The theme of this year’s annual meeting of the African Studies Association was “Energies: Power, Creativity and Afro-Futures.” Afro-Futurism, recently popularized by Black Panther, has been a theme in African and Black Studies for a while. Sun Ra's futuristic mission began in the 1950s; Space is the Place (1974) continues to inspire and the Sun Ra Arkestra is still touring. Wakanda forever!
In their call for papers, the conference organizers encouraged participants to “reflect on ‘energy’—its production, extraction, distribution and exchange—as a heuristic to understand Africa’s past and to imagine its futures. Energy has rich literal and metaphorical resonances in reference to extractive and entrepreneurial economic activities; the production of knowledge; human mobility and labor; performance, ritual and spirituality; and crime and social unrest.”
The meeting annually brings together several thousand scholars, activists, policy-makers, and other professionals, and enables conversation across academic disciplines and beyond academia. The program consists of more than 300 panels and roundtables, keynote speeches, a large book exhibit, film screenings, an award ceremony, and a dance party. While the continent’s countries and regions are distinct and diverse, despite many different articulations, there is a sense of shared agenda, based on shared histories, experiences, and trajectories.
I attended panels and lectures on the Anthropocene; the environment; energy practices; Black Panther; and roundtables in honor of Frederick Cooper, one of the most significant historians of Africa, and Abiola Irele, who can be said to have founded and substantially defined the field of African literary studies and passed away last year.
The panel that I participated in was entitled “Rethinking Informality.” My paper on “Economic Common Sense: Forms of Labor in Ukunda-Diani, Kenya” described economic activity largely between local Kenyans and expatriate Europeans, much of which occurs outside of formal employment structures. I became interested in the topic in the context of research that I have been conducting since 2009 in an area south of Mombasa. Over the years, my close engagement with Ukunda-Diani’s economic and social space and energies made me realize that much state- and industry-based development discourse and policy is rooted in an inadequate understanding of economic activity. The relevance of the informal economy is widely acknowledged, but the approaches to recognizing its significance and to policy-making attentive to it differ substantially. Analysts and critics tend to present distinct visions of the role and volume of the informal sector. Some scholars embrace the entrepreneurial and innovative contributions of the sector, others stress its presumed low volume, productivity, and quality and its illegitimate dimensions. Some scholars emphasize the fluidity that exists between formal and informal spheres, others insist on the differences.
Overall, the informal sector, in its various manifestations, is not studied enough nor not studied in as much depth as needed. In my presentation, I set out to question dominant forms of categorizing labor and economic norms that, in particular, characterize developmentalism. I approach this topic not as an economist, but rather from an anthropological perspective.
The Ukunda-Diani area is home to about 75,000 people who pursue a wide range of economic activities. Some of these activities are easily recognized as “informal,” including those of vegetable hawkers, drug dealers, and vendors on the beach. The informal economy in Ukunda-Diani, however, extends beyond these kind of activities. The community, by and large, is supported through its close interpersonal relations to expatriates and tourists. Both romantic and other personal relations (as distinct from prostitution) and informal humanitarianism sustain many in the area. Kenyans, however, are not simply passive and dependent recipients of resources; rather, they provide various forms of support and care to their partners and sponsors. I suggest that considering these forms of economic and social activity (which are not unique to Kenya or Africa) forces us to revise our understanding of “labor,” “the economy,” and even the way the informal economy is most often understood.
I can’t remember anymore who articulated the following insight: “It is not underdevelopment, it is exploitation that plagues Africa.” As Gabriele Hecht said during this year’s meeting, the dominant view of Africa assumes that “Africa is poor, but we can try to help its people.” However, the reality is that “Africa is rich, but we steal its wealth.” Understanding the informal sector forces us to revise the dominant image about African passivity. Acknowledging the extent of economic activity and entrepreneurship that occurs in the informal sector would be a starting point toward a revised approach (of the West, Europe, China, international organizations etc.) toward African countries, toward moving away from a perception of African countries as places of lack and in need of outside support. Support (humanitarian and otherwise) that turns out, for the most part, to be hush money for theft.