Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Slum yards and informal settlements were a major threat to state control in British West Africa. Perceived as hotbeds of illegal activity and insolent work habits, they nonetheless became spaces of radicalism, cultural development and urban cosmopolitanism. During World War II these cities attracted hundreds of young men and women who were impatient with the slow pace of political change promoted by the government. Enugu, Nigeria, the seat of West Africa’s only coal mine and a regional headquarters, exemplified this radicalism. Here angry educated men, militant coal miners and restless poor, formed coalitions reflecting a Communist influence and the militant nationalism of the Gold Coast’s Kwame Nkrumah. Local officials resisted housing improvements lest they attract even more rural Africans away from the ‘controlling influence’ of autocratic village elders and chiefs. But visionaries in the Colonial Office advocated reform reflecting concerned that ‘respectable’ government workers, whose meager wages plunged them into penury, would be ‘contaminated’ by the ‘dangerous classes’ - prostitutes, murderers and thieves. They built ideal housing estates to insulate 'responsible' workers from the lumpen work culture of indiscipline, indolence and dangerous criminality. Thus, skilled workers were resettled in modern labor camps where they were subjected to new forms of state intervention by social welfare workers concerned with their diet, health and family life.
This paper uses these policy shifts, which attempted to destroy breeding grounds of criminality and radicalism, to give us important insights into the ways that Africans ‘imagined’ the city and preserved autonomy under intensified monitoring. Using detailed oral histories of coal miners, the paper documents how African workers manipulated the laws and state policies to craft traditions of radicalism and preserve a culturally distinct community.