and Fugitive Practice
A name, A song, or an intention.
In the wake of Europe’s devastating colonial exploitation of the continent of Africa over the past 300 years many African countries have built upon, re-invented and reclaimed urbanization in hopes of joining the global market place on their own terms. Through various methodologies artists, activist, political leaders, and academics have done the work over the past 50+ years to paint a picture of what has characterized African architecture, urban planning, and spatial negotiation historically and phenomenologically. And to varying degrees we can read that picture as a conceptually unclear and visually abstracted poor image of African metropolitan success; mostly because in the west we have not been able to remove our late-capitalist overly intellectual lens and ask the questions that sit at the center of how African urbanization is working and what it’s future will look like. Removing this lens must include decentralizing monumentality, permanence, colonization (historical influence, cross-cultural exchange, etc.) and western archival logic. By decentralizing these methods as the determiners of value we might find ourselves thinking in more agile ways about urbanization now for future African spatial planning including sustainable growth, climate change and further self-determination. In this project I would like to think about the Conceptual artists and Architectural Sculptor Torkwase Dyson in relationship to the structural paradigms determining how Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya looks today and what kinds of insights we can glean from it. Because Torkwase’s Work is influenced by Nomadic architecture and is concerned with the spatial and social aspects of climate change, it gives us a unique opportunity to explore fugitivity from a different perspective.
A sigh, A sucking of the teeth, a tear.
David Wallace Wells’ book, “The Uninhabitable Earth” is a devastating account of what our prospective world will look like if do take drastic action (or at least abide by Paris climate agreement standards) to limit carbon emissions, staving off Climate scientist’s worst predictions. Here in the west, we find ourselves gridlocked in our own comforts, infrastructures and ideologies layered upon one another covering slavery at its late capitalist root. Black bodies as compost for an ever-growing gluttonous consumption of fossil fuels and a pathological fear of economic stagnation.
Our current economic system remains inextricably linked to the subjugation, exploitation, and misuse of the natural resources that live in the global south. Wallace-Well’s in his introduction says that we have doubled our fossil fuel use in the past 30 years.(Wallace-Wells 2019) Which means that since the 1980s we have produced just as much carbon here in industrialized countries as the whole industrial revolution while knowing about the impacts CO2 has on our atmosphere. Currently Key Components of our Smartphones, the microchips that do all the complex computing in them and to some extent the technocratic framework that markets and distributes are produced in hyperlocal areas of places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The raw materials pulled from these places are shipped to factories all across the global south and China to be assembled into a range of goods. The poorest people in those countries undoubtedly are the folks to doing that labor.
With this as the paradigm, referred to by Theorist, artists and philosophers like Donna Harraway, Hortense Spillers, Yuval Noah Harari, Torkwase Dyson and many other as the Anthropocene or the Plaintation-ocene in wake of devastating global warming related climate catastrophes we can infer who will be hit first.
We can see the deathly and horrifying consequences of Climate change in places like Kenya which now house up to 500,000 Refugees who have been displaced if not directly from their homeland by climate change definitely find themselves displaced indirectly by extreme conflicts and civil war perpetuated by natural resources inequity, scarcity, and depletion. The Town of Dadaab, Kenya is a series of 4 camps ( IFO, IFO 2,Hagadera,and Dagahely) at the northern border of Somalia that house over 200,000 Somali refugees (it is known to house many more undocumented unregistered refugees with the UNHCR). It started in 1991 after the Somali civil war and initially was supposed to be a temporary home for displaced people until Somalia stabilized. However, it has lasted this long because Somalia has not been able to regain a solid governmental structure and is facing early effects of global warming which led to the 2011 drought which pushed 130,000 people across the border into Kenya from southern Somalia.(2018) The U.N has statistics for each of the camps but they aren’t published on regular basis; however what we do know is that because this area is on flat dry land it is hard to produce agriculture, Cholera outbreaks are regular because when it does rain in the camps it floods them pulling diseases out of the many overused latrines and even though the established houses ( some of which are UNHCR provided and some are vernacular) are partially planned the newer the camp and the residents the less organized of a plan they have. Laura Heaton for the Ground truth project who looks at the life of one family -profiling a former Al-Shabaab prisoner named Mohammed Mohammed through the lens of post-depletion migration.
She says, “In Somalia, he [Mohamed] had a farm on a piece of land he inherited from his father, his crops-maize, sorghum, sesame, and watermelon-were fed by the rains, and two wet seasons used to suffice. But Mohamed has noticed a change in the weather and seasons since his father’s time, and when the notorious 2011 drought hit, ‘everything got destroyed’, He says.”(Heaton 2017)
She uses this as a case study to look at the ways in which climate-related weather changes will impact real people on the ground. Extensive drought made farming and nomadic lifestyles impossible so people like Mohammad had no chose in 2011 but to leave Somalia for fear that at the end of a modest Muslim government in Somalia Al-Shabab and its sharia law might subject them to any number of extremist policies and murder. It is Estimated that about 80,000 Refugee’s from Somalia and other countries in the region have been repatriated back to their homelands because Kenya fears extremist terrorism that may brew within the camp- none of which has been proven to exist. This leaves 230,000 refugees to find asylum elsewhere as the Kenyan government pushes to have Dadaab closed; against the advice of the U.N and pretty much everyone else this year. Closing Dadaab could be seen as a precedent, a bad omen, or foreshadowing for what’s to come when we scale displacement up to 25 million do to uninhabitability at 2-4+ global temperature increase. Although Dadaab has not been closed, this has not stopped Kenya from trying on a near yearly basis. More instances of civil war will come, 50 percent more war according to Wallace-Wells and because of that, way more people moving nomadic, or more pointedly as fugitives from persecution by religious and political extremes as well as a weaponize environment will be showing up at places like Dadaab. (Wallace-Wells 2019)
I’ve found myself at a point of entry. I’ve been beckoned. I’ve been scared to death. I’ve been halted and blocked and I’ve wondered…
Where do we go from here?
The stakes rise the closer we get to 2050 and the longer we wait to start pursuing new economic and political structure the harder it will be to shift. The Architectural Historian Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi looks deeply at the historical precedents of what might be called “Emergency architecture” through a feminist lens within the Dadaab Camps, by examining Tuqul mobile dome dwellings common to East Africa. Tuqul’s are a kind of temporary housing structure often taken with nomadic tribes as they graze their livestock. It is comprised of Acacia branch structure and is covered traditionally by a woven thatched exterior. She says,” ‘Homemaking’ Included the labor and tasks associated with domesticity as well as design and construction of the dwelling. The work of architecture lay in an enactment of the gendered social field inasmuch as in symbolism, representation, and ritual space.” Now in the camps at Dadaab People have a more complicated narrative centering the interference and politics of giving refugees housing structures. Because
Siddiqi says, “NRC’s Pilot shelter initiative in 2007, in which refugees were provided construction materials and required to perform all construction labor. By then,’ participatory’ practice, following self-help development models that grew out of planning discourses from the 1960s and 1970s, had been thoroughly disseminated through international humanitarian networks as forms of ‘best practice’. In Ifo camp, ‘participation’ was negotiated with a space in which residents were not citizens, land users could not legally own property, and the state denied refugees the right to labor for compensation”.(Siddiqi, n.d.)
She goes on to detail how a woman named Shamso Abdullahi Farah had, instead of protesting the subjugation (being accepted into the camp and forced to build their own home on land they could never own) employed her friends and family in the camp to help her build the house and an additional storefront for trading goods. Likening this to traditional Tuqul gendered house-making Farah uses the political apparatus at hand to render architectural certification null especially those produced by power institutions. But we could reframe this dynamic in terms of Torkwase Dyson’s work and theories of black Compositional thought as well as a “Black Ecotone”. (Dyson 2019)
Torkwase asks, “How do we build things, that the knowledge in the thing its self is inherent to its relationship to things that fail”.(Dyson 2019) In this case, because Traditional lightweight dome structures built by East African women have started to fail (be blown down) in relationship to this harsher environment (more wind, harsher rain when it comes) Farah naturally adjusted. Inherit in Tuqul construction training is an inherit understanding of how homes need to be built. Or as Torkwase would like to think about it; it’s an understanding of “shape languages tied to liberation [the 90% angle, the irregular triangle and the curve]”.(Dyson 2019) So not only does Farah subvert the politics dictating her social position within Kenya she is employing peak fugitive practice. In the age of increased black fugitively, governmental red-tape and informal economic systemic off-shoots more and more people will have to employ this kind of ingenuity in order to survive a changing planet and different kinds of geo-politics; most of which find very little incentive empowering those without in our late capitalist economy.
Who’s to say I survived? who’s to say i will survive? who survived? did I?
Pressure will continue to build on the backs of black people across the diaspora in regard to our environment and the systems that govern them whether we see ourselves in it or not. It is possible to also think about Dadaab not only as a place of nuanced political and economic re-negotiation but also ground zero for speculative architecture as “fabulation”.
Torkwase’s work is a kind of meta-narrative that uses Nomadic architectural lineages as an entry point into questions of survival and scalability. By thinking about People like Henry box brown who mailed himself to freedom in Pennsylvania during slavery in America Torkwase gives us individualized examples that illustrate a precedent for the ways that we can understand the underground railroad or for that matter the trek (often on foot) displaced people in Somalia and other east African countries have to take in order to liberate themselves from climate disasters and authoritarianism. Although not livable, her structures try to breakdown how black people have historical navigated space and through her performance and installation practice we see the sculptural, the conceptual, the urgent and the theoretical collide.
None of this however is to say that the people in Dadaab will be ok because of these concepts. it simply conceptualized some of the ways we might find ourselves improvising and re-designing our lives during severe climate instability. It’s an analysis of the most horrific kinds of living conditions theoretically as well a practically. In a Report by Chatham House, the royal institute of international affairs in London we find that energy and other infrastructure in Dadaab is also incredibly loose and undermanaged. The Camps are not connected to the Kenyan power grid so everyone in the camp has to find access to a generator and Dry-cell battery torches and coordinate amongst themselves for electricity. Most homes do not have chimneys, so residents are often exposed to cooking related toxins exacerbated by burning low heat firewood. Yet 98% of camp households own a mobile phone that they power using shops or neighbor’s homes. Pay as you go Solar home systems are available in East Africa but because several different actors play a role in the management of the camps it is unclear that: people can find the money to not only pay for these systems ($10 USD) a month and stay engaged with these companies to maintain the systems.(Okello 2016) This list of problems could be solved by simply lowering the price of the solar power systems to what the average person is willing to pay (8.5USD according to the survey) with U.N subsidies and mandating that as the new standard for everyone living there. The economic and political red tape surrounding this is real. And because of it we are held hostage, our hands tied behind our backs against doing simple things for the most vulnerable among us. Instead the Kenyan government, afraid that building infrastructure and maintaining it will give the Somali’s a kind of citizenship and ownership over the land that would make surrounding communities uncomfortable. They refuse to invest anything in to incorporating the camps in Dadaab into any of their systems at all. At the scale of climate catastrophe, we are already moving too slow to save ourselves in a near future pulled closer everyday by exporting natural resources from Africa and burning fossils from the rest of the global south. Kenya has to deal with the consequences of that today regardless of their readiness to implement the systems they would need as the climate gets worse. If we don’t start to prioritize an equitable relationship with the planet and empower those of us on this planet that are feeling the brunt of that imbalance now many more people will be displaced. The kinds of chaos that is to come could be with some time and effort side stepped if our global community can invest in different building, land use and resource practices that are in line with what the planet needs. Sustainability and survival can be achieved especially in places like Dadaab. It is imperative that we do the work on a relatively small scale before we have to deal with it on a larger scale.
Dyson, Torkwase. 2019. “An Evening with Torkwase Dyson & Francoise Verges.” Guest Lecture, The Copper Union. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVHsN6LaV4Y.
Heaton, Laura. 2017. “Somali’s Climate For Conflict.” The Groundtruth Project, April 19, 2017. https://thegroundtruthproject.org/somalia-conflict-climate-change/.
Okello, Stephen. 2016. “The Energy Situation Dadaab Refugee Camps, Kenya.” The royal Institute of international Affairs Chatam House. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2016-05-19-mei-energy-situation-dadaab-refugee-camps-okello-final.pdf.
Siddiqi, Anooradha Iyer. n.d. “Writing with: Togethering, Difference, and Architectural Histories of Migration.” E-Flux Architecture. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/structural-instability/208707/writing-with/.
UNHCR Kenya. 2018. “Dadaab Refugee Complex.” Statistical Data. The UN Refugee Agency. https://www.unhcr.org/ke/dadaab-refugee-complex.
Wallace-Wells, David. 2019. The Unhabitable Earth. 1st ed. Crown publishing Group.