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Dakar unsettled

State ambitions to build a 'global' Dakar alongside a proliferation of diaspora-financed luxury development, highlights the fraught nature of belonging in a city where everyday life is marked by migration, economic reform and inequality.

Caroline Melly
12 March 2013

By the dawn of 2006, Dakar, Senegal, seemed on the brink of great metamorphosis. Across the coastal capital city, the struggling nation’s grand potential was being declared through poured concrete and rising skeletons of steel. Drawing inspiration from the spectacular rise of global cities like Dubai, Senegal’s then-president Abdoulaye Wade and his allies imagined large-scale urban construction projects as critical to their efforts to rebrand Dakar as “the most beautiful city in Africa” and a global destination for foreign investment and leisure. Leaders insisted that these flows of capital and expertise would, in turn, spark lasting economic change, creating work opportunities and financial security in a country where the official unemployment rate hovers at 50% and where transnational migration—to Europe, the US, the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa—is the backbone of both national and household economies.

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Dakar's not-yet housing.

In anticipation and celebration of this self-sufficient and flourishing “city yet to come” dozens of spectacular new structures were beginning to emerge from the city’s parched earth: a modern autoroute, complete with roundabouts and overpasses, that would someday link the peninsular capital to the mainland via toll road; the Monument de la Renaissance Africaine, which architects hoped would dwarf the Statue of Liberty; the Route de la Corniche, a once ageing thoroughfare now reborn as a sleek seaside passageway; and dozens of exclusive five-star hotels, restaurants, and shopping plazas capable of meeting the expectations of a discerning global clientele.

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The African Rennaissance Monument. Jeff Attaway. Some rights reserved.

Through these urban renewal projects—as well as through the spectacular billboards, passionate speeches, and public information campaigns that accompanied them—the Senegalese state and international organizations projected a dazzling if dubious vision of a prosperous and globally connected African capital city.

Building diaspora

In the shadow of these state-sanctioned projects, constructions of another type and scale expressed remarkably different visions of a Dakar yet to come. For decades, large concrete houses and villas, frequently financed with capital earned by Senegalese living and working abroad, have been steadily transforming the urban landscape. Diasporic Senegalese build these spacious dwellings to house the families they leave behind or to rent for a profit, but also, very often, with the hopes that they will one day return to live in them. These homes often incorporate architectural materials and designs—“American”-style kitchens, imported marble floors, Mediterranean tiled roofs, Parisian balconies, and Western-style bathtubs and ornate toilets—that evoke lives lived elsewhere.

Most notably, perhaps, these structures rise very slowly, in fits and starts, as money becomes available. Thus, many of the city’s grand villas remain unfinished for long periods of time, as family members wait to receive money from loved ones abroad. This is particularly the case in times of global economic recession, when rising prices and dwindling work leave little money to invest in housing construction. As a result, many of Dakar’s not-yet-houses structures languish, incomplete, for many years, crumbling and eroding even as they slowly but steadily rise.

Dakar’s residents were fascinated by these not-yet houses. They regarded them as profound signs and symbols of the power of transnational migration to change people’s everyday lives. They interpreted these houses as persuasive claims made by migrants to urban inclusion and permanence—claims that they themselves could not always make. By focusing on the city’s not-yet houses and the social landscapes of which they are a part, we get a glimpse into several important conflicts over urban vision and belonging in Dakar and beyond. How do we make sense of these deeply political sites and spaces? What visions of the city yet to come do these unfinished houses offer to urban residents? How might these hyper-public structures help us to better understand what it means to govern, to build, and to belong in cities like Dakar?

Governing and providing in an age of unrelenting austerity

Houses and villas financed by migrants living abroad have helped to address a critical lack of housing and economic resources in the burgeoning city. Structural adjustment policies (SAPs) enacted in Senegal in the late 1970s had several important and lasting effects on housing availability and affordability in the capital city. For one, in the name of austerity, SAPs removed subsidies and other government support for agricultural production, prompting rural dwellers from across the region to seek employment opportunities in cities like Dakar. SAPs also drastically reduced government budgets and staff, slashing jobs, eliminating social safety nets, and cutting programs that had helped government functionaries to own their own homes in the city. These deep cuts coincided with efforts to privatize land in the capital city. What resulted was a burgeoning urban population with few employment opportunities and dwindling options for affordable housing.

As structural adjustment reforms deepened in the 1980s and 1990s, migration out of Senegal became an increasingly attractive economic and social strategy, particularly for young men (though increasingly, too, for women and for families). In many ways, then, the transnational migrant has stepped in where the “adjusted” state had bowed out, providing for the everyday needs of individuals, households, and communities who would otherwise have very little.

Over the past three decades, the logics and ideologies of economic austerity and aggressive privatization have become permanent features of the Senegalese political and economic landscape. This has assured that the contemporary state has little real power or resources to provide for its struggling citizens, that economic inequalities have become more entrenched, and that people must cope on their own with chronic economic and social uncertainty. While government officials often describe migrants’ house-building practices as exceedingly lavish and wasteful, they also rely upon them to fill gaps the state can no longer address. Meanwhile, urban residents often perceive these migrant-built houses as evidence that the state has turned its back on the majority of its population. State resources and energies, they argue, are instead funneled into building high-speed highways, grand monuments, and spaces of elite consumption that are meant to cater to wealthy Senegalese, foreign investors, and well-heeled tourists.

Dakar’s not-yet houses, then, signify an important shift in the ways that state governance is conceptualized in Senegal and other postcolonial, so-called economically “emergent” countries—a shift that relieves the state of its previous responsibilities and leaves individuals and households to make it on their own in an increasingly hostile economy. These structures offer a concrete means for people to talk about the impacts of otherwise abstract government policies on their everyday lives.

The paradoxes of urban permanence and meaningful belonging

Building a house in Dakar does not just provide for a family’s material needs; it also is a claim to social and urban presence. Establishing one’s own household is a critical means of asserting yourself as an adult in Senegal, and young people often describe having a house as an important prerequisite for marrying a wife (or wives) and having children. From this perspective, building a house can be seen as asserting visions of the future that are at odds with those offered by the state’s large-scale urban renewal projects.

Diaspora-funded houses in particular stand as a powerful testimony to a migrant’s commitment to the city, to her/his continued affective presence even in her/his physical absence, and to her/his desire to someday return “home.” Urbanites often encounter unfinished houses as evidence of an ongoing relationship between urban actors and the diaspora. Seen from this perspective, the futuristic visions offered by not-yet houses envision wealth not so much in terms of capital accumulation, foreign investment, and global connection, but instead in terms of the building of families and the nourishing of human connections. These dwellings are a statement of urban permanence and a claim to belonging, at least in the future tense.

What does it feel like to live amongst these building projects? How do urbanites make sense of their place in the city, and what kinds of visions do they express for their city’s future? Despite the fact that a large proportion of Dakarois would migrate abroad if given the opportunity, many urbanites nonetheless encounter these not-yet houses with profound ambivalence. These constructions and the urban permanence that they seem to promise underscore the importance of transnational migration and fuel migratory imaginaries and expectations.

President Wade went so far as to explicitly link these houses (and, in particular, the women who desire them) with an uptick in clandestine migration flows in 2006 and 2007. At the same time that urban residents express their desires to migrate and to build a home, they also vent frustrations that absent migrants have an ostensibly stronger claim to the city than they do. Indeed, Dakar’s not-yet houses are frequently indexed in debates about the fraught nature of urban belonging in a city that is increasingly expensive and exclusionary. These houses illuminate critical paradoxes about urban life and beg us to ask: In what ways are urban permanence and effective participation increasingly contingent on leaving the city-under-construction? And what kind of city might these dislocations produce?

But the spaces of these not-yet houses offer yet another glimpse of a future Dakar. Migrant-built houses have spurred vibrant economic and social circulations in the city. Newcomers hailing from Senegal’s agricultural hinterlands, devastated by prolonged economic crisis and ecological ruin, have found work laboring at construction sites, transporting materials in the city, or working as security guards for finished villas. Many of these men live in makeshift homes in the shadow of much wealthier constructions. But the city’s unfinished constructions also require an otherwise socially invisible staff of rural workers who come to the city to squat in the city’s not-yet houses. Many of these newcomers are given a small payment (or are able to squat for free) in exchange for their work guarding and tending to the otherwise vacant property. These new urbanites, in turn, insert themselves into vibrant urban economies and networks with the hope of developing deeper roots in the city that will enable them to stay after the construction projects have ended.

Dakar’s not-yet houses, then, bring into view various forms of not-yet belonging—tenuous and future-focused claims to a city that is still being imagined, debated, and constructed. This emergent city is fueled by expectations (often left unfulfilled) of capital flows funneled into the city by foreign investors and governments, international organizations, elite tourists and consumers, and Senegal’s own citizens living in the diaspora. Making sense of this future-focused capital city requires attending to the complex and often contradictory relationship between migration (both regional and transnational), ongoing neoliberal economic reform, economic uncertainty and future-focused claims, and urban exclusion and inequality.

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