« DI NUNZIO (Marco). The Act of Living: Street Life, Marginality, and Development in Urban Ethiopia », par Diego Malara

DI NUNZIO (Marco). The Act of Living: Street Life, Marginality, and Development in Urban Ethiopia. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2019, 264 pages

The Act of Living is a masterfully crafted study of street life, marginality and development in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Offering a painstaking analysis of how young men’s and women’s lives unfold in marginal spaces, Di Nunzio avoids reducing their “acts of living” to frustrated forms of resistance, straightforward products of external constraints, or attempts at transcending those constraints doomed to reproduce the basis of subjugation. Indeed, one of the greatest merits of Di Nunzio’s work is that it exposes the inescapably excessive character of marginal forms of living. On Di Nunzio’s account, street life in Addis Ababa’s inner city, or Arada, is not necessarily animated by relentless attempts to challenge marginality, but by a series of discontinuous efforts to navigate and render meaningful the shared experience of seemingly insurmountable obstacles – to social mobility, prosperity or security. And yet, learning how to make a living in Arada – by cultivating “street smartness”, embodying distinct ideals of sophistication, and acquiring knowledge of the world associated with this area – is what allows the book’s characters to achieve relative economic independence, as well as to reclaim and renegotiate a valuable role, visibility, and agency within the broader urban landscape at a time of disorienting change.

Resisting the temptations posed by univocal explanations, Di Nunzio reveals how the complexity of his interlocutors’ predicaments cannot be captured by any single narrative describing them as unscrupulous criminals, victims of structural exclusion resigned to their destiny, or failed entrepreneurs. Di Nunzio’s writing magnifies the contradictions and moral heterogeneity of the mundane rhythms of urban life. Young men and women walking the street of Arada are shown building ambiguous relationship with tourists, suspended between demands of reciprocity and predatory cheating; moving in and out of volatile gang-like groups; indulging in the consumption of khat while imagining alternative futures and taming the anxieties of failing to achieve socio-economic advancement; starting more or less legal businesses, giving up, and then starting again. Whatever they do, and whether or not their attempts fail, the imperative is to keep “moving around”. As Di Nunzio vividly illustrates, under severe conditions of subjugation and disenfranchisement, this frantic mobility is a strategy of survival. Waiting idly for favourable opportunities is a luxury that the book’s characters cannot afford, the prerogative of relatively well-off people who can count on tight-knit networks of economic support.

Taken as a whole, the book develops a vigorous, demystifying critique of those narratives that describe Ethiopia as a development success story. The analysis of the book characters’ life-trajectories reveals how the country’s unprecedented economic growth did not coincide with an increase in opportunities for most urban poor. Through an intimate description of the city’s busy streets, obscure corners and shifting topographies of wealth, Di Nunzio shows how access to urban economic growth remains painfully unequal despite seemingly favourable conditions. While markets have expanded, the incomes of poorer households have shrunk; and while services have multiplied, access to them has decreased. Meanwhile, admission to the close circles of lucrative business continues to be carefully guarded by an array of old and new gate-keepers.

Di Nunzio convincingly demonstrates that the production of marginality is no accidental consequence of politically-driven development and growth. Rather, authoritarian government policies and interventions have made conditions of marginality the new terms for the integration of the poor into the fabric of urban development. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – the hegemonic party since the nineties – has devised development programs that enabled it to reach, co-opt and extend surveillance over a large number of urban dwellers. This is exemplified, for instance, by the stories of how some of the key characters transit from economies of informality and petty criminality to becoming “parking guys” in cooperatives created by the government. These cooperatives represent secure sources of employment and income, but they are also efficacious tools through which the EPRDF manages to mobilize political support from employees and formalize street economies, in order to neutralize the potential for dissent latent in the unemployed youth. Significantly, those of the urban poor who are absorbed into government-led programs still struggle to achieve upward social mobility. Governmental rhetoric presents these programs as concerned with enhancing economic emancipation; but Di Nunzio shows how they instead ended up augmenting the numbers of poor city dwellers whose livelihood depends, more or less directly, on the ruling party. In such a context, Di Nunzio proposes that marginality should be understood as a form of experience entrenched in, and framed by, specific regimes of interconnectedness – that is the politico-economic relational mechanics whereby the urban poor are integrated into wider society. This line of argument allows Di Nunzio to complicate anthropological understandings of the ambiguous relationship between authoritarianism and neoliberalism, generating a perceptive and empirically dense analysis of their elective affinities.

Di Nunzio’s close ethnographic focus on the codes, ambiguities and history of street life is undoubtedly the books greatest strength. However, at times, it can also be seen as its limitation. Di Nunzio’s analysis of networks of kinship and neighbourliness is mostly restricted to the ways in which such networks provide support at specific times of conflict or crisis. When this analysis considers other aspects of kinship, it is mostly to illustrate that kinship relations cannot create pathways to upward social mobility or allow young people to achieve a relative economic improvement, comparable to that experienced by their parents. However, given the book’s emphasis on daily attempts to make precarious conditions of marginality endurable and meaningful, the author could have explored in greater depth the modalities through which diffuse networks of relatedness, and their underpinning economies of care, might provide continued emotive and material support in such pedestrian endeavors. In the introduction, Di Nunzio explicitly sets out to investigate street life in its existential and ethical dimensions. Yet the book does not always live up to this promise. While the book is replete with pertinent references to existentialist works, there is little sustained engagement with the burgeoning anthropological literature on ethics. This is unfortunate, as the efforts to negotiate conflicting obligations, desires and responsibilities that Di Nunzio explores are central themes in this rich strand of literature. In dissecting the operations and consequences of authoritarian power, Di Nunzio is careful to avoid culturalist interpretations. He illustrates, for instance, the ubiquity of paternalistic discourses that blame failure in social mobility on poor people’s lack of self-discipline, thus foreclosing considerations of steep structural asymmetries and the constrains they engender. The genesis of such type of paternalism is traced to the dynamics of national politics, especially in the post-Derg era. However, the fact that strikingly similar types of discourses are central to deeply established and markedly hierarchical religious cosmologies – which have a long history in Ethiopia, and of which Di Nunzio’s interlocutors are intensely aware – is hardly taken into account.

These are, however, minor reservations that should not distract us from the merits of this ground-breaking work. The Act of Living is a thoroughly enjoyable and yet politically uncompromising ethnographic account of the structural production of urban marginality, which sets the bar high for the works to come. Di Nunzio’s close attention to detail, and his elegant use of ethnography to illuminate critical passages of Ethiopian history, underpin an incisive questioning of received theories of marginality and generate compelling alternatives. This is an especially impressive feat considering the difficulties of negotiating access to the social networks he studied, which operate under delicate circumstances of political surveillance. Crucially, this book comes out at a time of dramatic change in Ethiopian party politics, and I am certain that it will prove to be an indispensable tool for scholars interrogating the legacies of the ERPDF in the coming years. On a final note, Di Nunzio’s writing is extremely accessible, relying heavily of captivating storytelling; this makes The Act of Living particularly well-suited for teaching classes on development, marginality and urban life in Africa and beyond.

Diego Malara
Université de Glasgow


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