Call for Proposals: Columbia University Conference


The Art of Citizenship in African Cities

The World and Africa Series
Committee on Global Thought
Columbia University
May 6, 2011

The African metropolis represents one of the most challenging and
important spaces of our time. Insight on African cities has driven
some of the most innovative and provocative recent scholarly debates
considering development, the nature of citizenship, and the
postcolonial urban condition. In contrast with a familiar, sometimes
apocalyptic reading of ?failed? African cities which characterizes
them as dysfunctional, chaotic and decaying, there is a burgeoning
scholarship which explores the way that African cities actually work
and the very orderly, dynamic, and creative processes which animate
them. This is part of a larger literature emphasizing the need to
incorporate African political systems into more cosmopolitan urban and
development theories. Building on those insights, this conference
seeks to highlight the emergent citizenship practices through which
urban Africans enact and reconfigure their cities, while asking some
hard questions about the implications of these strategies and their

In particular, the conference aims to rescue African cities from the
hackneyed language of developmentalism and sustainability through
which they are too often understood. Instead, it focuses on the art
of citizenship?or the specific imaginaries and creative solidarities
through which urban Africans understand, order, and stake claims
around the rights, rewards, and spaces of the city. In addition to
papers seeking to extend the analytical purchase of theories of
African cities, we are especially interested in ethnographic studies
exploring those new theories and practices. Beyond shedding new light
on how we understand these cities, this endeavor promises to
recalibrate knowledge of how the city works, the contours of
fundamental city-ness, and what it means to be a citizen in Africa and

This one-day conference will be broken down into roundtable
discussions framed around the following central themes:

The language of environmentalism and sustainability has become a
dominant force structuring the way that African cities are seen,
managed, and contested. And yet, as conventionally deployed, this
language doesn?t do justice to the ways that African urban
environments are understood, enacted, and claimed by urban
communities. The conference considers the cultural and political
ecology of African cities, beyond ?sustainability? and bureaucratic
management. We seek papers exploring the following questions:

? How do urban Africans occupy, imagine, and deploy their local
environments to different ends?
? How are urban environmental services accessed, contested, and valued?
? What practices of cleaning, ordering, and purifying the city can be
witnessed and what systems of meaning are they inscribed within and
associated with?

The ?modernist? visions behind the building and managing of African
cities over the last 50 years have often masked, sidelined, or
systemically ignored the people living within those spaces. The
relationship between the built environment and the social
environment?and, importantly, the legacy of colonial history in its
constitution?deserves closer attention. This theme aims to explore the
following questions:

? What is the connection of urban infrastructure to ideas of modernity
over the last 50 years and, relatedly, how do these cities relate to
their colonial forbearers?
? How do the ruling classes imagine the city today and how do urban
residents claim, reimagine, and reconfigure ?modern? infrastructures
and ?public? space through everyday life and emergent mobilities?
? If we take seriously the notion that ?people are infrastructure?
(Simone 2004), how do we think productively about the relationship
between the social and physical infrastructure on an urban scale?

In the wake of the failures of ?modernist? urban development,
community and neighborhood have come to the fore as privileged sites
for identification and mobilization. In spite of the tendency to
romanticize the local and community, this has widespread implications
for the future of a continent that is nearing an urban majority. This
theme aims to explore the following questions:
? What are the emergent definitions and practices of community and
what are the politics of identity that animate them?
? What are the arts of representation through which urban Africans
muster cultural resources in pioneering new claims to citizenship?
? What are the implications of these practices and their implied
closures and openings for governance questions?
? How do visions of community interface with urban and national imaginaries?
? How does the urban imaginary interface with the city?s hinterland
and the global diaspora? For instance how may the urban space be
constructed as a permanent transit zone and with what implications for
material and imagined investment?

African cities are also important sites for articulations of the
spiritual imaginary. In certain regions, holy cities have emerged as
key spaces of material and spiritual investment. Beyond its role as
an anchor for disaffected urban residents facing the challenges of the
contemporary moment, religious identity plays a central role in
configuring economies, communities, space, and politics. This theme
aims to explore the following questions:

? How has the urban space been marked, shaped, and constructed as holy space?
? How are the economic and social foundations of urban life channeled
through religious institutions, identities, and practices?
? What are emerging roles of religious figures, institutions, and
spiritualities in urban and national politics and citizenship contests?

Paper proposals should include title of the paper, name, affiliation,
email and a 250 word abstract. Proposals must be submitted by December
10, 2010 to:

Conference conveners:
Mamadou Diouf
Director, Institute for African Studies and Leitner Family Professor
of History
Member, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University

Rosalind Fredericks
Research Scholar, Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University
Assistant Professor, Gallatin School, NYU