Cities as Hinge: the Mechanics of a Pan-African Dream by Abdoumaliq Simone



Once strategic assets for colonial powers, African cities can be discussed in the context of Pan-Africanist politics. In this article, AbdouMaliq Simone follows the many lives of Amadou Diallo across the cities of the continent and beyond, providing a fruitful backdrop to rethink African interconnectedness. 

The Continent main cities’ constellation and their neighbors. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2020).

A long-time friend and collaborator, Amadou Diallo, remarked a few days before Guinean President Sékou Touré’s death in 1984, that African cities were hinges, their primary purpose to set different angles of openings and closure. As hinges, they had no intrinsic identity themselves, but rather were modulations of light and darkness, focusing alternating perspectives on things, at times widening exposures to some great outdoors; at other times, narrowing the gaze, withdrawing observers inward. Diallo started his career at age 10, selling loose cigarettes in the Chicago neighborhood of Conakry. Once a bastion of loyalty to the Pan African dreams of Touré, nevertheless the district bore the brunt of his paranoia fed by psychotic mystics from the Futa Jallon mountains. It was from these mountains that Diallo had moved to the Guinean capital when he was two years old, mountains that supplied factory workers in Nanterre, taxi drivers in the Bronx, bankers in Dakar, and gem dealers in Brazzaville. 

For Diallo, hinges were the essential technical feature of thresholds that had to be marked among multiple belongings and realities. They permitted differentiated degrees of access, in turn mediating everyday decisions as to what and where one should be. “Africa is not something you bring home or take with you; not something to believe in or to recognize as you move around,” he was fond of saying; “it is only a door never completely open or closed.” By this he meant that Africa was literally an “outlook,” a shifting vantage point from and through which to engage the world; something that could be narrowed down to a microscopic visibility or widened to take everything in without discrimination or discretion. 

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The Kenyatta International Conference Center in Nairobi. / Photo by Jordi C.

As such, the Pan African dreams that were the stuff of daily tutelage through Diallo’s primary and secondary education, were not those of some united polity eviscerating colonial borders nor of some consolidation of Black peoples dispersed across seas, but something much simpler yet elusive: dreams of spreading out, being more or less this or that, of occupying different versions of oneself to audiences that would never be the same twice. Dreams were those of a life beyond capture, for even as many African societies had been based on the prospects of seizing or being seized, of being captivated by different streams of thought, the ethos of the Futa was essentially “never give anything away.” One can be dispossessed, charitable, or sacrifice anything, but never show all of your cards. Younger and thoroughly urbanized Fulbe from the region would often complain that their elders never told them anything, never shared the essential secrets or wisdom, always invoking that what they needed to know was “right in front of them” if only they could see it, if only they altered the angle on which they looked at things. But the rule of the Futa was never divulged directly, and never stayed still long enough to ever be fully “illuminated.” 

Here again, the hinge points to questions of access, touching upon the preoccupations of many African societies with the politics of exposure, of modulating just how much of the world can be let in at any given time, and what has to remain closed off. For within a generalized West African Islamic ethos, every person is inscribed in and by a specific project that can only be realized through deterring constant attempts by others to extract from it, to dilute or distort it. Thus, what one performs, in all of the different versions of oneself that can be dissimulated on the basis of everything that project is not, is a constantly moving hinge that never stabilizes the lines of sight and exposure. In a twist of W.E.B. Du Bois’ notion of the veil being the demarcation between white and Black life lived in the same city or country, here the public persona is itself a veil, driven by the contents of a project that remains inaccessible to all potential viewers, that only manages to realize itself indirectly, that never culminates in a single state or cultural imagination. For Diallo, this is his sense of what Pan African meant. 

Accessing Worlds and Hinging on Dissimulation /// 

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Casablanca. / Photo by TinasDreamworld.

This is not to obviate all of the other kinds of Pan African dreams that were oriented toward some concretization of unity or political coordination, some valorization of racial-cultural commonality, or at least some elaboration of critical thought that recognized its fundamental connections to multiple diasporas. These dreams were certainly for a long time mulled and deliberated across mission schools, army bases, universities, trade unions, masonic lodges, political parties, Islamic brotherhoods, women’s fraternities, and market associations. Contested versions of these dreams certainly informed the responses to the protracted negotiations around eventual sovereignty and subsequent consolidations and dissolutions of regional blocks, currencies, and trade regimes. Cities that long held stranger’s quarters, shifting and mobile populations from multiple elsewheres, in most respects embodied the folding in of cultural influences, political ideas, and trades that originated from across a larger Black world and actively sought to be involved in that world as a matter of national identity. 

The capacity to sustain, extend, and participate in a larger world, however, remained largely dependent on the expansion of highly localized and territorially rooted extraction activities. Despite the early postcolonial emphasis on import substitution and industrialization, the imperative to circumvent being extracted from, ironically, was linked to a trajectory of an economic modernization almost exclusively based on the extraction of resources. This usually meant a concentration on gold, diamonds, oil, copper, cocoa, and palm oil. Such re-intensification of seemingly “colonial-oriented” economies raised issues about belonging-who are the original inhabitants of specific regions and to whom does the site of extraction belong? At times this meant that diverse groups who lived together for decades, if not longer, treated each other as strangers. There were pressures on people to acquire land and assets, not in the areas where they may have lived all of their lives, but in their area of family origin. Disputes broke out across the continent as to who is a citizen and who has the right to vote where. At the same time, most African cities persisted to be domains of “strange alliance.” Beneath the veneer of discernible ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms, all kinds of collaborations could be continuously, if often only provisionally, be pieced together, given the importance of dissimulation in terms of friends and enemies. 

Often, fights about belonging and the rights incumbent on belonging for access to resources were more about what the control of resources meant to enhancing the possibilities to operate on the level of the larger world. The attempts were often not to bring territory under the singular control of a particular force, but to create as many possibilities of linking that territory to a plurality of allegiances and opportunities. This plurality would then enable local actors to feel that their operations in localized spaces were also conduits to or extensions of a much larger world. The fight was not so much over the terms of territorial encompassment or closure, but rather over maintaining a sense of “open-endedness.” Narrow, seemingly parochial factions and groupings predominate in these conflicts. But the specific configuration of “sides” is not so much directed toward defending specific turf. Rather, the participating factions, ethnicities, or affiliations were honed to better manage shifting allegiances and participation in multiple external networks. Again, the notion of the hinge is at work, regarding territory not necessarily as culminations of attainment or manifestations of essential identities, but rather as apertures, where different representations of reality depended upon “shutter speeds” and other modulations of angle and exposure. 

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La Pyramide in Abidjan. / Photo by Newphotoservice.

African cities were largely constructed as points of contact — as places to organize the evacuation of resources and to construct mechanisms through which broader territories could be administered. While they continue to play this role in the postcolonial period, critical points of convergence and articulation with the global economy do, however, take place outside these functions. No longer, if ever, simple nodes of evacuation, Diallo’s notions of the hinge are particularly applicable in the ways in which African cities modulate different exposures and angles for their inhabitants, of widening and narrowing specific vectors of contact and exchange. The rhythms of long-honed local institutions may endure — the burial societies, the tontines, the market associations, the secret societies, the churches and mosques. But with increased media savvy and the capacity to invent all kinds of both sophisticated and make shift communication tools, new hybrid sensibilities, cultural materials, and languages are being invented that enable more voluminous lateral connections across different subregions. 

Many urban streets remain tough, bastions of intensified militancy and hustle, no-go areas for many, as illegalities pile up in some urban contexts that are increasingly overwhelmed by the demands made of them by unrelenting youth bulges and inward migrations. At the same time, when it is possible, very few are sitting still. If one has a bit of extra money you are on your way somewhere, even if only a different place in the same city. 

Additionally, the manner in which individuals act or behave at the interfaces or junctions with global economies — i.e., how they access and manipulate opportunities to acquire widely divergent volumes of extracted resources — occurs largely outside the conventions and moral economies of either village or urban-based contexts. Here, individuals, working as renegade miners, diamond purchasers, chasers, smugglers, financiers, go-betweens, and agents of multinational corporations, are continuously “re-socialized” by multiple, often ephemeral, institutions that attempt to give some shape to these engagements and economic activities. Pan Africanism as hinge is more a matter of ebbs and flows that take place across mostly indirect channels, contingent upon the willingness and the performative ability of individuals and groups to recognize themselves across various dissimulations, across various versions of what they are and could be — part of the essential toolkit for being on the road. It’s always a temporary thing. 

A Pan African Machine /// 

“It was always going to be only temporary,” Amadou Diallo said when referring to almost everything in his long life. The simple mud brick house he acquired from a cousin executed by Sékou Touré, his multifarious residencies in some 20 cities across the world and the durations of his stay. His life was always going to be on the move in order to exist even as many aspects were replete with permanence. As a young man he simply bought cloth in Togo and brought it to a simple stall in a peripheral market in Conakry. Decades later he was arranging containers of textiles, electronics, foodstuffs, and hardware from Shenzhen to ports across West Africa. Having spent years shuttling between Bangkok, Dubai, Abidjan, and Conakry, he was one of the first generation of African traders to base themselves in Guangzhou, later, spreading out across other Chinese entrepôt before heading to Mumbai as China got “overcrowded.” 

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Johannesburg. / Photo by Sopotnicki.

At first, he collected money from family members in the Futa in order to purchase wax cloth from markets in Lomé to and from which he traveled by road in a string of shared taxis, the roofs piled high with assortments of tarpaulin covered goods. After the extractions from different versions of police at seemingly endless roadblocks along the route, he made little profit from arduous efforts, sometimes shifting his forays into more obscure frontier and improvised markets, whose temporary existence sometimes meant that they had already gone by the time he arrived. At the outset his generosity was a skill, as he went out of his way to display kindness and information to fellow compatriots, offering to tend to a host of small difficulties that Guineans living or traveling across West Africa had back home. But he rarely said anything about what this help consisted of or much about himself, the helper. What I did know was that coming from a family of well-known marabouts, Quranic teachers and counsellors, there were networks of contacts in Conakry, Kankan, and Kissidougou — the main trading towns — to which he could appeal, and from which he could take orders for different goods. He ingrained himself into the long-resident Guinean community in Treichville, Abidjan, but then set himself somewhat apart in near-by Koumassi where he could maneuver more freely outside the rigid Fulbe hierarchies of his home region, make contacts with related Fulani merchants coming from Nigeria, Senegal, and Niger also seeking temporary respite from prolonged periods of apprenticeships and obligations to a host of “big men.” Operating outside of the order of things, these interchanges and sometimes alliances were maintained under the radar and largely could be only temporary. They, nevertheless, proved useful as a means to posit backdoor channels into otherwise tightly controlled marketing systems. 

By the early 1980s word was spreading that Dubai was a cheap place to buy textiles and clothing as well as other consumables. The city had amassed substantial warehouse space, had completed a new port, and was a relatively easy point of access to goods coming from all over Africa. Import fees were low, storage space cheap, there were almost no controls over exports, and visas were freely available. For those not knowing Dubai, initially the acquisition of visas was tied to hotel stays and to brokerage through specific trading clearing houses. While these linkages greatly facilitated efficiencies in emerging trading networks, they were also instituted by the Emirates to ensure temporary stays. But as traders converged on Dubai from all across Africa and Asia, the resultant heterogeneity of visitors and activities largely mitigated these controls, and Amadou set up his first trading company, expanding the scope of his purchases to supply markets at the peripheries of Abidjan, Accra, and Conakry to avoid the layers of middlemen that operated as gatekeepers to the major central urban markets. Initially, Amadou pursued an empty suitcase mode during his early forays to Dubai, but soon started shifting increased volumes to Porto Novo, Benin, which for years acted as a freeport for West Africa. 

Islamic connections initially proved important as a means of securing places to stay and store outside the official logistical systems. For at every level, Dubai was about repeating temporariness, providing an infrastructure for coming and going without institutionalization of residence or commerce. Of course this has substantially changed over the past decades, and Amadou, himself, retains several restaurants, a freight forwarding company, and two warehouses in the Deira district. Still, a major move Amadou made was to enroll in an Islamic studies course at the then recently opened University of Sharjah, enabling him to deepen and extend his relationships with younger Emiratis themselves looking for ways to take advantage of the burgeoning international trade. Amadou’s trademark generosity then could be used to assist other Guinean traders passing through and to cultivate their loyalty and work in Guinea, as well as Côte d’Ivoire. This assistance was not only extended to Guinean nationals but to Africans coming from other regions, and Amadou’s ability to purchase property in both Dubai and Sharjah enabled him to establish hospitality centers that could assist with a variety of problems around documentation, fake brokerage, and onerous fees and custom duties at various African ports of entry. 

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Cairo. / Photo by Leonid Andronov.

But in this business, as Amadou puts it, everything “lasts only for the moment” — that no matter how effectively a trader institutionalizes him or herself in a given location or set of trading networks, no matter how much trust is cultivated, the composition of the game itself and its players exude volatility difficult to stabilize, particular in face of a swarm of younger itinerants willing to take cut-throat risks and aim for quick money. Modulating the necessary balances between reliable information and contacts, the expansion of consumer markets, while at the same time curtailing the number of intermediaries necessary to do so, all requires constant adjustment, as in the hinge. Displays of efficacy — in acquiring cheap goods and cheap transport — often means sharing sourcing and distribution networks in order to retain visibility as a predominant player. Yet, at the same time, Amadou always had to downplay his real capacity, lessen his chances of becoming a target of envy, so operations, inputs, contacts, names on businesses, statuses within various communities had to be shifted, ever so slightly, but again imbuing everything with a sense of temporariness. Particularly as he tried to fulfill his obligations at home — something which he preferred to but could not reasonably circumvent — notoriety in commercial endeavors invited unwelcome attention from bureaucrats and politicians always willing to arbitrarily invent or apply arcane regulations that always amounted to escalating shakedowns. Particularly from a Fulbe region in a country where up until recent years Malinke ruled, Amadou remained committed to a series of modest retails outlets under his own name, even though it took the lion’s share of the proceeds from some of the city’s predominant commerçants. 

Technical Africa /// 

Simone Funambulist (9)
Kariakoo Market in Dar es Salaam. / Photo by Ismizotz.

Amadou would go on to establish successful ventures in Bangkok, Guangzhou, Yiwa, and finally Mumbai, always staying a step ahead of crowded competition and repression of African entrepreneurship when it became too visible to Asian “hosts.” Always working the hinge modulating visibility and invisibility, solidarity and multiple autonomies, money and spirit, Amadou demonstrates how the apparent parochial and baroque commercial ties long characterizing the economic life of the Futa precipitated wide ranging prototypes for being African in the larger world. Filling containers in Guangzhou destined for various ports of call in West Africa were carefully curated to address the consumption needs of both an aspiring elite and itinerant farmers in the backlands of the Sahel, as commerce was viewed as both solidifying existent lines of articulation and developing new ones. Amadou’s forwarding companies in Dubai existed not only to circumvent constricted customs, but also to host an often-motley crew of Islamic students, young women workers staffing offices and hotels on their own for the very first time, and adventurers without clear objectives. For commerce was to be a conduit of dispersed occupations, an unsettling of fixed expectations, all of which turned the cities he passed through into imaginary inventions. 

Pan Africanism here goes beyond political aspiration or the familiar tropes of solidarity. Rather, it hinges itself on the multiplicity of more technical operations and strategic implantations across disparate terrains, using whatever means are available to engender connections, lines of stabilization and flight. As something perhaps infrastructural, it is the culmination of many like Amadou plying the world, never regarding a particular place as a definitive destination, yet never losing sight of all that the Chicago’s of Conakry might very well be, right now.