“I want to be a dis-planner because planning has not done anything to undo the colonial grids of this city, and you can see that in the life that some residents live.”

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Episode notes

Wangui Kimari is an urban anthropologist, currently affiliated with the African Centre for Cities.

She’s done a range of interesting things but this conversation focuses on work in her home town of Nairobi—and in particular the Mathare area, which if you know the city is often labelled as a slum or sort of den of iniquity.

The recurring theme is the attempt to do things differently in the face of a stifling, or broken, status quo. What does public authority and urban planning when seen from the point of view of marginalised communities? What questions do those communities themselves want answered, as opposed to those that researchers want to focus on? And how do the answers fit into a political conversation that’s been built on the rhetoric of “development” for several generations now?

This is a timely episode — not because it is “about” COVID-19, but to equip us to think about distancing & public hygiene as seen from marginalised spaces. What should experiences in the past tell us about how things will play out in the near future?

Topics discussed:

[02:20] Introducing herself as an “urban dis-planner”. The goals of participatory action research in dealing with the experiences of marginalised groups.

[06:25] Growing up in Nairobi. Relational and spatial experiences of extreme inequalities and poverty.

[10:30] Mathare as a marginalised space within Nairobi. Similarities and differences with other poor areas in the city.

[20:50] How residents of Mathare interact with the government and police service. Participatory action research on extra-judicial executions, how these play out and what they look like from the residents’ perspective.

[29:00] The contribution of participatory research within the broader political ecosystem in Nairobi and Kenya more broadly. A network model for social justice action centres.

[32:05] Popular perspectives and attitudes to police killings. The second-order effects of militarised policing on lifestyles, culture, and expression.

[39:40] Ethical quandaries with urban planning & “development” in context of Nairobi. The importance of acknowledging history, and justice, when dealing with marginalised people’s experiences.

[46:20] The tension between participatory research and a traditional academic career. The lack of reward and recognition for this kind of work, and ways around that.

[51:00] Debts that we owe to those who have come before.