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Magical Kenya: Where the Fantastic Blends With the Mundane to Produce the Unbelievable

12 min read.

Only by grasping the political processes that reproduce death, destruction and destitution will Kenyans finally exorcise the demons of their history.

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MAGICAL KENYA: Where the fantastic blends with the mundane to produce the unbelievable
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“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness in this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:12

The first episode of the popular Netflix series Narcos opens with the title card: “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”

Magical realism as a literary genre presents the supernatural and the fantastic in an otherwise mundane, ordinary real-life setting. These magical elements are presented in the story in a matter-of-fact way, without explanation or even being remarked upon. It is not quite science fiction, or straight-up fantasy writing. The writer does not create a fictional universe to set the story. It is something more subtle, more murky. It is the integration of the supernatural with the ordinary, like the ghosts in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, who visit the real world without being haunting or terrifying like they would be in a classic horror movie. The reader, therefore, accepts the marvellous as normal and common.

Now in its third season, Narcos’ story arc of notorious druglord Pablo Escobar places his fantastic wealth and opulence in the realm of magical realism – at one point Escobar offered to pay off Colombia’s entire national debt of $10 billion from his own pocket. His criminal enterprise was spending $2,500 a month just on rubber bands to wrap bank notes from the proceeds of drug trafficking, and at one point was losing 10% of its income – always stashed in cash – to rats and mould. When Escobar’s family was hiding from the police in a mountainside farmhouse, his daughter became ill and hypothermic, so he burned $2million of currency notes to keep her warm.

Now in its third season, Narcos’ story arc of notorious druglord Pablo Escobar places his fantastic wealth and opulence in the realm of magical realism – at one point Escobar offered to pay off Colombia’s entire national debt of $10 billion from his own pocket.

WTF?!

The problem with explaining Escobar as magical is that it obscures the very real-life political processes, historical context and foreign policy strategies that make an Escobar possible. The notorious Colombian druglord comes on the scene during the Cold War, in the midst of a civil war in his country. The right-wing factions of that war have had US/CIA support almost uninterruptedly. The US/CIA supports the drug trade when it suits their political and foreign policy interests. (See the Iran/Nicaragua Contra affair.) Most of the profits from the drug trade went to the United States as illegal money to be laundered in CIA-linked banks.

Kidnappings, murders, and fantastic wealth are not things that “just happen” in a magical place south of Miami. [For a wonderfully insightful long read on why Narcos is not magical realism, see this blog post by Diana Méndez]. Still, it is difficult for most of us to grasp political processes that produce death, destruction and destitution. We see the effects, but we can’t really explain what has happened. They are too big or abstract for us to grasp, and too nefarious and diabolical for us to believe.

So some turn to magical realism, an artistic attempt to capture the unbelievable in a setting where these things happen frequently. Magical realism expresses a “’Third World’ consciousness,” Salman Rushdie once said, societies where “the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’ where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on”. Rushdie pointed out that in the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, “impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun”.

***

I never read Emmanuel Eni’s Delivered from the Powers of Darkness when I was a child, but it was a hugely influential part of my Christian discourse and formation in the late 1980s and 1990s. In Christian Union meetings, in youth group discussions, in passionate sermons and testimonies, the Nigerian evangelist’s influence was everywhere.

Rushdie pointed out that in the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, “impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun”.

The plot can be summarised thus: An adolescent Eni, orphaned and insecure, is introduced into satanism by a former schoolmate who is in her twenties and improbably wealthy. The friend confesses that it is her interaction with the occult that has got her to her present status, and she introduces him to the occult congregation, many of whom are intellectuals.

Then impossible things happen – human sacrifice, teleportation, bloody rituals, shape-shifts into animal form, descending to the bottom of the sea on a staircase to meet the “Queen of the Coast”, a beautiful woman with whom he seals a contract that would guarantee him riches, and so on. (Eni constantly reminds the reader that these were real events, happening in his physical form.)

The second half of the book deals with his conversion: He meets Jesus Christ himself –who he describes as a beautiful man. After the powers of darkness have been exorcised, he becomes an active member of the Assemblies of God church.

I recently conducted a very unscientific survey on Twitter, asking followers what they remembered about the book; what it felt like to read and talk about it. “Scary”, “chilling’, “terrifying”, came up again and again.

Others said: “I’m still haunted by it”; “stayed up all night afraid of the darkness”; “so confused…it took me a long time to recover”. “It was one of those books that was passed around in class. Hastily read in rounds during preps,” KipropKimutai (@Tiboron) tweeted.

But this wasn’t the kind of fear one feels in a fictional horror film, which can nervously be laughed away once the credits start rolling. The real terror of the stories of satanic riches – of which Eni’s tale was just one of an entire genre of books, movies, sermons and devotionals – was in the way the supernatural and the quotidian were colliding in a way that was fantastic yet…plausible. For most people who read the tale, there was something you just couldn’t shake off.

The narratives of satanic riches are plausible for two reasons. First, the fact that they are confessional actually adds to their credibility – if one confesses to doing despicable deeds which no one would ever like to be accused of, that makes the confession very credible. “For anyone who admits to having killed others by witchcraft or done harm to people must indeed be telling the truth. Since Eni admits to having killed, the rest of the story is taken at face value,” researcher Birgit Meyer argues.

But second is the fact that a crucial element of the stories of satanic riches was the sacrificing of one’s reproductive capacity (the devil would make one barren in exchange for riches) or sacrificing of actual loved ones, such as a spouse, child or relative. The crux of the story is that money is never obtained for nothing, but always in exchange for a human being, preferably a blood relative or spouse, or a future offspring.

In the context of a collapsing economy and dilapidation of social services – as was happening in most of Africa at that time in the 1980s and 1990s – the family is the only meaningful social safety net for most people. Therefore, it is not a huge imaginative leap to argue that the only way one could become rich in that context is by neglecting one’s loved ones, by ignoring pleas for help from poorer relatives, by meanness and avarice. Only an individual who has become atomised and who is disconnected from the wider community is willing to sacrifice other people’s lives for wealth; everyone else is likely to be drained by the competing demands of spouses, children and extended relations. Magical realism tells us that whether that sacrifice is literal or metaphorical is not the point; the point is that something is off; something doesn’t add up, some evil is at work here.

People can sense the dehumanising logic of capitalism that discards real human lives with alarming indifference. It is the logic that allows an accident victim to die a wholly preventable death because a cash deposit has not been paid for a bed in ICU. It is the logic that makes it okay to have a country where pastoralists are ejected from their own land because they are not “contributing to the economy”, as was once said of the pastoralists in Laikipia. It is the logic that produces a Kenya where less than 0.1% of the population (8,300 people) owns more wealth than the bottom 99.9% (more than 44 million people). It is the logic that reduces all human activity to a form of economic calculation, dismissing love, empathy and care as powerful but unfortunate delusions. It is a form of creating that actually destroys creation, in the words of Prof. Willie J. Jennings of Yale University. “This is not the logic of breaking eggs to make omelettes. The horror here is distorting the bodies of chickens to maximise egg production unto death. This logic drives creation towards death.” By keeping track of the trail of blood that taints every exploitative capitalistic success story, the stories of satanic riches are, in a way, a site of resistance.

People can sense the dehumanising logic of capitalism that discards real human lives with alarming indifference. It is the logic that allows an accident victim to die a wholly preventable death because a cash deposit has not been paid for a bed in ICU. It is the logic that makes it okay to have a country where pastoralists are ejected from their own land because they are not “contributing to the economy”

***

In 1994, the then President Daniel arap Moi established the Devil Worship Commission following a sustained campaign by the church, supported by the media, that the existence and extent of devil worship in Kenya should be investigated. The devil worship inquiry was triggered by a claim by the head of the Anglican Church that educational institutions in Kenya were in danger of being taken over by devil worshippers and that parents should be wary of which schools they take their children to.

On 21st August 1993, the Minister for Education issued a directive to expel all devil-worshipping children from public schools. The following day, in reaction to the minister’s directive, the Daily Nation, in an editorial, stated that parents needed to be told more about devil worship so that they could avoid taking their children to schools where it is practised.

The momentum had begun. A few months later, the Standard, citing an education official, said that devil worship was rampant in Western Kenyan schools, and another official said the same about schools in Taita Taveta district. Eventually, the issue made it to the floor of Parliament when two MPs called on the Minister of Education to institute a probe into devil worship, which was “threatening public schools”.

The following day, the Daily Nation joined in and, in an editorial, claimed that “time seems to have come for a serious inquiry into the whole diabolical business, if only for peace of mind of many parents.” Vice President George Saitoti reiterated the same two days later, decrying the rise in devil worship in Kenya. Church leaders, members of parliament, and ordinary Kenyans – sometimes through angry letters to the editor – continued to pile on the pressure.

On 20th October 1994, President Moi announced that a commission of inquiry would be formed to look into the matter of devil worship in Kenya. He noted the ongoing public discourse on devil worship and said, “If these reports are true, then this obnoxious and ungodly practice must be checked.”

The Daily Nation carried in its editorial the headline, “Here is a most welcome probe”, in reference to the Commission. The editorial claimed that the setting up of an official inquiry was the right thing “given the emotive nature surrounding the issue of Satanism”. It added that the inquiry “is welcome as its aim is to remove the murkiness that has surrounded allegations of existence of this practice and the fear it has generated among parents, church leaders and ordinary people”.

It is not a coincidence that this fear-mongering was happening in Moi’s Kenya. Magical realism was happening in real life at that time, the fantastic and the mundane existing side-by-side. A 25-year-old named Kamlesh Pattni somehow contrived an audacious financial buccaneering scheme that promptly drained Kenya of 10% of its Gross Domestic Product. The scheme, dubbed the Goldenberg Scandal, began in 1991, almost immediately after the Kenya government, following directions from the IMF, introduced measures to reform the economy and increase international trade and investment.

Precisely how they did it – by manipulating regulations on export compensation in an economy strapped for hard currency – is complicated to explain (See this wonderfully detailed article by Peter Warutere, one of the leading financial journalists who covered the too-crazy-to-believe scandal as it unfolded.) By all accounts, Goldenberg was a high-level conspiracy “by senior officials of the Moi administration, together with local and international wheeler-dealers who ostensibly capitalised on the government’s desperation for foreign exchange and the greed of Moi’s cronies. These cronies displayed an insatiable appetite for plundering the economy even when it was flat on its back,” wrote Warutere.

The effects of the scam – even though it is difficult to explain how it had happened – were obvious to everyone. Interest rates rose to a stunning 80% per annum. Goldenberg tore through Kenya’s political, economic and social fabric, plunging Kenya into a decade of recession and decay. By one estimate, it will take three generations for Kenya to fully recover from the effects of the scheme.

When you have a generation of parents who cannot adequately explain why they are unable to afford their children a better life than they had, the discourse of “generational curses” gains power. It must be the devil, and in a way, they are right.

***

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God… ” 2 Corinthians 10:4

When you have a generation of parents who cannot adequately explain why they are unable to afford their children a better life than they had, the discourse of “generational curses” gains power. It must be the devil, and in a way, they are right.

In today’s Kenya, we are constantly bombarded with the fantastic and the unbelievable, but delivered to us in the implausibly dry and composed tones of the evening news. Everything seems normal – the lights; the blue, orange or brown set; the TV station logo in the corner of the screen; the scrolling ticker tape of news highlights at the bottom.

But the words being spoken are in the realm of the absolutely fantastic: billions of shillings being carted away in sacks in broad daylight; poisoned sugar that may or may not be on your table right now; a man eating githeri getting a Head of State Commendation; horrible sexual abuse of children, babies, grandmothers; murders of wives, husbands, entire families; a probably unlicensed, collapsed dam that sweeps nearly 50 people to their death, just like that. On and on.

No one flinches. No one’s voice breaks. No Kanye West blurting out “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” No one seems on the edge of tears. Perhaps that’s the truly amazing thing – the objectivity and professionalism with which we are calmly reporting our own death and destruction.

Theologian Emilie Townes describes the fantastic as [living] in those moments of uncertainty when it is not clear if what we perceive or experience is an illusion of the senses (which makes it a product of the imagination and the laws of the world remain intact), and when we detect that the event has actually taken place but laws unknown to us control reality.

Yet the fantastic is much more; it is also being comfortable with the supernatural or what may seem supernatural to others. In other words, the fantastic may be the everyday for those who live in it. They may not find the presence of ghosts or shifted realities unusual.

For me, the fantastic – and especially those obscure, real-world processes that produce suffering and evil – can be distilled into the notion of strongholds, powers and principalities that the New Testament talks about in 2 Corinthians 10 and in Ephesians 6.

Structures of domination and oppression that are too big and too nefarious for us to grasp, the ones that make the unbelievable frequently invade our daily lives, are those powers and principalities talked about “in high and low places”. They reproduce evil with alarming regularity, sometimes even without the malicious participation of those involved.

Here are some examples. The Brand Kenya master plan describes Kenya as “an exotic destination that is surprisingly familiar, where people and nature live in harmony alongside ambitious economic developments”. Wandia Njoya has critiqued this racist, self-loathing logic that makes Kenyans see their own country as an investment destination for foreigners first, and the needs of Kenyan citizens way down the priority list – after all, they are just living “alongside” economic developments. Which is why a minister can be more concerned about what foreign tourists will think about us than that mercury in sugar that might be poisoning Kenyans.

Rasna Warah has written about Nairobi as a city where “contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent”, where more than 80% of trips are made on foot, bicycle or by public transport, yet the lack of adequate pavements and bicycle paths has resulted in unnecessary deaths of pedestrians and cyclists; in fact, cycling and walking are considered among the most dangerous forms of transport in Kenya.

Darius Okolla has argued that social mobility in Kenya is a figment of our imagination – less than half a million Kenyans are middle class, in a population of more than 44 million, and 85% of Kenyans will remain in the social class they were born in. Yes, there is always the anecdotal and inspirational rags-to-riches story, of the charcoal to gold variety, but the vast, vast majority of poor people will remain poor, as a result of a non-existent and dysfunctional public sector.

I could go on and on.

There are forces at work here that make us hate ourselves and each other, that make us express more sympathy for buildings than for human beings, as Kiambu governor Ferdinand Waititu did recently when he pleaded that buildings built on riparian land be spared from demolitions and that the rivers be moved instead. Yet he expressed no such sympathy for the thousands of human beings being evicted from their homes in Kibera at the crack of dawn to make way for a road, against a court order and against all sense of human decency. This is not normal.

Destroying arguments that seem sensible but keep people in oppression is part of the work of imagining freedom. Shining a hard, unrelenting light on structures of domination should be the work of writers, journalists, artists and preachers in this moment, because the work of domination happens in that uncanny place where the imaginary and the real collide – to deadly effect.

However, the acts of controlling and manipulating human lives through processes of domination and subordination are not inevitable or unanswerable, just as the diabolical deeds of Pablo Escobar were not magical. They were aided and abetted by an intersection of history, politics, market forces, technology and foreign policies. Complex, yes. But not magical.

Destroying arguments that seem sensible but keep people in oppression is part of the work of imagining freedom. Shining a hard, unrelenting light on structures of domination should be the work of writers, journalists, artists and preachers in this moment, because the work of domination happens in that uncanny place where the imaginary and the real collide – to deadly effect.

We need to deconstruct that “fantastic hegemonic imagination”, in the words of Emilie Townes, which reproduces structural evil in our society. It will take deconstructing and probably destroying the institutions that are founded on colonial, capitalist logics. As Wandia Njoya says, Kenyans will have to go through a national mental re-engineering that heals us of our inferiority complex and deals with our historical wounds, and then write an affirmation of dignity as human beings. Only then can we be delivered from the powers of darkness.

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Christine Mungai is a writer and journalist based in Kenya. Currently, she is the curator for Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space that supports public-interest storytelling. She was a 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Her work has been published in The Elephant, The Africa Report, Rest of World, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and Adi Magazine, among other outlets.

Politics

Moving to the Metropole: Migration as Revolution

In an act that should be seen as revolutionary, Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent.

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When African students and other black persons escaping Ukraine at the start of the Ukraine-Russia conflict were being ejected from exiting transport (trains and busses) and denied entry into neighbouring Poland, many Africans were enraged with the shameless display of racism. One of these Africans was a middle-aged man from Congo—must have been a graduate student—only recently settled in Germany. Seated inside a café at the Berlin central train station with five of his German and British friends, he exploded: “One wonders how they built all these things? From where did you get all this money? Look where we are, this Hauptbahnof [main train station] must have consumed a fortune. The vehicles you make? No way!” His monologue lasted a while as his friends listened either in agreement or disbelief: “This is our money,” he went on.  “This is why you never stop these civil wars on the continent only to treat us like sub-humans. But we will not stop coming, whatever the cost!” he declared. His voice sounded austere, choked with emotion. None of his friends volunteered an immediate response. Then one said, this Ukraine situation is embarrassing.

While the angry tirade was sparked by the treatment of Africans trying to escape a war zone, clearly, this man had thought about all this stuff for some time. He must have been educated or observant enough to make the connections between the extraction back home in the DRC, the endless violent wars, the resources in Europe (as coming from his home), and the racist treatment of his kindred who otherwise deserve some respect for sustaining the beautiful lifestyles and infrastructures of the western world. Had he listened to Mallence Bart-Williams’ viral TEDx Talk? The story of this Congolese man, whom I will call Tshibumba Matulu (after the painter Tshibumba Matulu that Dutch anthropologist, Johannes Fabian writes about in Remembering the Present) is the story of “the metropole and the periphery” that dependency theorists Samir Amin, Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gunder Frank developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The last line of his vitriol is interesting enough in the sense that now, Africans are seeking to see the world as one whole and thus determined to move to the centre—follow up on and seek to enjoy their resources—at whatever cost. Indeed, despite the innumerable roadblocks (immigration laws, expensive and convoluted visa processes, slave traders in the Maghreb, drowning in the Mediterranean, rank racism, and Islamophobia in the western world), Africans are moving to the centre, to the metropole, en masse. They are determined to follow up on their resources.

This is the story of both the open and disguised violence of neoliberalism, where Africa is heavily mined on the cheap, exploited through unequal exchange, climate/conservation colonialism, with the proceeds coming from African human and natural resources being stolen through inexplicable claims of value addition. This point of view has been recently, succinctly and loudly expressed by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in her fight with French President Emmanuel Macron over immigration policies in Europe. Known for her anti-immigrant policies, Meloni’s (selfish) position is that if the French stopped stealing resources from 14 African countries through the clearly colonial and extortionist CFA, Africans would not be forced to make the dangerous journeys to Europe (where, by implication, they come to follow up on their resources, which are violently extracted leaving behind absolute poverty and suffering). In that viral clip doing the rounds across the globe, Meloni concludes that the solution to stop Africans from moving from their country to Europe is to leave them alone and have them receive the full benefit of their God-given resources:

So, the solution is not to take Africans and bring them to Europe, the solution is to free Africa from certain Europeans [especially France] who exploit it and allow these people to live off what they have.

While this message seemed directed at the French, the spread of (both violent and structural) capitalism across the African continent is real and threatening. With the collapse of the African economies about 30 years ago (via structural adjustment programmes), where foreign-owned companies returned under the neoliberal order and took over Africa’s major resources or the pillars upon which these economies stood—mineral resources (gold, oil, coffee, diamonds), banking, telecommunications, selling of agricultural products which used to be a function of cooperatives and direct government help—the continent has been left in a clear condition of morbidity. The bold choice, which I argue should be seen as revolutionary, is to move to the centre and demand the benefits of the resources that have been endlessly stolen from the continent, violently and through disguised extractivist structures.

***

Being a Congolese from Goma, Tshibumba Matulu must have witnessed the scramble for Congolese resources by the rich and mighty of the western world very up-close and personal—Dan Gertler International (DGI), Glencore Plc. and Alain Goetz, all of whom have a strong foothold in the country’s mining sector. These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country, which is connected to the ways in which resources are mined. Take South Sudan as the other example where Glencore has a strong foothold in South Sudanese oil. In early November 2022, Glencore Plc. executives were found guilty of bribing the South Sudanese leadership—starting just four weeks after the country’s independence—as “they sought to profit from political turmoil . . . they inserted themselves into government-to-government deals that had been negotiated at preferential rates”.  The Africa Progress Panel estimated that in a period of two years (2010-2012), DRC lost US$1.3 billion in asset sales to DGI. A 2021 study showed that DRC risked losing US$3.71 billion to controversial Israeli businessman Dan Gertler. This is a lot of money—which ends up in Israel where Gertler is one of the richest men and has been controversially implicated in a thousand scandals in Congo. To understand the fact that modern extraction follows a colonial model, one has to appreciate the fact that colonialism’s extraction was and is always outsourced to corporations. King Leopold operated in his individual capacity as a businessman, using his loot to build estates, infrastructures and palaces in Belgium (and not on the African continent). That an independent businessman, Dan Gertler, would promise guns to a government and actually deliver on his promise exposes the ways in which governments in the west outsource businessmen to colonise Africa on their behalf.

These multinational companies own almost all the mining sites in the DRC, and have been implicated in the unending violence in the country.

Dependency theory so succinctly exposed the roots and execution of underdevelopment in Black Africa, which is, in brief, resources being extracted on the cheap from the periphery (Africa), to be moved and generate more value in the metropole. If these resources ever come back to the continent (Latin America or Africa), they return more expensively. In this periphery-metropole dichotomy, endless capitalist exploitation (which mostly thrives on violence) not only depletes resources and opportunities at the periphery, but also makes life unliveable and unbearable. It then enacts tougher controls to keep the peoples of the periphery at the periphery so that they do not move to the metropole and overwhelm its amenities. This is why African journeys to the metropole are not only dangerous, but are also defined by more drama that tends to generate an incredible amount of grim news broadcasts. Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited—like Tshibumba Matulu—painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole. This is perhaps because it pursued another route out of this colonial conundrum, which was to de-link the metropole from the periphery.

Capitalism’s violence, revolutionary journeys

Transiting through airports in Dubai or Doha, one will encounter East African languages, especially Kiswahili and Luganda. Manning a counter in twos or threes, staff tend to speak to each other in their languages. While duty stations may not be allocated depending on the mutual native linguistic intelligibility between workers, since all speak English, somehow, workers from the same Great Lakes linguistic community find themselves together. That the numbers of labour migrants moving to the Middle East have soared over the past years is not just testament to the availability of job opportunities in the Middle East, but also to the dire conditions in which they live in their countries—conditions made difficult by the capitalist neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, and in some cases by conflict (especially in Northern Uganda, Karamoja, Turkana areas, South Sudan and Somalia). Middle Eastern salaries are not the greatest attraction as they range between US$600 and US$900 depending on seniority (far much less for domestic work). But that the same amounts cannot be earned back home speaks more to the dire conditions at home.

Data from the Uganda Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development published in the Daily Monitor, indicates that for the last six years (2016-2022), an average of 24,086 Ugandans left the country annually in search of employment, especially in the Middle East. What makes conditions so hostile in the Great Lakes Region?  Besides Somalia and Central African Republic—where there is outright violence—why is the scale of movement of young people in particular so high in the Great Lakes region? It is the ravages of both internal capitalism (by the petty bourgeoisies) and foreign capital moving from South Africa northwards, but also coming from Europe and North America—and China exploiting the neoliberal environment. This is evident in cases of land grabbing, forced evictions, refugee crises caused by resource wars, especially in DRC and South Sudan, and the terrible business environment in the region.

Dependency theory does not explicitly follow up on the revolutionary journeys where the exploited painstakingly seek the benefits of their resources in the metropole.

Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself.  States do not only set the conditions under which extraction occurs (such as banking regimes, neoliberal regimes), but they are also ready to commit violence on the exploited. In Uganda, cases of land grabbing by local capitalists have made land ownership and agriculture difficult. In other cases, collusion between the state and foreign capitalists to evict peasants off their lands is causing first, rural urban-migration, and then journeys abroad. Among the most memorable cases is that of the 2001 evictions in Mubende where the German coffee company Neumann Gruppe used outright violence (with the help of the state), including shooting, burning houses and animals, and maiming people to create way for a coffee plantation. Over 2,000 families remain destitute and are yet to find justice. Faced with mass unemployment, extortionist banking regimes with high interest rates that have stymied creativity and made business difficult across East Africa, many young people struggle to start thriving businesses.

Violent evictions have also taken place in Kenya and Tanzania to create way for capitalist expansion or capitalist ostentation (Franz Fanon warned that political elites would turn the continent into an entertainment centre for foreign capitalists). This is the story in Samburu where evictions have taken place to create way for American charities. It is the story of the green colonialism that led to the Ogiek and Maasai evictions from the Mau Forest in the name of conservation. Guillaume Blanc’s recently published book, The Invention of Green Colonialism, demonstrates how the rhetoric of conservation (by colonially founded organisations including UNESCO, WWF, IUCN) perpetuates a colonial model of conservation that privileges animals and plants over humans. While capitalists in Europe and North America—consuming endlessly—have destroyed nature, they have maintained a mythical, fictionalised Eden in Africa, insisting that peasants, who have developed ways of coexisting with nature, who eat very little meat, have neither cars, nor computers nor smartphones, are a danger to the environment. They are evicted from huge swathes of land that are then reserved for white people to hunt and gaze at wild animals.

Away from the forests and the plains, the poor are also being “cleansed” from the capital cities. The 2021 Mukuru Kwa Njega eviction in Nairobi that left 40,000 people homeless is etched in the memories of Kenyans. In what Mwaura Mwangi aptly termed “Demolition Colonialism”, thousands of poor Nairobians have had their houses demolished so that the rich can enjoy easy transit. This is not anti-development position, but rather a reading that seeks to recognise the rights of the poor, and make visible the history of slums in major cities across Africa.

Theoretically and practically, without the violence of the state and other related state actors, it is difficult for capitalism to reproduce itself.

Then come the wars in the DRC, Somalia, CAR, and South Sudan—a product of business dealings by multinationals including Glencore and CNOOC, among others— that have led to an increase in refugees numbers, now reaching 2.3 million people according to UNHCR. In his book Saviours and Survivors, Mahmood Mamdani implicates CNOOC and ExxonMobil in protecting oil wells using different rebel groups in the Sudan-South Sudan conflict. The end product of these clandestine oil dealings are the over 1.5 million refugees hosted in Uganda, making it the country with the largest number of refugees in the world. The influx of people escaping resource-related conflicts has overwhelmed resources in the Great Lakes region.  And while many of the refugees will stay in the region, many others are making the journey to the Middle East, to Europe and to North America.

With all this aggressive capitalist expansion manifesting in different forms, the African in the Great Lakes (and other places on the continent) is left with no choice but to make the journey to Europe and to North America. I want to read these journeys not just as migration, but as revolution. They might seem puny, unorganised and migrating out of desperate need, but Africans are moving to the centre to benefit from the resources that continue to be extracted from their continent. This is how the extractors perceive these journeys—not as migration, but as revolution—which explains why there are so many roadblocks along the way.

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Politics

The Campaign that Remembered Nothing and Forgot Nothing

Once a master of coalition building, Raila Odinga killed his own party and brand, handed over his backyard to William Ruto, threw in his lot with Uhuru Kenyatta, ended up being branded a “state project”, and lost.

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The Original sin

A seasoned Nairobi politician, Timothy Wanyonyi had cut a niche for himself in the Nairobi governor’s race that was filled with a dozen candidates who had up to that point not quite captured the imagination of Nairobians. Some candidates were facing questions over their academic qualifications while others were without a well-defined public profile. In that field Wanyonyi, an experienced Nairobi politician, stood out. On 19th April, the Westlands MP’s campaign team was canvasing for him in Kawangware. They had sent pictures and videos to news teams seeking coverage. But that evening their candidate would receive a phone call to attend a meeting at State House Nairobi that would put an end to his campaign. Before Tim made his way to State House, insiders around President Uhuru Kenyatta told reporters that Wanyonyi was out of the Nairobi governor’s race.

Wanyonyi’s rallying call “Si Mimi, ni Sisi”—a spin on US Senator Bernie Sanders’ “Not me. Us” 2020 presidential campaign slogan—distinguished him as a candidate who understood the anxieties of Nairobians. “They were looking for someone who would see the city as a home first, before seeing it as a business centre,” one of his political consultants told me. But the Azimio coalition to which Wanyonyi’s ODM party belonged was very broad, with several centres of power that didn’t take into account—or maybe didn’t care about— Nairobi’s political landscape. Wanyonyi’s candidacy was hastily sacrificed at the altar of the coalition’s politics. Former President Uhuru Kenyatta, the coalition’s chairman, had prevailed on Raila Odinga, its presidential candidate, to essentially leave Nairobi to Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party in exchange for ODM picking the presidential candidate.

That was the only consideration on the table.

However, it was a miscalculation by the coalition. Azimio failed to appreciate the complex matrix that is a presidential election in Kenya. While the top ticket affects the races downstream, it can be argued that the reverse is also true. It is ironic that Raila Odinga, a power broker and a master of coalition building who was running for presidency for the fifth time, was choosing to ignore these principles. His own ascension in politics had been based on building a machine—ODM—that he used carefully during every election cycle. Yet in this election he was killing his own party and brand. The Azimio La Umoja coalition party was built as a party of parties that would be the vehicle Raila would use to contest the presidency. However, the constituent parties were free to sponsor parliamentary candidates. It sounded like a good idea on paper but it created friction as the parties found themselves in competition everywhere. To keep Azimio from fracturing both itself and its votes, the idea of “zoning”—having weaker candidates step down for stronger ones, essentially carving out exclusive zones for parties—gained traction, and would itself lead to major fall-outs, even after it was adopted as official Azimio policy in June.

However, beyond the zoning controversy, Wanyonyi’s candidacy served as a marker for a key block of Odinga voters—the Luhya—assuring them of their place within the Azimio coalition. Luhya voters have been Odinga’s insurance policy during his last three presidential runs. With Nyanza and the four western Kenya counties of Kakamega, Bungoma, Vihiga and Busia in his back pocket, he would be free to pick up other regions. Odinga claimed 71 per cent of the Luhya bloc in 2017 but this time, western voters were feeling jittery about the new political arrangements.

There is also another consideration. The Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi is also significant, and Odinga had carried the capital in his previous three presidential runs. The Nairobi electoral map is largely organized around five big groups: the Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kisii. For the ODM party, having a combination of a Luo-Luhya voting bloc in Nairobi has enabled Odinga to take the city and to be a force to reckon with.

However, it appeared that all these factors were of no importance in 2022. So, Tim Wanyonyi was forced out of the race. He protested. Or attempted to. Western Kenya voters were furious, but who cared?

Miscalculation

The morning after the State House meeting, a group calling themselves Luhya professionals had strong words for both Odinga and Azimio.

“We refuse to be used as a ladder for other political expediencies whenever there is an election,” Philip Kisia, who was the chairman of this loose “professional group” said during a press conference that paraded the faces of political players from the Luhya community. The community had “irreducible minimum” and would not allow itself to “to be used again this time.” Other speakers at that press conference—including ODM Secretary General Edwin Sifuna—laid claim to what they called the place of the Luhya community in Nairobi. The political relationship between Luhyas and Luos has not been without tensions; in the aftermath of the opposition’s unravelling in the 90s, Michael Kijana Wamalwa and Raila Odinga fought for supremacy within the Ford Kenya party. Wamalwa believed the throne left by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was his for the taking. However, Odinga’s son, Raila, mounted a challenge for the control of the party, eventually leaving Ford Kenya to build his own party, the National Development Party (NDP). The Luhya-Luo relationship was broken. Luhya sentiment was that, having been faithful to Odinga’s father, it was time for Wamalwa to lead the opposition.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet. This time, however, he was different. He didn’t seem to care about those fragile egos. After the press conference, a strategist in Odinga’s camp wondered aloud, “Who will they [Luhyas] vote for?”

The next 21 days were to be pivotal for Kenya’s presidential election. Azimio moved on and introduced Polycarp Igathe as their candidate for Nairobi. A former deputy governor in Nairobi who had quit just months after taking office, Igathe is well known for his C-suite jobs and intimate links to the Kenyan political elite. His selection, though, played perfectly into the rival Kenya Kwanza coalition’s “hustlers vs dynasties” narrative which sought to frame the 2022 elections as a contest between the political families that have dominated Kenya’s politics and economy since independence. The sons of a former vice president and president respectively, Odinga and Uhuru were branded as dynasties while the then deputy president claimed for himself the title of “hustler”.

These old political wounds have flared up during every election cycle, and Raila Odinga has worked for decades to reassure the voting bloc and bury the hatchet.

But, William Ruto’s side also saw something else in that moment—an opportunity to get a chunk of the important Luhya vote. Ruto first entered into a coalition with Musalia Mudavadi, selling their alliance as a “partnership of equals”, and then followed that up with the offer of a Luhya gubernatorial candidate to Nairobians in the name of Senator Johnson Koskei Sakaja.

Meanwhile, Wanyonyi’s half-brother, the current Speaker of the National Assembly, Moses Wetangula, was a principle in Ruto’s camp. Up to this point, Wetangula had struggled to find a coherent message to sell Ruto’s candidacy to the Luhya nation. But, with his brother being shafted by Azimio, Wetangula saw a political opening; he quickly called a press conference and complained bitterly about the “unfair Odinga” whom he said the Luhya community would not support for “denying their son a ticket to run for the seat of the governor of Nairobi”. His press conference went almost unnoticed and it is not even clear if Azimio took notice of the political significance of Wetangula’s protestations.

Azimio had offered their opponents an inroad into western Kenya politics and Ruto wasted little time trying turn a key Odinga voting bloc. With Sakaja confirmed as the Kenya Kwanza candidate for the Nairobi governor’s race, Wetangula and Kenya Kwanza made Western Kenya a centrepiece of their path to presidency. Tim Wanyonyi was presented as a martyr. The Ford Kenya leader took to all the radio stations, taking calls or sending emissaries, to declare Odinga’s betrayal. In the days and weeks that followed, William Ruto would make a dozen more visits to Luhyaland than his rival, assuring the voters that there would be a central place reserved for them in his administration. In contrast, on a visit to western Kenya, Raila Odinga expressed anger that an opinion poll had shown him trailing Ruto in Bungoma. “He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!” he told the crowd. He would eventually lose Bungoma and Trans Nzoia to William Ruto.

To be sure, Odinga won western Kenya with 55 per cent of the vote, but William Ruto had 45 per cent, enough to light his path to the presidency. He would repeat the same feat in Nairobi and coast regions, traditionally Odinga strongholds where he would have expected to bag upwards of 60 per cent of the vote. Azimio modelling had put these regions in Raila’s column but Kenya Kwanza took advantage of the mistake-prone Odinga. And wherever Odinga blundered, Ruto mopped up. As Speaker, Wetangula is today the third most powerful man in in the country. Yet just four years ago, he was an Odinga ally who had been stripped off his duties as a minority leader in the Senate by Odinga’s ODM party. At the time he warned that the divorce “would be messy, it would be noisy, it would be unhelpful, it would not be easy, it would have casualties”. It was the first of many political blunders that Odinga would make.

Unforced errors

Looking back, Odinga’s 2022 run for the presidency had all the hallmarks of a campaign that didn’t know what it didn’t know; it was filled with assumptions, and sometimes made the wrong judgment calls. By handing over his backyard to Ruto and choosing to ally with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila ended up being branded a “state project”.

In 2005, Odinga had used the momentum generated by his successful campaign in a referendum against Mwai Kibaki’s attempt to foist on the country a bastardized version of the constitution negotiated in Bomas to launch early campaigns for his 2007 presidential run. However, this time, as the courts hamstrung his attempt to launch the BBI referendum, Ruto was already off to the races, having begun his presidential campaign three years early.

“He is at nearly 60 per cent and I am at 40 per cent. Shame on you people! Shame on you people! Shame on you!”

With the rejection of constitutional changes, which were found to be deeply unpopular among many Kenyans, Odinga was finally in a strange place, a politician now out of touch, defending an unpopular government, a stranger to his own political base. The failure of BBI as a political tool was really the consequence of Odinga’s and Kenyatta’s inability to understand the ever-changing Kenyan political landscape. Numerous times they just seemed to not know how to deal with the dynamism of William Ruto. He would shape-shift, change the national conversation, and nothing they threw at him seemed to stick, including, corruption allegations. For a politician who created the branding of opponents as his tool, Odinga had finally been branded and it stuck.

Bow out

In the final day of the campaigns, both camps chose Nairobi to make their final submissions. Azimio chose Kasarani stadium. It was, as expected, full of colour, with a Tanzanian celebrity musician, Diamond Platnumz, brought in to boot. Supporters were treated to rushed speeches by politicians who had somewhere else to be. Azimio concluded its final submission early and the speeches by Odinga and his running mate, Martha Karua, weren’t exactly a rallying call. It was as if they were happy to be put out of their pain as they quickly stepped off the stage and left the stadium. In contrast, Ruto’s final submission was filled with speeches of fury by politicians angered by “state capture” and the “failing economy”. Speaker after speaker roused the audience with their defiant messages. They ended the meeting an hour before the end of IEBC campaign deadline. A video soon appeared online of William Ruto sprinting across the Wilson airport runway to catch a chopper and make it to one final rally in central Kenya before the IEBC’s 6 p.m. campaign deadline.

Pictures of the deputy president on top of a car at dusk in markets in Kiambu were the last images of his campaign to be shared on social media. Ruto won because he wanted the presidency more than Odinga and was willing to work twice as hard as both Odinga and Kenyatta.

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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven

From its beginnings as a fishing village, Lagos has grown into a large metropolis that attracts migrants seeking opportunity or Internally Displaced Persons fleeing violence.

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Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
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Lagos, City of Migrants

From its origins as a fishing village in the 1600s, Lagos has urbanised stealthily into a vast metropolis, wielding extensive economic, political and cultural influence on Nigeria and beyond. Migration in search of opportunities has been the major factor responsible for the demographic and spatial growth of the city as Lagos has grown from 60,221 in 1872 to over 23 million people today. The expansion of the city also comes with tensions around indigene-settler dynamics, especially in accessing land, political influence and urban resources. There are also categories of migrants whose status determines if they can lay hold of the “urban advantage” that relocating to a large city offers.

A major impetus to the evolution of modern Lagos is the migration of diverse groups of people from Nigeria’s hinterland and beyond. By the 1800s, waves of migrants (freed slaves) from Brazil and Freetown had made their way to Lagos, while many from Nigeria’s hinterland including the Ekiti, Nupes, Egbas and Ijebus began to settle in ethnic enclaves across the city. In the 1900s, migrant enclaves were based on socio-economic and/or ethnicity status. Hausas (including returnees from the Burma war) settled in Obalende and Agege, while the Ijaw and Itsekiri settled in waterfront communities around Ajegunle and Ijora. International migrant communities include the Togolese, Beninoise and Ghanaian, as well as large communities of Lebanese and Indian migrants. The names and socio-cultural mix in most Lagos communities derive from these historical migrant trajectories.

Permanent temporalities

A study on coordinated migrations found that, as a destination city, Lagos grew 18.6 per cent between 2000 and 2012, with about 96 per cent of the migrants coming from within Nigeria. While migration to Lagos has traditionally been in search of economic opportunities, new classes of migrants have emerged over the last few decades. These are itinerant migrants and internally displaced persons.

Itinerant migrants are those from other areas of Nigeria and West Africa who travel to work in Lagos while keeping their families back home. Mobility cycles can be weekly, monthly or seasonal. Such migrants have no address in Lagos as they often sleep at their work premises or in mosques, saving all their earned income for remittance. They include construction artisans from Benin and Togo who come to Lagos only when they have jobs, farmers from Nigeria’s northern states who come to Lagos to work as casual labourers in between farming seasons (see box), as well as junior staff in government and corporate offices whose income is simply too small to cover the high cost of living in Lagos.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly. This is mostly because of the economic challenges Nigeria is currently facing that have crashed the Naira-to-CFA exchange rates. As a result, young men from Togo, Ghana and Benin are finding cities like Dakar and Banjul more attractive than Lagos.

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Photo. Taibat Lawanson

Aliu* aka Mr Bushman, from Sokoto, Age 28

Aliu came to Lagos in 2009 on the back of a cattle truck. His first job was in the market carrying goods for market patrons. He slept in the neighbourhood mosque with other young boys. Over the years, he has done a number of odd jobs including construction work. In 2014, he started to work as a commercial motorcyclist (okada) and later got the opportunity to learn how to repair them. He calls himself an engineer and for the past four years has earned his income exclusively from riding and repairing okada. Even though he can afford to rent a room, he currently lives in a shared shack with seven other migrants.

He makes between N5000 and N8000 weekly and sends most of it to his family through a local transport operator who goes to Sokoto weekly. His wife and three children are in the village, but he would rather send them money than bring them to Lagos. According to him, “The life in Lagos is too hard for women”.

Since he came to Lagos thirteen years ago, Aliu has never spent more than four months away from Sokoto at a time. He stays in Sokoto during the rainy season to farm rice, maize and guinea corn, and has travelled back home to vote every time since he came to Lagos.

 

The second category of migrants are those who have been displaced from their homesteads in Northern Nigeria by conflict, either Boko Haram insurgency or invasions by Fulani herdsmen. The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee. With many who initially settled in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) dissatisfied with camp conditions, the burden of protracted displacement is now spurring a new wave of IDP migration to urban areas. Even though empirical data on the exact number of displaced persons migrating out of camps to cities is difficult to ascertain, it is obvious that this category of migrants are negotiating their access to the city and its resources in circumstances quite different from those of other categories of migrants.

IDPs as the emerging migrant class in Lagos 

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, two of every three internally displaced persons globally are now living in cities. Evidence from Nigeria suggests that many IDPs are migrating to urban areas in search of relative safety and resettlement opportunities, with Lagos estimated to host the highest number of independent IDP migrants in the country. In moving to Lagos, IDPs are shaping the city in a number of ways including appropriating public spaces and accelerating the formation of new settlements.

There are three government-supported IDP camps in the city, with anecdotal evidence pointing to about eighteen informal IDP shack communities across the city’s peri-urban axis. This correlates with studies from other cities that highlight how this category of habitations (as initial shelter solutions for self-settled IDPs) accelerate the formation of new urban informal settlements and spatial agglomerations of poverty and vulnerability.

While people from Nigeria’s hinterland continue to arrive in the city in droves, the wave of West African in-migration has ebbed significantly.

IDPs in Lagos move around a lot. Adamu, who currently lives in Owode Mango—a shack community near the Lagos Free Trade zone—and has been a victim of forced eviction four times said, “As they [government or land owners] get ready to demolish this place and render us homeless again, we will move to another area and live there until they catch up with us.”

In the last ten years, there has been an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets of Lagos—either living under bridges, in public parks or incomplete buildings. Many of them are IDPs who are new migrants, and unable to access the support necessary to ease their entry into the city’s established slums or government IDP camps. Marcus, who came from Adamawa State in 2017 and has been living under the Obalende Bridge for five years, said, “I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

Blending in or not: Urban integration strategies 

Urban integration can be a real challenge for IDP migrants. Whereas voluntary migrants are often perceived to be legal entrants to the city and so can lay claim to urban resources, the same cannot be said about IDPs. Despite being citizens, and despite Nigeria being a federation, IDPs do not have the same rights as other citizens in many Nigerian cities and constantly face stigmatisation and harassment, which reinforces their penchant for enclaving.

The lack of appropriate documentation and skillsets also denies migrants full entry into the socio-economic system. For example, Rebekah said: “I had my WAEC [Senior Secondary school leaving certificate] results and when Boko Haram burnt our village, our family lost everything including my certificates. But how can I continue my education when I have not been able to get it? I have to do handwork [informal labour] now”. IDP children make up a significant proportion of out-of-school children in Lagos as many are unable to get registered in school simply because of a lack of address.

Most IDPs survive by deploying social capital—especially ethnic and religious ties. IDP ethnic groupings are quite organized; most belong to an ethnic-affiliated group and consider this as particularly beneficial to their resettlement and sense of identity in Lagos. Adamu from Chibok said, “When I come to Lagos in 2017, I come straight to Eleko. My brother [kinsman] help me with house, and he buy food for my family. As I no get work, he teach me okada work wey he dey do.”

The crises have resulted in the violent destruction of many communities, with hundreds of thousands killed and many more forced to flee.

Interestingly, migration to the city can also be good for women as many who were hitherto unemployed due to cultural barriers are now able to work. Mary who fled Benue with her family due to farmer-herder clashes explained, “When we were at home [in Benue], I was assisting my husband with farming, but here in Lagos, I have my own small shop where I sell food. Now I have my own money and my own work.”

Need for targeted interventions for vulnerable Lagosians

“Survival of the fittest” is an everyday maxim in the city of Lagos. For migrants, this is especially true as they are not entitled to any form of structured support from the government. Self-settlement is therefore daunting, especially in light of systemic limiting factors.

Migrants are attracted to big cities based on perceived economic opportunities, and with limited integration, their survival strategies are inevitably changing the spatial configurations of Lagos. While the city government is actively promoting urban renewal, IDP enclaving is creating new slums. Therefore, addressing the contextualised needs of urban migrant groups is a sine qua non for inclusive and sustainable urban development.

“I am still managing, living under the bridge. I won’t do this forever, my life will not end like this under a bridge. I hope to one day return to my home and continue my life”.

There is an established protocol for supporting international refugees. However, the same cannot be said for IDPs who are Nigerian citizens. They do not enjoy structured support outside of camps, and we have seen that camps are not an effective long-term solution to displacement. There is a high rate of IDP mobility to cities like Lagos, which establishes the fact that cities are an integral part of the future of humanitarian crisis. Their current survival strategies are not necessarily harnessing the urban advantage, especially due to lack of official recognition and documentation. It is therefore imperative that humanitarian frameworks take into account the role of cities and also the peculiarities of IDP migrations to them.

Lagos remains a choice destination city and there is therefore need to pay more attention to understanding the patterns, processes and implications of migration into the city. The paucity of migration-related empirical data no doubt inhibits effective planning for economic and social development. Availability of disaggregated migration data will assist the state to develop targeted interventions for the various categories of vulnerable Lagosians.  Furthermore, targeted support for migrant groups must leverage existing social networks, especially the organised ethnic and religious groups that migrants lean on for entry into the city and for urban integration.

*All names used in this article are pseudonyms

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