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. 

Article published in The Funambulist 32 (November-December 2020) Pan-Africanism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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. 

Simone Funambulist (3)
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.