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Showing ‘heart’ while making money: negotiating proximity in a Ugandan marketplace

  • William Monteith

African marketplaces have long been understood as ambivalent spaces; as sites of compliance and transgression, domination and resistance. This ambivalence comes into sharp focus in the urban marketplaces that have absorbed a large proportion of the African workforce over the past four decades. One the one hand, urban markets offer opportunities for the forging of new relationships, or ‘fictive kin’, beyond the confines of consanguinity and affinity. However, on the other hand, they are fiercely competitive places in which strangers skilfully intrude into one's life. Succeeding in the market therefore requires the striking of a skilful balance between accumulation and redistribution, disclosure and concealment. This article presents an analysis of the everyday interactions and exchanges facilitated by the movements of a waste picker in Nakasero market, the oldest marketplace in Kampala, Uganda. Amid the current emphasis on improvization and provisionality as key features of urban African life, it demonstrates the importance of long-standing cultural idioms, such as omutima (‘heart’), in providing structure and meaning to the interactions of urban African inhabitants.

On présente depuis longtemps les marchés africains comme des espaces ambivalents ; des lieux de conformité et de transgression, de domination et de résistance. Cette ambivalence apparaît nettement sur les marchés urbains qui ont absorbé une large proportion de la main-d’œuvre africaine ces quarante dernières années. D'un côté, les marchés urbains offrent des opportunités pour forger de nouvelles relations, ou liens de « parenté fictive », qui dépassent le cadre de la consanguinité et de l'affinité. Mais d'un autre côté, ce sont des lieux farouchement concurrentiels dans lesquels des étrangers s'immiscent habilement dans la vie d'autrui. Réussir au sein du marché exige donc de trouver un habile équilibre entre accumulation et redistribution, divulgation et dissimulation. Cet article présente une analyse des interactions et échanges courants facilités par les déplacements d'un ramasseur de déchets sur le marché de Nakasero, le plus vieux marché de Kampala (Ouganda). Alors que l'accent est mis actuellement sur l'improvisation et la provisionnalité en tant que principales caractéristiques de la vie urbaine africaine, l'article démontre l'importance des vieux idiomes culturels, comme omutima (« cœur »), lorsqu'il s'agit de fournir une structure et du sens aux interactions des habitants urbains africains.

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