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Suburbs of distinction: middle class boundary work in Dar Es Salaam

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If the African middle class is growing, what impact is this social group having on Africa’s cities? In this paper I examine suburbanization as one important effect of middle class growth in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Suburbs, defined as single houses in individual plots, sometimes surrounded by a garden and/or wall, have existed in Dar es Salaam since at least the 1970s sites and services schemes in places like Sinza and Kijitonyama, located 10-15km from the city centre. These places have now undergone low-rise densification (subdivided plots, more buildings on plots) and the frontier of suburban growth has moved outwards into the city’s former rural hinterland. Suburban space provides an important window onto the contemporary practices of middle class distinction in urban Africa. Here I examine these practices through middle class boundary work (Lamont 1992). The concept of boundary work draws attention to the on-going social and cultural politics of difference. It is always contested and it is not always clear what the outcomes will be. What I want to examine in this paper is the ways in which boundary work is inherently material and spatial. Space/location is often invoked metaphorically in discussions of the cultural work that goes into the making of middle classness, such as the making of class distinctions ‘above’ and ‘below’ the middle. But in suburban Dar es Salaam there are also explicitly spatial tactics that are crucial to boundary work. The paper outlines two ways in which the boundary work of the middle classes is spatialized: first, through the claiming and securing – putting boundaries around – land; and second, through the narratives attached to particular landscapes. Land matters for the making of class distinctions, not just in the sense of land ownership, but also in terms of the aesthetic and physical properties of the landscape. The overall effect of spatialized boundary work is the depoliticization of class distinctions in a society where class talk is often achieved through indirect and vernacular narratives. People engage in everyday boundary work on land and landscape that depoliticizes growing inequality while at the same time reproducing it.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Lent Seminar Series series.

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