Unravelling the “Ethos of Change” in African ghettos: Institutions, Stigmas, Experience

Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen's picture
Call for Publications
January 31, 2023
Subject Fields: 
African History / Studies, Immigration & Migration History / Studies, Race / Ethnic Studies, Research and Methodology, Social Sciences

Unravelling the “Ethos of Change” in African ghettos:

Institutions, Stigmas, Experience

Special Issue for the African Review,


Guest Editors: Dr. Fathima Azmiya[1], Dr. Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle[2], Mr. Wilson Ndenyele[3] and Dr. Jean-Baptiste Lanne[4]



This special issue proposal stems from a collective research project called “Politics of the Ghetto in Nairobi and Mombasa”, led between 2019 and 2022 by a multidisciplinary team. The project’s main objective was to document the lives of individuals who have been raised up in marginalized urban spaces, and are perceived by their community as figures of social notability due to their noticeable trajectories in different social spheres (arts, sport, religion, politics).

Relying on different fieldworks in Nairobi and Mombasa, we found that both their effective trajectories and self-narratives can be explained through an ethos of change, an empirically grounded concept that we will further explain below. This special issue proposal intends to gather contributions both from authors from the Politics of the Ghetto Project and external contributors, in order to discuss the relevance of this conceptual framework to describe the lives in, from, and back to the African urban margins.

From slums to ghettos: a new gaze on African urban margins.

The special issue will focus on what we call “ghettos” in African urban contexts. Urban studies in Africa and the Global South, though being uncomfortable with the iconic term of “slum” (Mbembe & Nuttall 2004; Arabindoo 2011) have long been reluctant to use and assume the word “ghetto” for describing stigmatized space of poverty and social marginalization in the city. The term indeed appeared as specific to the socio-racial division of the North American urban space (Wacquant 2005). Stepping on a burgeoning literature on African cities (Thieme 2016; Stapele 2016; Kimari 2018), we assume the word, since number of our interlocutors in the field use it to define where they live and come from. Beyond this, speaking of ghettos will help to anchor the Special Issue contributions in a shared understanding of the African urban margins. This may be understood in three ways: the ghetto as a mesh of institutions, a surface of stigmas, and a continuum of experiences. First, following Wacquant, we understand ghettos in African cities as physical spaces where an extremely dense mesh of institutions takes place. African slums are for instance saturated by NGOs, churches/mosques, public programs, sport institutions, but also private companies’ initiatives (Wamucii 2011; Thieme 2015). These institutions, which makes aid conditional to behavioural requirements, contribute in shaping specific urban lives (Di Nunzio 2015). Second, at a representational level, ghettos appear as surfaces where varied stigmas come as one undifferentiated. « Ghetto » becomes the word where different marginalities are juxtaposed with no relief: poverty, criminality, deviance, radicalization, violence, uncertainty, lack of hygiene, lack of intimacy, sickness. Recent studies have outlined how these stigmas can be strongly grounded in the toponomy of places (Wanjiru & Matsubara 2017) or sticking to mobile individuals through language (Kimari 2020) or bodies (Maticka-Tyndale, Barnett &Trocaire 2020). Third, recent works on African cities have shown that ghettos, far from being restricted to massive spaces of relegation (slums), also refer to more discrete and scattered places within the city, from spaces of sociability for young men in Ugandan marketplaces (Monteith 2018) or urban Gambia ((Janson 2014) to street corners dedicated to drug consumptions in east african cities (Beckerleg 2009). The term thus evokes a continuum of experiences between these different spaces, which forges in the individuals who pass through them a political awareness of living the city in a minor mode (Fouquet 2014). This minor mode is deployed through a specific repertoire of actions and values, which includes, among others, solidarity, sense of struggle, and provisional alliances.

Ethos of change: addressing the mobility of stigmas in the city

This Special Issue aims to contribute to these recent literatures by proposing the “ethos of change” as an analytical concept to better understand how ghettos in Africa shape specific urban lives. We call “ethos of change” the broad set of embodied norms, constructed self-narratives and routine practices that drive one to engage in a trajectory of personal change, in order to escape an initial self and environment both internalized as unsatisfying and dishonorable.

Contributions in this Special Issue will notably explore how this ethos of change is an institutional production of the ghetto. Different institutions such as NGOs, religious institutions, schools, or sports clubs do not only provide basic needs, infrastructures and knowledges to their recipients. They also promote specific behaviors (becoming a leader, having dreams, becoming responsible, being in solidarity), while devaluing others (laziness, lack of ambitions, being under the influence of peers) following their assumptions about what a ghetto boy/girl should do while trying to escape his/her situation. Coming from the ghetto, then, means having passed through different institutions whose behavioral requirements may combine, reinforce or contradict each other. Thus, what does “change” mean is blurred enough to result either in very coherent or split individual ethos.

Addressing the “ethos of change” is an advocacy effort to focus on the individual scale. This methodological choice is relatively uncommon in ghetto studies both in the Global North and the Global South. Scholars have well identified how much the ghetto stereotype has long been constructed through the prism of the mass or stock to be managed, contributing to its dehumanization and “making [it] vulnerable to abstraction” ((Morales-Moreno 201, see also Linke 2012 and Kimari 2018). Re-centering the gaze to the individual, its personal trajectory, its self-narrative and singular emotions and practices nevertheless requires reclaiming ground that has sometimes been abandoned to neoliberal discourses. By contouring the figure of the 'poor entrepreneur', these discourses promote the idea of an autonomous individual, responsible for his or her choices, always moving upwards and ready to take the next step, oriented towards standardised objectives ((Dolan et Johnstone-Louis 2011). In contrast to this, the SI contributions will help to better understand how the ethos of change, although forged through institutional experiences, is re-appropriated in a singular way by individuals, thus allowing them to create new forms of responsibility towards the collective, embedded in original temporalities and carrying ideals of their own.

On a broader level, engaging the ghetto through the lens of ethos, both internalized and performed by mobile individuals, is a way out of strict spatializing and ontologizing definitions of the urban margins, which would only be limited – with poor imagination – to a few iconic spaces (slums, shanty towns, townships, etc.). In line with urban theories of the Southern Turn ((Robinson 2006; Arabindoo 2011; Roy 2011), we argue for understanding the ghetto more as a set of fluid connections which individuals create between places through their stigmatized experiences, traces of which can be observed everywhere the city, even in privileged spaces.

Contribution axis

Building on the above elements and drawing on ethnographic fieldwork from different urban contexts in Africa, the authors of this special issue are invited to engage the following questions:

  1. Who are the privileged actors who embody and perform the ethos of change on a daily basis? What are their trajectories? How, after having internalized it, do they contribute to reproducing and transforming this ethos? The figure of the 'mentor' in different contexts of sociability could be examined, as well as the mentor/mentee relationship.
  2. How do individuals live with this ethos over time? What do they tell us about their proudness, but also their disillusion, their tiredness (of having to take on the role of mentor, for instance), their dilemmas and their tensions? Beyond individuals, in what ways do these feelings become collective? How do they lead, then, to creative initiatives, bifurcations, and resistance?
  3. Beyond institutional settings (NGO’s, schools, public programs), what are the specific places where the ethos of change is shaped and transmitted? Discrete street-corners, spaces of leisure, spaces of activism, spaces of alternative practices and artistic expression, spaces of confinement and retentions, as well as intimate spaces will be explored. Thus, how can the ghetto be imagined as a fluid network of places across the city and beyond?
  4. What does the ethos of change do to stigma? How do this ethos unfold in positive terms (the ability to change), often provoking a sense of pride, and reactivate a stigma in a pernicious way? How, then, are forms of stigma still at work, in discourses of success, or in individuals who have moved away from life in the margins? How can we, as researchers, be critical toward this ethos of change understanding different positionalities of the researcher and the researched?

If you have an interesting abstract for this call of papers, please submit your extended abstract (500 words) on or before the 30 November 2022. Once selected you will be required to submit a full paper with references (8000-12000) on or before the 06 April 2023.

If you have any questions, please email any of the editors of the special issue:

Dr. Fathima Azmiya – fazmiya@tum.ac.ke

Dr. Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle - Marie-Emmanuelle.Pommerolle@univ-paris1.fr

Dr. Jean-Baptiste Lanne - jblanne@hotmail.com

Mr. Wilson Ndenyele – wndenyele@tum.ac.ke


We look forward to the abstracts and papers to enrich the special issue in 2023.



Arabindoo, Pushpa. 2011. “Rhetoric of the ‘slum’”. City 15 (6): 636‑46. https://doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2011.609002.

Beckerleg, Susan. 2009. “Khat chewing as a new Ugandan leisure activity”. Journal of Eastern African Studies 3 (1): 42‑54. https://doi.org/10.1080/17531050802682713.

Di Nunzio, Marco. 2015. “What Is the Alternative? Youth, Entrepreneurship and the Developmental State in Urban Ethiopia”. Development and Change 46 (5): 1179‑1200. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12187.

Dolan, Catherine & Mary Johnstone-Louis. 2011. “Re-siting corporate responsibility: the making of South Africa’s Avon Entrepreneurs”. Focaal - Journal of Global and Historical Anhtropology 60: 21‑33.

Fouquet, Thomas. 2014. “Construire la Blackness depuis l’Afrique, un renversement heuristique.” [Building Blackness from Africa, a heuristic reversal]. Politique africaine, no 136: 5‑19.

Janson, Marloes. 2014. Islam, Youth, and Modernity in the Gambia: The Tablighi Jama‘at. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kimari, Wangui. 2018. « Activists, Care Work, and the ‘Cry of the Ghetto’ in Nairobi, Kenya ». Palgrave Communications 4 (1): 1‑7. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-018-0078-8.

———. 2020. « War-talk: an urban youth language of siege in Nairobi ». Journal of Eastern African Studies 14 (4): 707‑23. https://doi.org/10.1080/17531055.2020.1831847.

Linke, Uli. 2012. “Mobile Imaginaries, Portable Signs: Global Consumption and Representations of Slum Life”. Tourism Geographies 14 (2): 294‑319. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616688.2012.633218.

Maticka-Tyndale, Eleanor, Jessica Penwell Barnett & Trocaire. 2020. “Exploring the Relationship Between Stigma, Stigma Challenges, and Disclosure Among Slum-Dwelling Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence in Kenya”. Violence Against Women 26 (10): 1188‑1208. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801219856101.

Mbembe, Achille, et Sarah Nuttall. 2004. “Writing the World from an African Metropolis”. Public Culture 16 (3): 347‑72. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-16-3-347.

Monteith, William. 2018. “Showing ‘Heart’ While Making Money: Negotiating Proximity in a Ugandan Marketplace”. Africa 88 (S1): S12‑30. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0001972017001127.

Morales-Moreno, Mónica. 2011. “Displacing the “slum-line”: a narrative approach”. Social Semiotics 21 (1): 1‑13. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2011.535667.

Robinson, Jennifer. 2006. Ordinary cities: between modernity and development. Londres: Routledge.

Roy, Ananya. 2011. “Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism”. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35 (2): 223‑38.

Stapele, Naomi van. 2016. “We are not Kenyans’: extra-judicial killings, manhood and citizenship in Mathare, a Nairobi ghetto”. Conflict, Security & Development 16 (4): 301‑25.

Thieme, Tatiana. 2016. ““The Ghetto will always be y living room”: hustling and belonging in the Nairobi slums”. In Rethinking Life at the Margins. The Assemblage of Contexts, Subjects, and Politics, édité par Michele Lancione, 106‑21. Londres: Routledge.

Thieme, Tatiana A. 2015. “Turning Hustlers into Entrepreneurs, and Social Needs into Market Demands: Corporate–Community Encounters in Nairobi, Kenya”. Geoforum 59 (février): 228‑39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2014.11.010.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2005. “Les deux visages du ghetto. Construire un concept sociologique” [The two Faces of the Ghetto. Building a sociological concept]. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 160 (5): 4‑21. https://doi.org/10.3917/arss.160.0004.

Wamucii, Priscilla. 2011. “Walking the Extra Mile: Navigating Slum Identities Through Social Activism in Mathare, Kenya”. Howard Journal of Communications 22 (2): 183‑99. https://doi.org/10.1080/10646175.2011.567138.

Wanjiru, Melissa Wangui & Kosuke Matsubara. 2017. “Slum Toponymy in Nairobi, Kenya”. Urban and Regional Planning Review 4: 21‑44.




[1] Lecturer, Department of Social Sciences, Technical University of Mombasa, Kenya.

[2] Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University Panthéon Sorbonne, France / Institute of African Worlds (IMAF)

[3] Tutorial Fellow, Department of Social Sciences, Technical University of Mombasa, Kenya.

[4] Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University Paris City, France / Center for the Studies of Social Sciences in Africa, America and Asia (CESSMA)

Contact Info: 

If you have any questions, please email any of the editors of the special issue:

Dr. Fathima Azmiya – fazmiya@tum.ac.ke

Dr. Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle - Marie-Emmanuelle.Pommerolle@univ-paris1.fr

Dr. Jean-Baptiste Lanne - jblanne@hotmail.com

Mr. Wilson Ndenyele – wndenyele@tum.ac.ke

Contact Email: