Infrastructure as Divination: Urban life in the Postcolony

Researchers: Erik Trovalla and  Ulrika Trovalla (formerly Andersson)

At the same time that cellular phones, computers, mobile internet access, and satellites increasingly are shaping African urban realities, everyday lives are also characterised by an infrastructure marked by advanced decay, fragmentation, and uncertainty, and by a general move towards increasing informalisation of all spheres of life. Focusing on the often overlooked qualitative aspects of infrastructure, the aim of this project is an innovative perspective on urban Africa that challenges simplified views of failing societies and instead tries to grasp the complexity of a modern African city in its becoming.

The project takes the Nigerian city of Jos as a starting point for research on the wide and complex range of practices tied to infrastructural systems. In Jos and other cities across the African continent, formerly centralised networks of fuel distribution, power supply, and water provisioning etc., have grown into a multitude of official and unofficial sub-systems. Originally planned before the latest decades of intense urbanisation, they often serve populations ten, thirty, or fifty times larger than intended, and carry a load no one thought possible. For good and bad, African modernities are intrinsically linked to these processes.

In Jos, as in most African cities, it is striking how the imperfections in services move the infrastructure to the forefront of experience. Instead of quietly operating behind the scene, it requires constant intervention from users. Infrastructure is experienced as constantly changing processes of flow and non-flow and presence and absence. Much effort is put into trying to predict these changing processes, and to discover new ways around the infrastructure’s shortcomings. At the same time, infrastructure becomes a system of signs through which people try to understand circumstances beyond those immediately at hand. Like when diviners deduce the state of the world through the stones they have thrown, the materiality of infrastructure turns highly elusive questions into tangible clues. Through ethnographic fieldwork, this project puts people’s own actions, experiences and readings at the centre of an analysis of the practices tied to infrastructure, and the ways in which it allows people to explore elusive questions about the past, present and future of the city and the nation, and to whom Jos and Nigeria belongs.

The project is funded by the Swedish Research Council, and involves Erik Trovalla (Ph.D.) and Ulrika Trovalla (Ph.D.)

African cities
Erik Trovalla
Ulrika Trovalla
Urban management
West Africa
innovative approach
the city
the nation
urban life
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