Kenya: From Desperation to Dignity - Making Sense of "Hustling" in Neoliberal Nairobi

27 January 2021

What do young Nairobians mean when they call themselves "hustlers," or when they list their many "hustles" rather than "jobs"? Scholars and development practitioners alike are accustomed to thinking about the vast, self-employed workforce of contemporary African cities as "informal," with expansive literatures describing this phenomenon, its causes, and its consequences. But this informal/formal dichotomy contributes little to our understanding, especially when the so-called "informal sector" includes the overwhelming majority of the labor force, as is the case in Kenya, where it accounts for an estimated 86% of workers. It assumes informality is a singular and static experience.

A fascinating new special issue of Africa on "Harnessing the hustle," banishes this notion taking readers on a rich ethnographic plunge into young people's--mostly men's--experiences of "hustling" in Nairobi. The authors are mostly Western scholars who recognize that their interlocutors' deployment of the term "hustling," and its integration into the urban vernacular of sheng, is a form of theorization, and the collection of papers in the journal help deconstruct what this means and who it includes.

The authors of the introductory paper call hustling "a mood, an action, a positioning, and a condition," and Tatiana Thieme describes it as "an urban condition (the hustle), a practice (to hustle) and an identity marker (to be a hustler)." Claiming the practice and identity communicates that one is not just surviving the hardship of a thin, exclusionary economy, but is instead proactively investing considerable effort and skill in cracking loose new opportunities, often capitalizing on the very scarcity and neglect that prevails in their neighborhoods. The "hustler" is a winner, an urban hero, paving his own path to a more comfortable existence where "jobs" and "careers" are exceptionally and increasingly rare.

The articles in the issue link together a number of common themes that "hustling" connotes:

Connecting to global experiences of Black exclusion--The term connects with notions of "hustling" from the African American experience and references the adroit maneuvering that becomes essential to not just get by, but to make something of oneself, in contexts where young men's labor and presence is not valued or welcome. The experiences of interlocutors in the articles reflect tenuous relationships to power, where young hustlers' endeavors are embraced by state actors, but only in so far as hustlers deliver public services and can be leveraged for votes, prestige, and rents. Police arrests and killings signal that even hustlers should know their place is squarely on the periphery, that their lives are disposable and replaceable.

Alluding to skill, cleverness, aptitude, and ambition--Those who claim to be hustlers are not just surviving, they are proactively out in public using considerable skill, cleverness, and extraversion[1] to shake loose opportunities to earn income and build status that might create new income down the road. Hustlers sniff out niche opportunities and turn service gaps into enterprises based on the lack of public trash collection, water distribution, toilets, and transportation. Hustlers never have just one way to earn money; they are constantly seeking and cultivating multiple income channels.

Improvised dances with uncertainty--Hustlers navigate considerable complexity in their relationships, managing frequent, but often shallow interactions to keep ties, playing with visibility and availability to manage their competing needs to accumulate and redistribute. They also must manage a range of moral ambiguities. Shaking loose opportunities often involves deception, bribery, and evasion, all of which they learn to justify by the dominating reality of being actively blocked from more righteous paths of earning a living and building status.

Dignified masculinity--With scarce opportunities to earn a living over poverty levels, many young men, even into their 30s, struggle to fulfill their expected masculine roles as providers to their wives, children, parents, and even younger community members. The title of "hustler" substitutes the dignity of success in providing for the dignity of the effort invested in trying to do so.

The experience of hustling is far from universal. The authors make it clear that it is just one form of urban informality arising from specific conditions of gender, geography, age, opportunities, aspiration, and political landscapes and positions. They also offer us glimpses into contrasting lives. For example, Naomi van Stapele contrasts "the hustler" (who proactively cultivates and creates new opportunities) with "the fool" (stuck primarily in the same livelihood for many years). Tatiana Thieme's study of the collective enterprises of Huruma and Mathare contrasts the "old boyz" who have established more stable livelihoods and enterprises with the young hustlers still forging their paths. We also see yet a different group in the discussion of Mary Kinyanjui's recent book,* which examines forms of solidarity and distribution among more established shopkeepers and artisans in Nairobi's central business district. The "hustlers" of the collection have little in common with the "jua kali" artisans of Ngong Road, the longtime symbols of informal livelihoods in the city, but whose livelihoods are seen as skilled, singular, and somewhat stable.

The authors in this special issue offer us an intimate, enlightening view into the experiences of particular hustlers. But at the same time, we don't quite see the edges of the hustler universe. Many of my middle class, university-graduate research participants--including sellers on the regional e-commerce site, Jumia, academic essay writers--similarly embrace the title, in spite of their distance from "the ghetto,"[2] where the narratives in the volume unfold. Still, this dissection of informality opens us for productive questions about what conditions might give rise to different forms of stability, solidarity, upward mobility, and belonging. What does this tell us about the experiences of exclusion and frustration of an economy with jobless growth? And what kind of experiences will the further contraction triggered by Covid-19 produce?

This collection's centering of their interlocutors' own vocabulary and theorization of hustling proves immensely productive. The work helps translate the theory of the streets to outsiders. In the process, the collection rewards readers with new understandings of the lives and agency of young people--in a large, neoliberal, African metropolis--while simultaneously opening their minds to broader complexities of social and political inclusion.

By identifying as "mahustla," young people reclaim their own dignity and agency in an economy and political system that creates few easy opportunities and seeks to carefully contain or circumscribe spaces of rich and poor, powerful and weak.

End Notes

[1] Extraversion refers to the outward orientation of the hustlers in the special issue. They are depicted constantly cultivating their social networks to open new opportunities.

[2] This is the term many protagonists in the articles use. The term might be unpacked in a similar way as "hustling" in terms of the meanings the term is meant to convey. The authors instead promote the use of the term "popular neighborhoods." I'm left wondering whether this substitution does more to restore dignity to these communities or weaken the political statement, the anger over exclusion and neglect, which is implied by words like "slum" and "ghetto."

*The "Hustle" special issue includes a special book reviews section on the same theme. Three books featuring 12 reviews (including a response by their authors) were carefully selected to reflect the ethos of the issue.

Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.

More From: African Arguments

Don't Miss

AllAfrica publishes around 800 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.