Accepted paper:

Hustling as urban work+life: Reflections from the street, the baze, and the road in Nairobi, Kenya.


T Thieme (University College London)
Naomi van Stapele (University of Amsterdam)
Meghan Ference (Brooklyn College, CUNY)

Paper short abstract:

Three ethnographers working on Nairobi explore how the emic term 'hustling' contributes empirically & analytically to the call to think beyond 'the proper job'. We draw insights from the streets and the social 'bazes' of low-income settlements and from the stages and routes of the mini bus system.

Paper long abstract:

We come together as three urban ethnographers who share a common commitment to documenting the unstated norms and everyday rhythms that govern invisible and oft stigmatised labour in Nairobi, Kenya. We draw our insights from the streets and the social 'bazes' of low-income settlements and from the stages and routes of the matatu mini bus system. We aim to respond to Ferguson and Li's (2018) invitation to think beyond "the proper job", challenging the presumption that waged and salaried employment ought to be (or can ever be again) the norm. We move away from familiar descriptions of unwaged or informal work defined by negation, and instead point to the affirmative expressions of 'hustling' that circulate across our respective Nairobi field sites. We explore how 'hustling' contributes analytically to wider ethnographic queries about the diverse forms of labour associated with urban life when returns are uncertain, and when the nature of work can involve forms of unlikely accumulation, spontaneous loss, efforts to keep trying, and the obligations to (re)distribute. We argue that hustling is reflective of particular forms of dispossession and injustice while providing openings for new ways to (re)imagine, (re)describe, and (re)make a place in the city. This paradox positions hustling as a condition of urban life that works with but also confronts existing economic, political, social structures and (dis)orders in Nairobi. Ultimately, this paper seeks to pose the question back to colleagues: might hustling offer an alternative and generative narrative of 'work life' in other African cities today?

panel Econ17
Disrupting the wage: post-work futures within and beyond Africa