How are publics of protection and care defined in African cities today? The effects of globalization and neo-liberal policies on urban space are well documented. From London to São Paulo, denationalization, privatization, offshoring and cuts in state expenditure are creating enclaves and exclusions, resulting in fragmented, stratified social geographies (see Caldeira 2000; Ong 2006; Harvey 2006; Murray 2011). ‘Networked archipelagoes’, islands connected by transnational circulations of capital, displace other spatial relations and imaginaries. Spaces of encompassment, especially, such as ‘the nation’ or simply ‘society’ as defined by inclusion within a whole, lose practical value and intellectual purchase as referents of citizenship (Gupta and Ferguson 2002; Ferguson 2005). In African cities, where humanitarian, experimental or market logics dominate the distribution of sanitation and healthcare, this fragmentation is particularly stark (see, for example, Redfield 2006, 2012; Fassin 2007; Bredeloup et al. 2008; Nguyen 2012). Privilege and crisis interrupt older contiguities, delineating spaces and times of exception. The ‘public’ of health is defined by survival or consumption, obscuring the human as bearer of civic rights and responsibilities, as inhabitants of ‘objective’ material worlds ‘common to all of us’ (Arendt 1958: 52). Is it possible, under these conditions, to enact and imagine public health as a project of citizens, animated in civic space?