network of actors concerned with the administration of ‘life’ and the multiple ways in which a ‘general problematic of improvement’ and a concern with bodies, health, subsistence and habitation operates in the city

Consider the following snapshots:

Snapshot One: The ‘war on HIV/AIDS’ has led to various interpretations of the meaning of ‘evil’, the healing or infecting potential of ‘blood’ and the resource draining capacities of the disease. In response to the threats posed by HIV/AIDS, local idioms have emerged and inserted themselves into larger global circuits and concerns suggesting forms of conversion geared towards providing moral agency and erasing the ambiguity and contingency that HIV/AIDS brings into the city life. Key among these is the salvation and healing promised through Pentecostal churches and the access to Anti-retroviral medication and material support which accrues from ‘coming out’ with ones status. Outside official sanction, we also witness a turn to occult beliefs – phenomena often associated with tradition and bucolic life – as part of the ‘organization of circulation’ of bodies [and body parts] geared towards securing health, wealth, procreation, lovers and general well being in a world that HIV/AIDS makes uncertain.

On the whole, the spread of HIV/AIDS in cities like Nairobi has been productive of significant forms of sociality, signification, enterprise and activism, both negative and positive.[] Doubtless, HIV/AIDS has redrawn the parameters of circulation, calculation and existence in the city. It has contributed to the need for a self awareness and sometimes demanded openness about ones HIV status with the announcement of CD4 T-cell counts and viral loads, the histories and networks of sexual liaisons and more recently ones sexual orientation. HIV/AIDS has been presented as a threat to intimacy as it turns ‘intimate pleasures’, forms of labour and cultural expression into ‘mortal risks’ and contributes to the profiling of high risk groups ; prostitutes, refugees, the sexualized domestic worker, long-distance truck drivers, polygamists or those trapped in ‘anachronistic’ traditional practices like wife inheritance or the lack of male circumcision. It is for these reasons that trust, fidelity, faith, conversion and knowledge of the body’s makeup, risky relations and behaviour change are presented as part of the solution to the pandemic. For, with HIV/AIDS, there is a need for care and vigilance based on the knowledge that things/people are not always what they seem to be.

Snapshot Two: Nairobi, Kenya 2008-10, the clamour for a new constitution, the desire to re-imagine the nation anew following the ethnocidal character of the 2008 post election violence. A return to ‘normalcy’ is marked by the shift of empathic concerns from a focus of encampment of refugees fleeing neighbouring states due to ‘well founded fears’ to sympathetic identification with fellow Kenyans –the Internally Displaced Persons – now living in IDP camps.

A nationwide population census shows that the Somali population in the country has increased thus illustrating the failure of the state to effectively make distinctions between citizen and refugee populations.A distinction that is predicated more on the policing of circulation of the Somali body [through encampment in designated areas and provision of movement passes] rather than through the calculation of births, mortality and the level of health or life expectancy.

The Indian Ocean piracy and the capital flows it enables emerge as a form of Somali ‘bio-piracy’. A cover that enables ‘Somali money’ and bodies to surreptitiously make their way into Eastleigh Nairobi where they are laundered and authenticated through the purchase of real estate and national identification cards thus changing the demographic, proprietary and racial-spatial character of the city.

These anxieties about Kenyaness, about an Islamic threat to city and family space is inter-articulated with other anxieties about the politics of life itself. On one hand, aspirational Nairobians express an anxiety about the prospect of home ownership in a city with ever increasing property prices.On the other hand, Pentecostal Christians provide a reading of city and national space that discerns a Muslim [read Somali,Gulf states and Libyans] plot to buy up the city and create an Islamic space that will pave the way for a legal order that is more sympathetic to their concerns. A further desire to determine the politics of life itself, is articulated through the clamour for unambiguous sexualities and a ‘pro-life’ abortion debate that focuses on when life begins and under what conditions it can be terminated and by who.

From the above, it is evident that security is always directed towards the securing of a referent object that is problematised through different discourses on danger-through the formation of fearscapes and securecapes. Whether it is a health concern ,an existential anxiety or the question of foreign bodies, we cannot merely focus our analysis of these dangers as problematic in the given society , but must examine how the formation and articulation of the ‘body politic’ is also implicated in how we understand danger. That is, any treatment of the explosion of discursive interest in the politics of life itself must engage the ontological predicates and epistemologies associated with the securing of life that do not fall within the register of rational surveillance, calculative practices, secular profiling of individuals and collectivities. Thus, a concern with the problematization of danger in the postcolonal city indexes a more complex concern with how one cares for the self as a means of averting risks and threats emerging from lifestyles and forms of ‘circulation’ that exceed neo-liberal normative trends and contemporary biopolitical practices. It invites us to take seriously the numerous modes of meaning making and disambiguation that seek to render the future knowable through the management of circulation, calculation and optimization of life both within and outside of western rationality.


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