Nairobi city, streets and stories: Young lives stay in place while going global through digital stages

Tatiana Thieme

What makes a city, a street, a life worth telling about? What localised struggle or daily feats become a matter of shared concern or come to matter to a wider (let’s say global) audience? The role of digital life over the last decade, since the start of my ongoing ethnographic engagement in Nairobi, has increasingly extended the temporality and spatiality of urban ethnographic research. One no longer really ‘leaves’ the field. Having interlocutors who can reach out and be reached via WhatsApp or Facebook adds a particular form of punctuated access to selected (and often highly curated) windows into the lives of our interlocutors and friends from the field. With the added ethical and personal responsibility that this entails in terms of mutual boundary setting and maintenance of ties, this extension of fieldwork through ‘globalised’ digital platforms shapes our views of our key interlocutors’progression and plans in their lifeworlds, beyond our time ‘in the field’.

Ten years ago, towards the end of my PhD fieldwork, I collaborated with a local crew of young filmmakers to shoot a short low-budget documentary film we called Story Yetu [Our Story]. On the fifth day of production, I met three young boys, barely 18 years old at the time. They said they were ‘artists’ and spent much of their day in a small container that had been repurposed as a makeshift recording studio in one of the most under-resourced corners of one of the largest and oldest informal settlements in Nairobi: Mathare. In Nairobi, over 60% of residents live in low-income neighbourhoods, where 80% of residents are under the age of 35, a majority of whom are formally unemployed but economically active. Most low-income youth in Nairobi refer to this activity as ‘hustling’, spending their days making work on the edges of the urban economy (Thieme, 2018). Alongside the hustlers, some youth bear witness to the Nairobi youth hustle, using creative repertoires to tell stories about the everyday ‘hustle’ and ‘ghetto life’. The three youth I met during the filming of Story Yetu were the latter: witness bearers, storytellers. And their stories, over time, became their hustle.

Urban ethnography in the twenty-first century poses a host of epistemic, ontological and methodological conundrums. This chapter interrogates some of these conundrums by focussing on a group of youth with whom I collaborated during the production and recording of that short documentary film and accompanying hip-hop soundtrack in 2010. In a mode of experimental ethnographic reflection, I write about these three youth from a peculiar positionality. Invested in longitudinal ethnographic research,1 I have continuously returned to my field site over the past decade and kept in close contact with my key interlocutors. Several have become dear friends and homestay hosts when I spend time in Nairobi. This chapter builds on my ethnographic insights but focusses not on my key interlocutors whose lives I have come to know well. Instead, I depict in semi-stylised form the trajectory of three young people whose lives I have, since those days of music co-production, mostly followed from afar through the prism of social media. This chapter reflects on the particular spatialities of fieldwork and forms of‘telling young lives’ (Jeffrey and Dyson, 2008) that might emerge when one’s window into these lives is digitally mediated. As ethnographers returning to a field site over time, what can we learn and say about young lives whose intimate vacillations we cannot claim to know but whose carefully curated digital profiles we can consider a form of meaningful auto-portraiture against the backdrop of neighbourhoods and other youth geographies we have come to know something about?

This chapter focusses on these three storytellers from Mathare, whose portrayals of their lifeworlds through social media canvases have increasingly used digital modes of self-fashioning and storytelling to link local and previously unseen ordinary happenings to wider expressions of youth urban culture and belonging. In conversation with this volume’s collective reflection on the merits and reach of the conceptual frame, ‘global urbanism,’ the chapter explores the interplay between the conceptual, imagined and spatial reference points of what might be regarded as ‘global’ in relation to the performative registers and resonances of digitally mediated hvper-local youth stories aiming to reach multiple precarious elsewheres (Weiss, 2009; Ntarangwi, 2009; Kidula, 2012; Rollefson, 2017). Given that the ‘global’ is a highly relational and situated concept, this begs the question,‘global from whose point of view?’As I reflect on my years in (and out of) Nairobi, thinking and writing about young lives that are simultaneously cut off from the mainstream city while shaping its peripheral and popular spaces, ‘global urbanism’ offers an empirical and methodological opening that sets a particular ethnographic positioning in conversation with moments and frames that might be imagined as ‘global’ to some and ‘local’ to others. But it is the entanglement of scales - the place-based stories of shared struggle and global imaginaries of shared solidarity - that both give sense to and trouble the notion of'global urbanism’.

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