Accepted paper:

Landscapes of absence and the materiality of expectations, natural resources in Kitui Kenya


Maarten Onneweer (Leiden University)

Paper short abstract:

The impoverished rural area of Kitui, Kenya enduringly appears as object of intervention to mobilize its natural resources. I describe the engagements of poor people with the ‘revelatory’ capacities of technologies as comments that force us to rethink development through the materiality of natural resources such as water.

Paper long abstract:

The Kitui district of Kenya has long been recognised as a landscape of absences: repeated droughts, lack of development, lack of accessible natural resources. For more than 80 years external organisations tried to harness these natural resources, mainly through small technological interventions that aim to provide water. During my fieldwork in the area I noticed how poor people engaged with water development technology in a way that could not be conceptualised as either a 'cultural' rejection, or a wholehearted embrace of progress and modernity. Both these options left too little room to explain how people recognised the influence of the landscape and the materiality of substances as agents in the process of turning water into a resource or commodity. In Kitui, springs can dry after interventions, but they can also appear somewhere else, and it is said about some (spring) water that it 'does not like cement' and can disappear when wells are sunk. Instead of seeing this as a form of knowledge opposing modernity, the comment is more on the ambiguous materiality of natural resources in combination with technology. To understand poor peoples engagement with technology, I argue we need to look into the material forms natural resources might (or might not) take. The theorem of materiality provides the analytical means to do so. It can make claims about the tangible materials people engage with, but it can also take in the variety of expressions with which people negotiate the absence of these materials.

panel W038
Materiality and poverty