By Griet Steel
In a well-equipped, air-conditioned meeting room of the University of Khartoum, I attend a presentation of a fellow researcher on how poor people in the city of Khartoum claim public service delivery from their government. Despite the very inspiring discussion on the different actors and strategies involved in service claiming, I leave the presentation feeling dissatisfied. When it comes to debates on service provision, I wonder why academics, as well as journalists, always seem to zero-in on poor and peripheral areas in cities. This is especially limiting the debate when talking about the city of Khartoum.
I am an assistant professor at Utrecht University, SGPL department, and doing fieldwork in the city of Khartoum on female online entrepreneurship. For months I have been crisscrossing the city (actually a complicated conglomeration of Khartoum, Bahri and Oumdurman city) with my research assistant in order to visit my respondents in their homes. As most of them are from better-off families, we especially frequent rich neighbourhoods under full construction and rapid expansion. Due to a lack of signs, half-constructed streets, and chaotic planning, it often takes hours and several telephone calls before we, finally, are able to locate where my respondents live.
The most remarkable observations on these lengthy reconnoitering expeditions are the striking contrasts; impoverished and dirty streetscapes lie just at the feet of flamboyant buildings. Even our amjat or local taxi driver is taken aback; he shamefacedly and repeatedly remarks in his broken English, “Look house, look street!” These disparities become even more prominent when we pass the many refugee families making a living in these upper-class neighbourhoods. Travelling from South Sudan or other conflict-prone areas, these families guard unconstructed land and buildings against invasions and vandalism for a little money and temporary shelter. Right alongside the richest city dwellers of Khartoum, these families live with their children in flimsy cardboard houses.
Cities are by definition places of sharp contrast between striking wealth and striking poverty. But nowhere else in the world have I seen such a remarkable mix of colossal private constructions yet an almost complete absence of public investment in road infrastructure, public space and services. Even the most exclusive neighbourhoods of Khartoum have no paved roads, street lights, or systematic garbage collection services. Private water tanks rest on rooftops because the public water network is very unreliable. Pipes often burst open and turn the streets into big, muddy pools of water. At such moments, flashy cars and wealthy buildings lose their credibility. In a city that has higher land prices than megacities such as Tokyo, London and New York, it seems that investment in private housing is the only way to make clear to the world that there is money circulating in this city. It is not on the investments of the government that the capital city’s reputation relies on, but that of the real estate investors countering an international image of a country living in war and poverty.
About the author:
Griet Steel works as an assistant professor at SGPL department of Utrecht University. She has a specific research interest in the way human mobility – as an important dimension of globalization – has shaped urban development processes in the Global South. She has extensive field experience in several Latin American countries (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Nicaragua) and extended her geographical focus to the African continent by conducting research in the city of Khartoum on urban transformations, informal entrepreneurship and land governance.