Anticipating Plots: (Re)Making Property, Futures and Town at the Gateway to Kenya’s ‘New Frontier’ – University of Copenhagen

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Anticipating Plots: (Re)Making Property, Futures and Town at the Gateway to Kenya’s ‘New Frontier’

Hannah Elliott is defending her PhD thesis "Anticipating Plots: (Re)Making Property, Futures and Town at the Gateway to Kenya’s ‘New Frontier’"

Members of the Assessment Committee:
• Professor Vigdis Broch-Due, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen
• Professor Deborah James, Department of Anthropology, LSE
• Associate Professor Karen Lauterbach, Centre of African Studies, University of Copenhagen(chair)

The defense is chaired by the Associate Dean, Associate Professor Carsten Selch Jensen.

This thesis is a study of anticipation as it manifests in practices of property-making in Isiolo, a provincial town in northern Kenya. Having long been cast in the national imaginary as a peripheral frontier town, Isiolo has recently been reimagined as a future industrial centre. This reimagining has been majorly facilitated by the town’s positioning in the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport corridor (LAPSSET), a large-scale infrastructural development project that is part of the nation’s long-term development strategy Vision 2030. As part of the development strategy’s overarching aim of making Kenya into a middle-income country by the year 2030, LAPSSET proposes to transform northern Kenya, a region long perceived as unworthy of investment, into a ‘new frontier’ for economic growth.

At the time of my fieldwork between 2014 and 2015, many of the LAPSSET developments planned for Isiolo had not yet materialised, and there was much to disrupt and delay their realisation. But the ‘not-yet’ was full of activity, predominantly centred around what I term ‘propertying’ – collective and individual material practices of claiming exclusive ownership of plots of land. Propertying was being carried out by diverse actors on peri-urban land that had previously been considered marginal and without economic value. It was also occurring at the town’s edges on land which was already occupied and claimed by settled pastoralist and agro-pastoralist groups as ‘first settlers’ and was now rapidly appreciating in value.

Drawing on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork in these sites between 2014 and 2015, this thesis uses the concept of anticipation to make sense of propertying. I understand anticipation as an affective orientation towards the future that demands action in the present. Viewing propertying as anticipatory action, I examine the futures that ‘first settlers’ at the town’s edges act upon and realise through propertying. I show that large-scale development projects remake the spaces they intend to transform not (or not only) through top-down processes but through the ‘small acts’ of ordinary people’s anticipatory actions. In doing so, I argue that people popularly portrayed as ‘marginalised’ and ‘outside’ of centres of power actively demand inclusion and resist exclusion by participating in their making. This participation is driven and shaped not only by people’s quests for material security but also by moral dilemmas and ambivalence about power and wealth. Examining propertying illuminates local tensions and contradictions related to what ‘property’ is, how people should make it, and the futures it makes possible.