By Mowshimkka Renganathan

There is a famous saying in India, “you don’t cast your vote but you vote your caste” and it holds true in all the Indian elections. Castes in India are endogamous units of people synonymous with the term “ethnic” groups in other parts of the world. The entire population in India has organized itself into various castes and arranged themselves in a social hierarchy. Over the course of the past six decades, each caste has become its own political unit with leaders, registered associations, members etc. and they function to serve the interests of their caste members and to represent the caste in all matters necessary.

ADMK campaign. Source: The Indian Express.

While they appear to function and behave as a large extended family, they are viewed as viable “vote banks” by the politicians of India. Vote bank is an Indian term for a group of people who have a common identity or goal and can be relied upon to display solidarity while choosing whom to vote for.

Although not an explicit strategy, every political party strives to earn the support of the various caste groups that live in their constituencies. It is similar to Hillary Clinton appealing to the cause of the veterans or Donald Trump earning the support of the middle class voters in the US, but the difference is that when a caste allies itself with a political party, it is “understood” that almost everyone belonging to the caste would vote for the supporting party. These vote banks indirectly play a crucial rule in influencing the political discourse, policy making, candidate selection for constituencies, financial planning etc. of each state in India.

Tamil Nadu is a south Indian state which is historically known for its strong adherence to caste system and caste-based politics. The interplay of caste and politics are highlighted when elections are around the corner.

In May 2016, the state assembly elections were conducted in Tamil Nadu and I followed the election affairs to highlight the areas in which caste influence played a vital role. The important process of any election is the grouping of allies, announcing a manifesto (a declaration of plans and policies), selecting candidates for each constituency, campaigning, poll day and results.

In Tamil Nadu, the three major political parties are DMK, ADMK and DMDK and their ideology is not caste-based. However, there are many other political parties formed directly by castes such as the Vanniyars, Dalits, Mutharaiyars, Nadars etc., and there are parties that are formed around minority Muslim groups. These parties form alliances with the three major parties.

The alliances formed between the above mentioned parties for the 2016 elections reflected the caste- affiliations. Each party collected their caste based vote banks based on their allies. (The complete details of alliances and names of the parties can be found here).

Manifestos are a good place to analyse the influence of castes in policy making; In April 2016, numerous booklets were dropped from door to door by different parties to ensure that the manifesto of each party reached every possible voter. All the major parties accused each other of “intellectual theft” regarding their policies, and it was indeed evident that it was difficult to distinguish a party from another in terms of their policies. In most manifestos, there were chapters entitled “Welfare of backward and schedules castes” and “Welfare of minorities” which addressed the caste based policies and schemes that would be implemented by each party after winning the elections. 

Above and below: Parties exhibiting their manifestos. Sources: One India Tamil.com, Yashnews.com.

At this point it is important to note that the castes in India are organized into various categories such as “backward”, “most backward” and “scheduled” based on their historic socio-economic status. Each category of castes is given special benefits by the government so they can achieve “development”. The process is known as a reservation system according to which admissions in schools, government jobs, and sections of government schemes are “reserved” in various percentages for the different categories.

However, the government ceases to provide the benefits for families whose annual income exceeds a mandated threshold, thereby excluding the “creamy layer” (Rich families) of each caste from the reservation system.

Collectively, all of the parties vowed to increase the “percentage” of reservations and the threshold income, in order to gain the votes of a richer section of all castes. Additionally, DMK promised to implement the caste-based reservation system in the private industry sector. It also promised to revise the “list” and “upgrade” the categories of several castes so that they could enjoy more benefits. PMK, on the other hand, promised that the welfare and rights of the religious minorities like Christians and Muslims would be specially protected, some religious convicts released on mercy, and “manual scavenging” (latrine cleaning) by certain castes abolished.

At this juncture, each caste would decide the party they wanted to vote for based on the policies they would benefit the most from. Each party strategically earned itself a vote-bank through such policy declarations.

Kongu Gounder caste party campaigning in a village. Source: The Hindu.

Following the manifesto comes the nomination of candidates; each party selected their candidates for the various constituencies. As per government rules, there are 234 state assembly constituencies out of which 44 are reserved for candidates belonging to “scheduled castes” and 2 are reserved for candidates belonging to “scheduled tribes”. The candidates are chosen based on their caste and the maximum possible vote banks they can cull in their constituency.

Finally, the parties appealed to the cultural and ethnic identity sentiments of the voters by using highly emotional political rhetoric. PMK is known for their ‘80s rhyming campaign slogan “The votes of Vanniyar caste is for no-one else”. Another caste-party claimed that they are “children of the sun” and that no one can defeat them while another party retorted by asking “Why can you not beat the summer heat but need AC, if you are the children of the sun?” 

PMK campaigning. Source: Indian Express.

Such witty and emotionally charged discourse between parties appeal to the ordinary citizen who feels the need to take sides to protect his identity. However, within the last decade, there has been an increase in the number of caste associations that aim for caste solidarity, which is also the aim of political parties during their election campaigns. The politicians might break ethnic barriers by dining with various caste members, drinking tea with the people on the road, naming newborn babies. The most common strategy is delivering hair raising speeches on unity and solidarity. 

The election results were announced on May 19th 2016 and in a surprising turn of events, many caste-based parties actually lost the elections while there were only a few strong caste-based party leaders who were elected. Thus, there might be a change in the people’s preferences to caste-based politics in Tamil Nadu. 

Tamil Nadu 2016 election results.

Nevertheless, politics in Tamil Nadu is still dominantly caste-driven, and castes participate in politics by forming official caste organizations, mobilizing funds, doling out free memberships to their caste members, implementing strict endogamy in marriages, asserting their dominance and identity through communal violence, and slowly rising to power as a formidable vote bank after which they can demand for favours and policies in return for their loyalty as a vote bank.

Note from the Editor: Mowshimkka Renganathan is a new member of Poverty and Development Research Center at the Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä. Her ongoing PhD research focuses on the caste-based reservation system in Tamil Nadu, India.



Click here to read the book of abstracts. 
Our conference Poverty's Causes and Consequences in the Urban Developing World gathered together poverty researchers from 19 countries and all major continents for three days of discussion exploring new perspectives on urban poverty. Fifty paper presentations and four keynote lectures offered critical perspectives and encouraged approaches on the intersection between micro and macro levels of analysis. Papers represented a wide variety of disciplines and presented local case studies from many different countries with relevance for larger issues as well as larger-scale studies with theoretical implications for micro-level research.

The first day of conference started with Prof. Laura Stark's welcome, followed by Prof. Bipasha Baruah's keynote that focused on gender equality in India, and presented an initiative called Women on Wheels in New Delhi. Then Dr. Dayabati Roy gave her keynote speech about the way in which poverty vis-à-vis unemployment is created and recreated as a consequence of the complex relationship between capital, class and the state in India. The afternoon continued with panels focusing on themes such as childhood, gender, urbanization, religion, governance, and land-use as well as how to measure poverty (please see the programme).

Keynotes: Baruah, Roy Ferguson and Anand. 

The next day, panels continued with papers discussing rightful share, rights, labor, education, and sexual risks. Prof. James Ferguson delivered the third keynote of the conference, in which he offered ways to rethink production and distribution which draw upon his widely popular book Give a Man a Fish (see also the Q & A session). The day ended with a conference dinner at Hotel Alba.

Prof. Laura Stark welcoming our dinner guests. 

The last day of conference offered Sidy Lamine Bagayoko's ethnographic film on the challenges faced by a village school in Mali, and a panel about neoliberalism and urban politics. The last keynote of the conference was Dr. Harjit Singh Anand's talk about poverty and dynamics of the Indian informal work sector.

We wish to thank all the participants and our sponsor, the Academy of Finland.

Watch the keynote videos.



A guest article by
Kenneth Bo Nielsen

When people think of the Indian state of Goa it is usually images of beautiful beaches and coconut palms gently swaying in the breeze that spring to mind. Once a compulsory stop on the original hippie trail, Goa has now become a favoured playground for domestic Indian tourists who come to relax and have a good time in a place where kuch bhi chalta hai – ‘everything is ok’. 

What is less commonly known is that this small state on the Indian west coast has also been home to numerous, intense struggles over land and nature in recent decades. Mass tourism, for instance, is far from uniformly popular as it takes its toll on the environment: The hotels and resorts along the coast line lay claim to scarce space, produce unmanageable amounts of waste, and disrupt important tidal flows. 

Further inland, polluting industries have been resisted on many occasions, as have the state government’s attempt at setting up so-called special economic zones, that is, exclusive industrial enclaves. And, in the parts of the state that are farthest from the coast and bordering the Western Ghats – a UNESCO world heritage site – rampant and often illegal open pit iron ore mining has destroyed vast tracts of land and many water bodies. While mass tourism, industrialisation, and mining provide employment to many people and a much needed source of revenue for the state, they are thus, because of their impact on land and nature, also highly controversial and contested issues. 

Since 2015 I have been following an evolving controversy over a large tract of land in north Goa. Here, more than 2,000 acres on and around a large, lateritic plateau have been acquired by the state government to set up a new international airport. The airport project is being promoted by its supporters as a real economic book for the state as it will sustain and increase mass tourism during the years ahead, and, more generally, act as an economic catalyst for the northernmost part of Goa which is generally considered among the more ‘backward’ parts of the state. 

Aerial shot of the plateau. Source: Catch News

In contrast, those fiercely opposed to the airport – which includes both many locals as well as the larger environmental movement in the state – see it as not only destructive of Goa’s fragile nature, but also as a scam that is intended to benefit only real estate developers, wealthy entrepreneurs, land brokers, and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. In the struggle over the land and the airport, both sides have relied on a vast array of arguments, both economic, political, and environmental, to argue their case and sway a larger public. Yet what struck me when listening to and studying these arguments was the radically different views the two sides had on the exact nature of land that was being acquired to make way for the airport, and what the impact of the airport would be. 

To the proponents of the airport, the plateau on which it would be located was little more than a rocky, barren patch of land without habitation, residents or permanent structures of any significance: ‘The land is largely non-cultivated due to an out cropping of lateritic soil and no residential and water bodies are found within the project location except few houses’, writes the mandatory Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that was prepared at the behest of the Government of Goa. It added that ‘vegetation and trees are sparse’. Eighty-five per cent of the acquired land was, it said, either ‘land with scrub’ (55 %), barren rocky/stony waste (22 %) or scrub forest (8 %). 

In its conclusion, the report found that the airport would have a ‘medium impact’ on the local biological environment; but in effect, this ‘impact’ mostly referred to a larger risk of animals being killed in the increased car traffic, or falling into open construction pits or trenches. Beyond that, and given the seemingly rocky, inhospitable and barren nature of the place, a new international airport would have very little impact on the local land, water and socio-economic environment.

The airport project’s opponents would beg to differ. At a controversial public hearing on the EIA report which took place on top of the plateau itself on 2 February 2015, they spent considerable time deconstructing this view of the plateau as barren wasteland. To the project’s opponents, the plateau’s location close to the Western Ghats made it an intrinsically eco-sensitive zone almost on par with the Western Ghats itself, second only to the Amazons in terms of biodiversity. 

Some wildlife of the plateau. Source: Catch News.

The plateau was claimed to be home to a plethora of wildlife – including endangered species – and flora and fauna, as well as more than 40 surrounding perennial springs; and it performed an indispensable function in terms of ground water percolation and recharge, acting as a giant sponge that stored and released water throughout the year. To prove this point, activists did their own environmental impact assessment of the plateau, concluding that whereas the official EIA report mentions only the presence of mice, cats and dogs, leopards and bison in fact roam. The plateau recharged over two billion litres of water every year, it was found, meaning that if the plateau was destroyed to make way for the airport, its crucial role in the wider regional hydrology would be disrupted, leading to repercussions far beyond the plateau itself. 

A wrecked hydrology would not only destroy cultivation on the slopes of the plateau, and on the nearby plains below, but also the fisheries in the nearby Chapora and Tiracol rivers. Moreover, in the surrounding area agriculture was practised, including extensive cashew plantations on the slopes that generated an annual turnover of as much as 500 million INR, and which enabled the production of the locally popular cashew-feni, a strong liquor produced from the cashew apple. 

Sacred groves would be lost if the airport came up, including the Barazan on the very top of the plateau, a grove comprised by 12 trees at which important rituals were carried out yearly. For the same reason, one activist group consistently referred to the plateau as the ‘Barazan’, and not the more commonly used Mopa plateau, so as to underscore its importance in an ancient cultural and socio-economic order that was now fast disappearing.

The first phase of airport construction is planned to commence from November this year. By the time we know more about which of the two sides to the controversy got their facts about the plateau ‘more right’, it may thus be too late to do anything about it.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bergen Department of Sociology.



By Diana Diaz Delgado Raitala

“I want to go home [to my birth family]”, says the wife who has been mistreated by her husband, but her parents do not want her. There is so much poverty, her parents have no means to feed her, and her husband is her owner because he has paid for her with cows. Jane, a Luo woman, related this to me in order to explain some aspects of customary marriage on my ethnographic trip to eastern Kenya.

Bridewealth is the payment given by the groom and his kin to the bride’s family before or at marriage. Customary marriage involving bridewealth is a very common form of marriage in Kenya regardless of the ethnic group (Goody & Tambiah 1973; Comaroff 1980; Kanogo 2005). The brideprice is set in terms of cows and/or goats. Importantly, the payment is essential to legalize the union (Fortes 1972). The topic of bridewealth became the centre theme of my Master’s thesis.

Lanscape of the fieldsite. © Diana Raitala.

Lanscape from Nairobi towards the fieldsite. © Diana Raitala.

Although my dialogues with Jane and the other 28 participants in my interviews often were surrounded by an atmosphere of sadness and resignation, I have to say that the happiness of the ritual of customary marriage which I had the opportunity to witness will remain in my memory for ever. The ritual took place in a hut belonging to the grandmother of the bride. The neighbours and the congregation of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, which has many parishioners in Kenya, were all invited to the ceremony. A day before the ceremony the women (the bride, her family, the neighbours and I) started preparing the Kenyan delicacies which I show in the picture below. 

Kenyan delicacies. © Diana Raitala.

The white dish is ugali, a porridge made from maize; the red dish is a traditional sauce made from tomatoes and masala called ring'o; the yellow and red dish is called rabolo, made from beans and vegetables, and avocado and banana are served as garnish.

I feel that my role in preparing food was that of a well-behaved spectator, ready to do something whenever the bride and her family asked; in fact I did physically nothing, only watched, but even to this day, some of the cooks insist that I was a great help. In the ceremony, two head of cattle (see picture below) were given as payment of bridewealth. 

Bridewealth. © Diana Raitala.

The happiness of all the participants in the ceremony was palpable. When I asked the bride how she felt, she answered me with a smile, “Very happy!” In the ceremony, one of the bride’s close relatives confided in me: “She is happy although she is going to be owned by her husband.”

This ownership is an important consequence of customary marriage. In my dialogues with participants, ownership was understood to mean two things: 1) the obligation of the husband to protect his wives and children, and 2) the rights of husbands over wives and children. Some of these rights over wives include the fact that a wife needs permission from her husband to visit her birth family; and the right of the husband to perpetrate violent acts on her. Due to this right of ‘ownership’, violence is usually accepted or tolerated (Ludsin & Vetten 2005: 24). I was told by some participants that traditional marriage bestows legal custody of the children solely on the father.

In other words, the payment of bridewealth is essential for giving the father ‘ownership’ of his children, otherwise there is no legalized marriage and the husband does not have legal custody (Goody 1973: 12; Radcliffe-Brown 1950: 54). If the husband, for instance, promises to pay bridewealth after the marriage but does not pay it, the children will belong to the ethnic group of their mother (Ladislav 1996: 128). According to my participants, this situation is a cause for embarrassment to the father and mother and their respective ethnic groups. Robert, a Luo man, told me over supper in the house which he shared with his first wife that an honourable man always pays the bridewealth for his wives. 

The house of Robert and 2nd wife (the darker house is the
kitchen). © Diana Raitala.

Payment is not always an easy task to accomplish; this is illustrated by what happened to Keanu, a Kikuyu man, whose wife died before he had paid the bridewealth to her family. Keanu’s interview revealed the importance of the payment for being able to bury his wife and for retaining custody of his children. Without having paid bridewealth, Keanu could not be the one to bury his own wife. Keanu had a difficult time paying the bridewealth because the father of his dead wife was missing, and although her mother was available, it is the father who should negotiate and receive the payment according to custom. 

After much effort to find his dead wife’s father with unsuccessful results, Keanu and his kin and the grandfather of the deceased (who was in these circumstances authorized by tradition) arrived at an agreement on the price, and Keanu paid it. In this way, Keanu did not lose his child to the ethic group of his deceased wife. In my conversation with him, Keanu described to me his pain at the loss of his wife, his fear of losing custody of their child, and his sadness at having to negotiate over the dead body of his wife.

One of the central aspects of customary marriage mentioned in the academic literature and in my conversations with Kenyans relates to children and the importance of offspring (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde 1965; Goody 1973; Ansell 2001: 699). I was told by many people the more children the better. I observed in my ethnographic fieldwork that the responsibility for taking care of parents falls to adult children. Kenya is a country in which basic needs such as medical health, potable water, education and housing are not met by the state. Children have a moral duty to provide for their parents when they grow old (Offlong 1999: 25). As my friend and participant Paul, a Meru man, told me, responsible children provides for their parents; they should pay their parents’ medical bills as much as they are financially able, as he did for his mother until she died.

My ethnographic research for my Master’s thesis was carried out in 2012. I conducted interviews/dialogues with members of the Luo, Kikuyu, Kalenjin, Meru, Kamba, Maasai, Kisii and Luhya ethnic groups. All the names in this article have been changed. Additionally, all the participants mentioned in this article are middle-aged, married and highly educated with the exception of Robert, who is a tailor.




A guest article by
Elias Yitbarek Alemayehu

I live in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia, with a population of about five million (official estimate 3.5 million). The neighbourhood I live in is called Piazza, is the old centre of the city and one of the busiest. My apartment overlooks a busy traffic junction. The daily scenes from my window include traffic jams, a constant flow of pedestrians, shoeshine boys, car-washing youth, car parking attendants, beggars, street hustlers, street vendors, watchmen, stray dogs and people simply hanging out. During peak hours, the streets are completely full of packs of vehicles stuck in the traffic jam and incessantly honking. It is a teeming and vibrant junction without respite – chaotic, spontaneous, and at times, surreal.

Street view in Addis Ababa. © E. Y. Alemayehu.

In 2014–15 I had the opportunity to stay in Jyväskylä, Finland, at different intervals for a total of five months. During my first visit, I stayed in an apartment overlooking a street junction close to the city centre. The scene and sounds were in sharp contrast to the traffic junction in Addis Ababa. The most common sources of sounds were lone intermittent beeps from traffic lights and the few cars that stopped and passed through accordingly. From my Jyväskylä apartment window, whenever possible, I keenly observed activities at the junction. I saw a man who came every morning with a plastic bag in his hands to a corner kiosk located at the junction. He went into the kiosk and came out after a while. He stood by the corner, took a canned beer from his pocket and drank it. He smoked a cigarette and then went back into the kiosk. He repeated this routine three or four times each morning. At times, after his third or fourth beer, he urinated by the fence and then went back to the kiosk. This activity was repeated every morning at fixed intervals. 

In comparison to the chaotic view and buzzing sound of the street junction in Addis, in the case of Jyväskylä not only the activities but also the street sounds were rhythmic – bordering on monotony. It alternated between silence and sound. In fact the silence intervals were longer than the intervals with sound. I observed similar patterns with the activity of the man at the kiosk. His stays outside to drink beer and smoke cigarettes happened quickly compared to the time he spent inside the kiosk. The beeping sound of the traffic light and the noise from the cars took place against a dominant silence. Except for few pedestrians crossing the junction now and then, the man at the kiosk was the only activity in the street against the backdrop of the majority of people staying indoors. This was in stark contrast to Addis Ababa, where the majority of people are active in the streets and one can hardly enjoy any silence in the relentless noise. 

In addition, during my stay in Jyväskylä, a city of 140,000 people, what grabbed my attention was the vast availability of open spaces, lakes and forests. In Jyväskylä, I was told, almost every household can reach a lake or a forest within a walking distance. From an urban planning point of view, the built structures in Jyväskylä are pockets within large forests. This is the opposite of Addis Ababa, where the forests and open spaces are small pockets within the vast built environment.

I couldn’t help but think how my observations from my windows in both cities and the relationship between the built environment and open spaces could be related to the temperament of Jyväskylä’s and Addis Ababa’s people. After all, the built environment is the physical manifestation of who we are as people: “first we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” (a quote by Winston Churchill).

At the risk of over generalizing, the Finnish people are often characterized as silence-loving people. Coming from an African city, this I could vividly observe. In my encounters with the Finns I could also observe the absence of small talk. Silence, I was told, is considered part of a conversation in Finland. Words are used to transfer messages. There is respect for words; it is okay to be together or in the company of others and keep silent. Silence is considered not as the absence of noise but as another form of conversation. The following instances in Jyväskylä may demonstrate the aforementioned statements.

During my stay in Jyväskylä, after being invited to a gathering of friends, I was heading to my host’s home. On my way, I caught up with a friend who was walking with two of her children to the same place. The usual exchange of greetings was followed by silence. In an effort to break the silence, I said, “while I was checking the address of the house we are heading to, I found out that the roads of the neighbourhood are named after dancing styles: tango, waltz, humppa, and so on”. She said, “yes, some dancing styles”. Again, our very brief chat was followed by another silence. To continue some light conversation I said, “the neighbourhood’s residents must like dancing or could be dancers!” She did not pick up on my joke, instead she responded by saying, “no, I myself used to live in the same neighbourhood and I know that the naming is not because the residents like dancing.” I had to remind myself: “no small talk!” After some walks in silence, we arrived at our host’s house.

Another instance was when I invited a Finnish friend to my apartment for a cup of coffee. I knew that he was traveling out of town for some time. Thus, following his arrival at my place, to break the ice I asked, “how was your trip?” In Ethiopia this is a casual question usually posed without the expectation of a thoughtful answer. It is asked just for the sake of avoiding silence and possibly to initiate a conversation. The response I got from my Finnish friend, however, was rather a formal account of his trip. Following a thoughtful silence he started to carefully mention the places he visited, the activities he did in each visit and the type of people he met and the number of kilometers he covered. At the end of his rather rigorous account I had to remind myself I should not ask for the sake of asking – no small talk!

In sharp contrast to the above, in Addis Ababa, silence breeds nervousness. In the Ethiopian culture it is not considered courteous to keep quiet, particularly in the presence of a guest. One is expected to constantly engage in small talk. Something as simple thing as a greeting could go on and on for minutes with back and forth cliché statements. The whole city, particularly the city centers, continuously buzz with different types of sounds from people, vehicles, animals, places of worship, music instruments, etc. One can hardly get a silent corner for respite.

How does the above observation translate into cities? Here one could make a contrast between silence/open spaces/voids on the one hand and noise/objects/buildings on the other hand. The relationship between silence, open spaces and the voids between buildings is considered not only metaphorically but also functionally. The same is true with the relationship between objects and the noise emanating from the various street activities. The word “object” is, primarily, used here to denote buildings which do not take into account a given urban context – stand alone buildings that neither define streets or opens spaces nor respond to the climate and the way of life of residents.

The silence of the Finns seems to be made manifest in their love for open spaces, lakes and forests; and their measured talk could be expressed through the small pockets of buildings constructed within the vast forests. The constant chatter and noise in Addis Ababa, by contrast, is manifested in the love of placing buildings and objects in every available open spaces. The city has few parks and public spaces, far below the required standards. There has been a constant effort to fill every inch of the city with man-made things. Open spaces have been considered wasted land. A typical well-functioning city, however, is composed of both buildings and the spaces between the buildings (voids); a good balance between them is essential. It is like the balance needed between inhaling and exhaling, repose and wakefulness, action and reflection. People require silent moments to reflect and look into one self. This realization calls for looking at cities not as a mere collection of objects and blocks of buildings but also as places that satisfy psychological needs.

The city design of Addis Ababa has been focusing on the design of objects rather than the voids between them. But a mere collection of objects does not make a livable city. Following long years of deep slumber, unprecedented urban transformation is occurring in the city. The construction of roads, high rise buildings and condominium housing blocks are transforming the city for good – giving it a new skyline. Often redevelopment schemes are done without a proper urban design. It is only recently that the issue of urban design, one that could mediate the relationship between open spaces/silence and buildings/objects, has come into the picture.

In 2012, a proper urban design was made by the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City planning (EiABC) for an area located in the inner city, commonly known as Basha Wolde Chilot (the author was one of the coordinators of this project). The point of departure for the project was the fact that it started by designing first the open spaces/voids, and making the building blocks a secondary design element. (See Hebel & Yitbarek 2011.) Perimeter blocks of buildings were used to define both the open spaces and the streets. Thus, networks of open spaces were created which balanced out the buildings. Contrary to this approach, as mentioned earlier, most of redevelopment projects in the city have focused on the design of buildings/objects only. The spaces between the buildings are usually left-over spaces often appropriated by adjacent owners or utilized for garbage dumping or other unintended purposes.

In the case of Addis Ababa, it should be noted that, the provision of open spaces goes beyond the need for silence. Owing to the mild climate, many activities are carried out in the open; one only has to walk through the city and the informal settlements to observe this. The open spaces are used both for day-to-day household chores and larger communal activities. Owing to their varying sizes and locations, they accommodate activities ranging from the smallest outdoor chores such as manual coffee grinding and making laundry to accommodating wedding ceremonies. Thus, in Addis Ababa, contrary to Le-Corbusie’s famous dictum that “the house is a machine for living”, rather the open space is a machine for living. This is true particularly for the majority of low-income people of Addis Ababa, for whom common spaces are not a luxury but crucial components of survival.

Thus, if Addis Ababa is to be more livable city, it needs to learn from Jyväskylä’s silence and open spaces. It is high time that it considers the provision of public spaces and parks. Unless the noise surrounding objects and buildings is balanced with the provision of silence and open spaces, the city will end up being a jungle of concrete. At present, it seems the city administration has become increasingly aware of this. It has planned to develop more than 100 parks, in the coming five years.

For its part, Jyväskylä may need some of the Addis Ababa’s vibrant street life and spontaneity to balance its vast silence and predictable rhythm. One of the reasons for marital divorces in Finland, I was told, is lack of sufficient communication between husband and wife. Communication is minimized and assumptions are made instead, to the extent of reaching a breaking point. The pretext for the minimal communication, I was told, is avoiding redundancy of information or the telling of something which is obvious. A good friend of mine tried to explain this by relating the following story: 

An old man wanted to visit a place whose location he didn’t know. He went to his friend’s family, who knew the place, and asked for somebody to accompany him. The lady of the house was gracious enough to give permission to her young son to accompany the elderly man. The old man and the young boy started to head toward the place. They walked in silence without uttering a word. After a long distance, the young boy, observing the dark sky with heavy clouds, commented, “I think it is going to rain”. There was no reply from the old man. After a while they reached their destination. The old man visited the place he wanted to see and they started walking back home. Again, all the way back there was no conversation. The only talk on the whole trip had been the earlier comment of the boy about the rain. Finally, after arriving at the boy’s home, the old man said to the boy’s mother, “you have a good boy but he talks too much.”
Then, said my Finnish friend, “you see, it is not that we do not talk but it is because we avoid the obvious and the redundant as much as possible. Why should the boy say ‘it will rain’ when it is obviously so!" However, in my opinion, ideal cities could be created if Addis Ababa could share Jyväskylä some of its "noise" and man-made objects and Jyväskylä could lend Addis Ababa some of its silence and open spaces. Addis Ababa needs more "repose" and "reflection" and Jyväskylä more "wakefulness" and "action".

For those who insist in favor of silence at the cost of objects: I think, communication and the need for bonding with fellow dwellers are inherent characteristics of human beings. The molecules of minerals, plants, animals and human beings bond with each other in order to exist for what they are. It is nature’s law that bonds and interaction produce life while separation and disintegration lead to death. Similarly, on a larger scale, residents need to bond with their fellow neighbors in order to enjoy a fulfilling life. Communication and social interaction is not a luxury but a necessity. It is not an externality to the collective identity of human beings but an essential characteristic.

And for those who insist in favor of objects at the cost of silence, I share the quotation below on Malevich’s painting of 2015 “the black square” - devoid of any representational objects:

The traditionalists tried to laugh the picture off. They said Malevich had gone mad, he must’ve painted the black square in the dark! His response was straightforward: "I am glad I am not like you. I can go further and further into the wilderness because it’s only there that transformation will take place. My black square is a bare and frameless icon for our times. Arise, comrades, and free yourselves from the tyranny of objects!" (Andrew Graham-Dixon quoting Kazimir Malevich in the BBC documentary, the Art of Russia, episode 2.)

Dr. Alemayehu is Assistant Professor, Housing Chair, at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC),and the former president of the Association of Ethiopian Architects (AEA).

Source cited: Dirk Hebel & Elias Yitbarek (2011). “Addis Ababa, Extracting Character from Voids”. In, Anza (East African Architectural Magazine), Bracom Associates, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

Acknowledgements: Serkalem Girma, Dr. Sileshi Yitbarek,
Kumneger Alemu, Sylvie Fanta and Prof. Laura stark.



By Jukka Jouhki

On an earlier visit to Chennai, I interviewed slum dwellers about how they relate to voting, elections and politics in general (read more about it here). Since I was intrigued by the fact that the poor in India are the most enthusiastic voters, one question I asked them was “What is a good politician like?” 

I was a bit surprised when at first, the most common response was something along the lines of “there is no such thing as a good politician”, or “all politicians are fools.” However, when I asked them to elaborate, many softened a bit and described how a good politician would “not be very corrupt”, and how he would “keep only 75 % of the [public] funds to himself, and give the rest to his people”.

I wasn’t sure how much irony there was in these statements. But when I asked further, most people eventually said that a good politician should have an “understanding of the needs of his people”. He would ensure there was enough clean water, proper drainage, decent roads, and affordable meals for the poor. In more audacious scenarios wished for by slum dwellers, good politicians would provide quality education for their children and steady jobs for themselves.

A political party's poster in a Tamil Nadu town (source).

I was also surprised that honesty did not seem to be an essential quality of a good politician. During elections, a politician in Chennai – like in most democracies of the world – might make unrealistic if not fairy-tale like promises to voters in the slums. I was told that a candidate might claim to arrange a government job for a potential voter’s family or a university seat for each youngster of the family if he were to be elected. On a grander scale, he might promise to rid the state of its chronic drought by connecting the major rivers of Tamil Nadu. Both politicians and voters knew that these promises would never come true, but were instead part of an elaborate election-time ritual.

This kind of exaggeration was not held against the politician. A good politician could even lie if he only remained accessible to people after being elected. More important than honesty was the possibility that a citizen-voter could seek help from the politician in times of trouble – which usually meant that the citizen-voter had encountered a bureaucratic snag and needed the politician to smooth the way for him or her.

The third surprise was that a good politician did not need to have lofty moral motives. When I asked my interviewees what kinds of people they thought wanted to become politicians in the first place, they answered: “the selfish people”, “the rowdies”, “the business-minded” or “the ones who already have money and want more of it”. Politics, to many, seemed like just another way of doing business, a lucrative career choice with benefits. Politics was not about helping people or working towards common ideological goals on behalf of the public good. As an interviewee told me, “if you want to do good things for people, you don’t become a politician. You join an NGO.” Thus accusing a politician of putting money first was like blaming a gardener for wanting his trees to bear fruit.

Supporters of DMDK, the 3rd biggest party in Tamil Nadu (source).

Many of my interviewees said they hated politics but that they would still like to become politicians themselves. As a young man said, “it would be the only way to bring benefits to my family.” Indeed, joining a political party was for many uneducated people one of the few ways to advance economically. If they could become affiliated with a party organization, even peripherally, then they might not have to spend as much money bribing officials because they were “people of the party”. They might also receive an informal job in the party organization. Also, party affiliates were usually rewarded in cash and in kind for their loyalty during elections.

No one in Chennai could tell me the ideological differences between the two major political parties DMK and AIADMK. Their names even mean almost the same thing, both referring to the progress of the people. They seemed more like competing patronage networks (see e.g. Piliavsky ed. 2014) than political parties. However, when it came to the party leaders, my interviewees’ tone often changed to admiration and awe. For example, Jayalalithaa, the state prime minister, was different than a minor politician. She was indeed a “good” politician.

Jayalalithaa – or “Amma” (the Mother) – is a former film star who used her popularity to serve her political career. She is revered as an almost omnipotent guardian of the people. Her pictures are everywhere – from government-subsidized cement sacks and bags of salt to party-distributed freebies such as table fans and school kids’ backpacks, reminding people of her benevolence. People even name their children after her, and she blesses all poor people with her five-rupee lunch scheme.

Jayalalithaa's picture on the street (source).

To be sure, “Amma” does not deny herself the material benefits of her position. According to the New York Times Magazine, when Jayalalithaa was accused of having "disproportionate assets" (= misusing public funds) in 2015, she couldn’t explain the extra 660 million rupees (approx. 9 million euros) she possessed, and when her house was searched by the police, they recorded “10,500 saris, 750 pairs of shoes and 66 pounds of gold”.

But like benevolent kings and queens whose wealth equals their morality in Indian tales, it is understood that big political leaders must be rich to provide for their people. They must also be strong in their leadership. Party leaders were actually the only good politicians my interviewees mentioned. They hoped that one day the lesser politicians would be as good as their leaders.

Below: Prime minister M. G. Ramachandran and 
present prime minister Jayalalithaa before their political careers.



By Sirpa Tenhunen

My more than decade-long research on the appropriation of mobile telephony in rural India is finally coming to a completion as I am scheduled to finish my book manuscript for the Oxford University Press this year. The book will examine how mobile telephony contributes to social change in Janta, a village in the Bankura district in West Bengal on the basis of long-term ethnographic fieldwork before and after the introduction of mobile phones. At this stage of the research, I am in a good position to take stock of the changes induced by mobile telephony in this region: did mobile phones contribute to development in rural West Bengal and how?

By 2013, all households in the village I studied had phones, and most households possessed a smartphone. As phones became ubiquitous, differences in usage emerged. Low-income families share an understanding that phones need to be used sparingly, thus reflecting their financial means, whereas the upper classes can spend generously on phone calls. As especially the elder generations in this village only studied Bengali language at school, they are unable to read the English alphabet of their Chinese made cheap phones, and they find using their smart phones for leisure activities, such as listening to music, taking and storing photos, and watching movies, more interesting than browsing the internet.

Village of Janta in West Bengal. © Sirpa Tenhunen.

However, most phone owners do use the internet indirectly on their phones. They buy music, videos, and pictures, which are downloaded on their phone’s memory chip in shops selling chips, and content downloaded from the internet. The few people in the village who have used their personal phones to browse the internet all have a college education, and therefore belong to a minority. The few who have tried the internet have found many uses for it: chatting on Facebook, downloading music and movies, learning about prices, products, jobs, and exam results, as well as sending e-mail and accessing study sources such as literature and dictionaries.

People mostly used their phones for calling their relatives and friends, and these calls contributed to changes in gender and kinship relations (Tenhunen 2014 and 2015). Mobile phones also helped to transform political practices by mediating political action and alternatives (Tenhunen 2011). When I asked mobile phone owners how they benefit from their phones, the prevalent answer was that a mobile phone enables one to do more in less time: One can now manage various errands within a fraction of the time and costs they previously required. 

My initial research on the mobile phone use of the early adapters in Janta supported earlier research findings on the economic benefits of phones for small scale businesses. It did not take the local entrepreneurs in Janta long to realize that mobile phones could help them extend their clientele. Phones helped people in diverse fields increase their income and their businesses’ efficiency (Tenhunen 2008). However, the picture of mobile phones’ economic benefits became more complicated after I had a chance to observe phone use in diverse economic fields over time.

While some entrepreneurs were able to extend their markets beyond the village with the help of phones, most small scale entrepreneurs still concentrate on selling their services to villagers. While the villagers do call stores to inquire about a product’s availability, phones have not increased shopkeepers’ business margins considerably. Instead, shopkeepers maintain that they use phones for the convenience and not to increase their income. Depending on their ability to obtain credit from wholesale sellers, store owners can order stock for their village store from the nearby town. Consequently, they now spend less time commuting. However, the convenience offered by phones for doing business has helped more people set up shops, which has led to increased competition.

A road in the village. © Juha Laitalainen.

The biggest economic change in the village since the turn of the century was not due to the use of mobile phones, but to agricultural policies which led to small farmers’ decreasing profits. The price of fertilizers and gasoline has increased, while income from the sale of agricultural products has dwindled. Since farming small plots of land has become increasingly unprofitable, young men from small farms use their phones to find paid employment outside the village. Fellow villagers, who have already emigrated to work outside the village, provide information on job opportunities over the phone.

Villagers perceive the ability to call for help as one of mobile phones’ most crucial benefits. I met people who had been motivated to purchase their first phone by a family member’s illness. Phones allow seriously ill patients in the village to be transported to a doctor, or a hospital, as it is possible to hire a car by phone. However, phones have not made it possible to summon trained medical help to the village in times of emergencies. Public health centers do not have sufficient staff to attend patients outside the center, and trained medical doctors in towns do not leave their clinics to attend patients in villages. 

The self-taught doctor who lives in the adjacent village is the only person family members can call if a villager is too sick to travel. People do not trust either the public or private health-care systems in the region, nor those in West Bengal state. Faced with serious illnesses, the villagers prefer to spend large sums of money to travel outside West Bengal to obtain proper treatment at the few hospitals with a good reputation for fair pricing and reliable care. Phones help raise money for medical treatment from relatives and help patients stay in touch with the health-care personal outside the village, or with previous patients who have travelled to other states to obtain medical treatment.

Phones thus cannot compensate for the shortcomings of the public health care systems nor do they make it possible to overcome the challenges farmers face due to changes in agricultural policies. The ways in which villagers cope with the over-priced private healthcare system through their phones shows the potential benefits of phones for healthcare. But identifying mobile telephony as belonging to the realm of the market hampers the use of mobile telephony for developmental purposes. Service provider companies have not been able to provide affordable healthcare solutions or useful information for low-income people as part of their business practices in sustainable ways.

The rapid spread of mobile telephony in developing countries has raised hopes about the developmental potential of economic liberalization in the form of mobile telephony. My ethnographic research on the appropriation of mobile telephony in rural India shows that despite their many benefits for users, mobile phones alone do not solve developmental problems: there is a need for multiple solutions due to the complexity of social processes.