On roads, hotspots and ‘tarmacking’ in times of COVID-19

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On roads, hotspots and ‘tarmacking’ in times of COVID-19

Author: Nick Rahier is a doctoral researcher of the Institute for Anthropological Research in Africa (IARA) at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Leuven. He can be contacted on nick.rahier@kuleuven.be

Fieldsite: Nick Rahier has been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Nakuru, Kenya which is one of Kenya’s fastest-growing towns. His research interests include technology worlds, energy culture, urbanity, healing and herbalism. He is currently working toward a doctoral dissertation on urban life in Nakuru inspired by different manifestations of ‘heat’ in the city.

In a previous blogpost on responses to COVID-19 from Kenya, I shared an emic perspective on ‘distancing practices’ as experienced by my interlocutors in Nakuru. I demonstrated how  COVID-19 is for many Kenyans just one of the many toxic elements that threaten porous socio-economic and corporeal boundaries and how distancing practices have existed since time immemorial and are constantly being reinvented to fit the needs of contemporary Kenyan society.  I briefly introduced streets, hotels, bars, and restaurants as particular contagious ‘hotspots’ to be avoided. In this blog post, I, therefore, wish to elaborate further on the road as a highly ambiguous space.  I will share some reports on lived experiences of the road and movement in times of COVID-19 in Kenya partly inspired by data gathered as part of my doctoral research on urban life in Nakuru.


Video on Reuters website showing Kenyans practising car boot commerce. Click on the photo to go to the video and play it in full. Source: Reuters

I want to start this narrative with the above news report by Reuters on Kenyans who turn to selling foods and groceries from the boot of their cars to cope with their loss of income during the COVID-19 lockdown. Especially vendors along the Northern Bypass in Nairobi have gotten a lot of media attention because of the high-end cars that colour the roadside against a background of prestigious neighbourhoods. Most of these  ‘makeshift road-side shops’ belong to Nairobians who lost their jobs in the formal economy due to the lockdown restrictions. Vendors have backgrounds as civil servants, bartenders, hairstylists, teachers, advocates, students and anyone else in need of money. Farmers rearing chicken, for instance, have also turned to the streets to sell their produce as supply chains became heavily disrupted due to the closure of bars and restaurants.

Opinions about this make-shift roadside activity are divided. Some people praise the cunning (ujanja) of the vendors to survive in these harsh pandemic times. Others see these gatherings along the road as the emergence of new contagious hotspots where the virus easily spreads. Opponents also argue that their informal business destabilizes the economy even further as they don’t have official paid licenses nor contribute any taxes on their sold goods. As the topic of car boot vendors gained momentum on social media over the past few weeks, Kenyans were upset about government’s inability to provide an alternative to many ‘white-collar’ workers who heavily depend on the formal economy to go about daily life.  To heat things even more up, the Town Hall of Nairobi gave the vendors along the Northern Bypass a notice to stop all activities by the 1st of July. Many of these roadside hawkers now urge president Uhuru to stop their eviction.

This case of car boot vendors deserves particular attention as it has many ‘thick’ layers to it. It demonstrates not only how Kenyans cope with a precarious formal economy on which they cannot fully depend but also the importance of the road as both a strong metaphor and tangible material infrastructure along which Kenyan history and social life ‘thicken’. In what follows, I did a first attempt at unpacking the different layers the images of car boot vendors portray.

Roads as ‘hotspots’

Nakuru, where I spent two years conducting ethnographic fieldwork, is situated along one of the busiest transport corridors in Eastern-Africa: the Mombasa – Kampala highway/railway vein, counting numerous stopover places for truck drivers and known for many notorious road accidents that are forever burned into Kenyan collective memory. In Nakuru, the road figures as the blueprint for the highland town. Built as an outpost along the ‘lunatic express railway’, the road and railway in Nakuru have imposed ‘the straight line’ as the aorta of Nakuru’s urban fabric along which social life unfolds (Rahier 2020). Exemplary for Kenyan history at large, the road in Nakuru serves and served an important role in Kenyan discourse about progress expressed through the Kiswahili idiom ‘maendeleo’, literally meaning ‘onward movement’. The road in Nakuru enables and enacts all kinds of affective engagements regarding both societal and corporeal mobility. Best-case scenario roads indeed enable ‘onward movement’ feeding notions of individual and collective spatiotemporal progress toward better ‘elsewheres’.  In the imagination of many young urbanites in Nakuru, that movement is for instance headed toward the capital Nairobi.

During fieldwork in Nakuru, I quickly got accustomed to people talking about ‘blackspots’ along the Kenyan roads. These ‘blackspots’ or ‘hotspots’ are often found along stopover places for truck drivers. Blackspots entail a moral connotation. My Pentecostal interlocutors confided that at night, these stopover places become ‘hotspots’ for ‘immoral behaviour’ such as prostitution, adultery and excessive drinking. They are hence hubs characterized by an excess in meaning, affect and flow (Pype 2018). Blackspots are places of intense congregation, connection and disconnection between many people and goods favouring ‘interference’ (ibid) and therefore experienced as dangerous or ‘hot’ (moto). Along these blackspots, numerous road accidents happen and friends in Nakuru urged me to be particularly vigilant toward the dangers of the road while driving to and from Nakuru.  Roads from this perspective are highly ambiguous spaces, not only enacting ‘onward movement’ or maendeleo but also causing ‘friction’ between different ‘heated’ connections.

Bringing this narrative back to COVID-19, these ‘blackspots’ have also become infectious nodes via which COVID-19 easily spreads and are therefore topic of debate among those in charge of ‘flattening the curve’ in Kenya. All situated in Nakuru County along the Mombasa – Kampala highway, Mai Mahiu, Naivasha, Gilgil, Kikopey and Salgaa have been identified as particularly dangerous hubs through which COVID-19 can easily spread across Kenya and to neighbouring landlocked countries such as Uganda, Southern Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi. Aware of the necessity to properly monitor congregation and flow along these blackspots, Kenyan government has increased its COVID-19 testing capacity for truck drivers in these places and urged passers-by to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

In these stories about blackspots echoes the perception of the road and roadside as a highly layered space. The road not only serves as an index of progress throughout Kenyan history but also entails certain moral affects and connotations as travel and the exposure to intense flows of goods and people can be particularly risky. This risk is now – in times of the ‘pandemic everyday’ – more than ever tangible.  It is against this backdrop that one needs to understand the car boot vendors along the Northern Bypass in Nairobi. Aware of the risks, they defy the dangers the road entails and try to find their own paths to tackle the crisis and ‘move onward’. They are, what my interlocutors termed as,  ‘tarmacking’ (Rahier 2020).

‘Finding direction’: on tarmacking

Within the context of urban survival, an often-heard idiom in Kenya is ‘tarmacking’.  Derived from ‘paving roads’, tarmacking refers to a particular kind of moving through the urban landscape, searching for opportunities and money whilst dealing with the dangers the road and roadside implies. The idiom is borrowed from the road construction industry in Kenya that takes place through public procurement. Infamous for corruption and trickery, this ‘tenderpreuneuring’ is also known to generate huge amounts of money for those securing tender contracts for smaller provincial stretches of road (main roads are tarmacked through mostly Chinese tender contracts).

Car boot vendors are, of course, not trying to secure tender contracts. Tarmacking in a figurative sense hints at the activity of ‘work on the move’ whilst being on the lookout for more lucrative opportunities.   For them, the road has narrative power implying an ‘individualized’ form of maendeleo or ‘onward movement’. Instead of remaining ‘idle’ or ‘stuck’ – considered morally bad according to Kenyan social imaginaries- tarmacking along the road and roadside provides an orientation, a feeling of motion toward better times not necessarily through the directions given by the government but along ‘desire paths’ (Van Wolputte 2018), that often ‘zig-zag’ between and across the existing tarmac road that serves as the backbone for urban development in the region.

The reason why car boot vendors along the Northern Bypass became a hot topic of debate is perhaps to be found in the sharp contrast between two colliding images and lived experiences: that of the bypass and that of the car boot vendors tarmacking. Both images are dominated by other notions of movement and the current ‘pandemic everyday’ more than ever highlights the differences between them.

The Northern bypass constructed between 2009 and 2014 is symbolic for the government’s focus on road construction part of the masterplan ‘vision 2030’ that aims at transforming Kenya into a middle-income country by 2030.  Through a series of infrastructural interventions, several bypasses had to make an end to the endless traffic jams in Nairobi and decrease pressure on the road infrastructure of the inner-city. The Northern Bypass has drastically changed how people move through the city yet also further increased inequality between those who can afford to move at ‘high speed’ opposed to the majority of urban dwellers who rely on their own feet or a bike as low-cost transport modes to navigate through Nairobi’s concrete jungle. The bypass makes motion easier but also limits where you go and as such, acts as a confinement. In short, it provokes the image of the ‘straight line’ as a symbol of modernity and progress (maendeleo) along which one moves at high speeds (also see Ingold 2008).

The majority of tarmackers on the other hand –  before COVID-19 mostly consisting out of youngsters who recently finished school searching for a direction in life – self-identify as less confined by ruling structures that suggest a certain (straight) direction. A tarmacker erodes his own path (njia) across the existing urban fabric and predominantly occupies the roadside instead of the road, hence moving at more gentle speeds (Rahier 2020). Mobility for tarmackers is an embodied practice. While being place-bound the car boot vendors along the Northern Bypass enact movement through paving their own roads (hence the idiom tarmacking) toward more survivable futures beyond the current ‘pandemic everyday’. Their sales help to avoid being ‘idle’ and get through the insecurity caused by the pandemic. Their activities demonstrate resilience to cope with precarious social security within the structures of the formal economy in Kenya and the importance of ‘sidle hustles’ that deviate away from the straight line of progress symbolized by the bypass.

Concluding remark

 The images of ‘white-collar’ car boot vendors in Nairobi have social significance and should be interpreted accordingly. The scene of parked high-end cars along the Northern Bypass that serve as make-shift corner shops demonstrates the resilience of Nairobians to cope with the new ‘pandemic everyday’. COVID-19 causes economic insecurity and uncovers the fragility of the formal economy to sustain life in times of crisis. Therefore, Nairobians revert to informal structures to go about daily life. The testimonies of the car boot vendors reveal two opposing kinds of movements. On the one hand, the bypass symbolizes the promise of speed and economic connectivity fueled by government narratives about progress or maendeleo, literally meaning ‘onward movement’ and often inspired by a ‘straight line’ as an icon of modernity. On the other hand, the car boot vendors operating from the roadside are exemplary for lived experiences of less structured forms of movement beyond the straight line that urban planners envisioned. These Nairobians revert to tarmacking as an alternative, informal ‘zig-zagging’ between and across the urban fabric in search for new paths that provide an orientation in these uncertain pandemic times. The move ‘white-collar’ car boot vendors made – from on the road to the roadside – portrays a sharp contrast between planned mobility along the built formal infrastructure that dominated their lives before COVID-19  and lived experiences of movement along more informal paths. These two contrasting realities encapsulated by the scene of the ‘white-collar’ car boot vendors are now more than ever magnified due to the increasing precarity the pandemic causes and of relevance for an anthropological inquiry into the ‘pandemic everyday’ in Kenya.

References used:

 Ingold, T. (2008) Lines: a brief history. London : Routledge.

Pype, K. (2018). “On interference and hotspots. Ethnographic explorations of rural-urban connectivity in and around Kinshasa’s phonie cabins.” Mededelingen der Zittingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Overzeese Wetenschappen.

Rahier, N.  (2020). “Notes on movement and non-movement: on urban kinesthetics in Nakuru, Kenya.” Manuscript in preparation.

Van Wolputte, S. (2018) ‘Desire Paths’ Etnofoor 30 (1): 97-107.