Photo: Jan Isaksen

Rapid urbanisation is one of the most dramatic developments on the African continent, often yielding contrasting and shocking images of affluent business and residential districts alongside sprawling shantytowns or slums (Simone and Abouhani 2005; Davis 2006). While urban areas account for an increasing part of the continent’s positive macro-economic development (Bryceson and Potts 2006), urban growth is also manifested in emerging conditions of inequality and poverty, rising environmental problems, situations of political instability and riots, as well as persistent high levels of urban crime and violence (UN-Habitat 2003). More than 50 percent of Africa’s population will soon live in cities and towns, and 50 percent of Africa’s poor are likely to live in urban slums by 2040 (UN-Habitat 2009). Neither African national governments nor international aid organisations seem to sufficiently acknowledge the changing face of poverty inAfrica(Pieterse 2008).

For a long time, anthropology has largely left theorising the city to economists, urban planners and geographers (Low and Lawrence-Zúñiga 2003). To the extent that anthropologists have done urban studies, this has been, with a few exceptions, primarily an anthropology in the city (focussing on local neighbourhoods and social relationships) rather than of the city (focussing on spatial structures and classificatory schemes). Acknowledging this, the current project will focus on the anthropology of the Mozambican capital Maputo as a divided urban conglomerate. The majority of the city’s population live in huge urban shantytowns with poor housing and infrastructure known as the ‘reeds’ (caniço), while the formal ‘cement city’ (‘cidade de cimento’) is mostly inhabited by the formally employed and better-off and characterised by superior infrastructure and living conditions (INE 2009). Such a crude spatial dichotomy between cidade and caniço obviously conceals blurred material and symbolic boundaries, inequalities within each type of setting as well as cross-boundary social movements. Nonetheless, our point of departure is that such a divide provides a useful analytical point of departure to grapple with the distinctions between urbanism/modernity and informality /deprivation, as well as reflecting experienced disparities in poverty and well-being.

Acknowledging the need to study the symbolic and material divisions encountered in Maputo, the key questions this project pose are: i) what are the relations (symbolic, social, structural, material, political) between the various urban spaces in Maputo; ii) what are the coping strategies of the very poorest sections of the city’s population, and how do they articulate with urban space; iii) in what way are processes of impoverishment and social marginalisation gendered and to what extent do men and women relate differently to urban space, and iv) in what ways do perceived and experienced disparities in wealth inform Maputo’s socio-politics and its expressions (such as riots, lynchings, unrest)? In responding to these questions, this project will combine theories of political, economic and symbolic structuration and of social relations of inclusion and exclusion as practise (Bourdieu 1977, 1990; Ortner 2006).