Field Notes 02-2020, Bagamoyo, Tanzania, Margarida Waco
Field Notes 02-2020, Bagamoyo, Tanzania, Margarida Waco

At the threshold of the Indian Ocean, in the north-eastern corner of Tanzania, lies Bagamoyo. Once the town served as an administrative capital during the brief moment of German colonial rule and as a notorious slave-trading outpost in the 19th century, weaving African bodies into a system that built modern capitalism. Some kilometres southwards its littoral is located in a rural tropical landscape, home to a population of about 12 000 residents living off small-scale farming and fishery in five self-built villages borne out of Julius Nyerere’s socialist philosophy of Ujamaa.1 Soon, however, 9 800 hectares of this rich and fertile ground will be woven into a planetary network of multi-directional trade.  Convened under the concept of a Special Economic Zone, the site is about to endure a radical spatial transformation benefitting a global population and placing locals at the margins.

Ruins located at the Bagamoyan littoral perpetuate legacies of slavery and colonial praxes, such as the former Customs House for sleeve keeping built by Omani sultans, Margarida Waco, 2020.

In his essay, ‘Africa in the New Century’, Achille Mbembe writes that the African continent is the last frontier of capitalism, a key laboratory of the world in the making, and a place where the future of life itself, of the Earth, the human and other species might be played out.2 Echoing Mbembe, history repeats itself as contemporary African landscapes are once again converted into fertile grounds for global capitalism that is fueled by the proliferation of extractive industries that profit from plundering the earth, weaving people, money, natural resources, and commodities into a network of global exchange. This set of geopolitical arrangements have led to vast spatial reconfigurations in places across the continent and have become foundational to new forms of financial speculation. Moreover, such spatial practices create a loophole allowing for new economic ventures that are largely driven by the interests of global powers, national and private enterprises. Invariably, these interests incline towards a capitalist production of space that relies on spatial interventions guaranteed to generate more capital – in the short term.

To this end, architectures of logistics - from the construction of railways, roads, ports, and most notably, free zones - play an important part in enabling such endeavours and advancing ideas of anticipated (economic) futures. These architectures of logistics set the invisible rules that govern spaces of everyday lives and are transforming African cities into sites of power negotiations on the one hand, and sites of resistance on the other. Two of such spaces where these intricate relationships crystallise are the Free Trade Zones (FTZs) and Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that have emerged at an unprecedented rate across the continent. These zones, governed by a certain kind of techno-rationalism, are designed to operate and perform in a very particular way.

These infrastructure spaces, however, seem to return to their historical foundations as they continue to act as agents for urban-spatial transformations in the realm of racial capitalism. If colonialism and the transcontinental slave trade established the circulations foundational to modernity3 with waves of logistical infrastructures designed to serve colonial economies, in particular, the European and colonial free ports, such historical ties and spatial logics continue to live on, only this time hiding under the mask of neoliberalism and globalisation.           

FTZs and SEZs are often located at the margins of the city, occupying existing ports. As stated, these zones are not new to the continent and have historical precedents in European and colonial free ports.4 As a phenomenon originating in Western colonial praxes, they claim a colonial continuity that entangles the history of free trade enclaves, territorial regimes, and racialised land dispossession. They are designed to increase exports, bypass government restrictions, and outsource investment in infrastructure development by informing global urbanism.5 These zones - some in operation, some in the making - across multiple geographies in Bagamoyo, Chambishi, Djibouti, Lekki, Lusaka, Mombasa, Ogun,6 to name a few, are demarcated territories of exclusion but also sites of multiple paradoxes. While the modalities of new infrastructure spaces on the continent primarily serve as spatial apparatuses for economic performance, they also conflict with the everyday spaces of those individuals who cannot relate to abstract networks of global capital flows.

Moreover, these zones act as spaces for anticipated futures and financial speculations.7 They materialise as arenas for dreams of industrial modernity and boundless growth - in which goods, resources, money, and people travel through spatial and temporal borders in their ceaseless chase of a neoliberal dream, relying on transnational flirtations. Consequently, they are multi-layered sites: extra-territorial spaces for incentivised urbanism and subject to legal regimes different from domestic ones, with no consideration for the historical legacies nor the regional identities they form part of. Yet, these zones may also come to symbolise new spheres of action and laboratories for radical imaginations of African futurities through which Blackness can be negotiated.

Returning to Bagamoyo, a town layered with multiple temporalities and entangling conflicting narratives: Its shores embody the crumbling remains of racialised violence, where the legacies of colonialism, regional genealogies, and present-day artisanal praxes exist side by side. Where spaces and buildings that historically produced various forms of violence enacted on Black bodies have undergone processes of reappropriation, only to become new territories of which Blacks and the descendants of former enslaved Africans are now custodians. The site is currently in the midst of a political standoff in connection with the planned SEZ. The future anticipated by this zone is expected to be carried through a pro-industrial spatial policy that aspires to transform 9 800 hectares of sacred, ancestral land into an industrial urban fabric financially backed by China and Oman in an 80-20 % split.8 The SEZ will displace an Indigenous community and rid existing infrastructure in the name of welcoming 30 000 new residents of Chinese and Omani origin, and more to come. In other words, an entire community will be displaced in lieu of a labour force that will engage in a variety of extractive businesses that straddle multiple sectors – i.e., salt mining, agro and cement processing to name a few - but which are linked to systems of environmental degradation and capitalist exploitation. To this end, the Indigenous population will be reduced to objects among other objects rather than agents within their ancestral landscape.9 In a quest to call this process into question, it would be productive to reassess the postcolonial legacies upon which the country was built.   

In rejection of the spatial politics deployed during the German and British colonial regimes, designed to meet the needs of a colonial economy which articulated the productiveness of urban spaces by positioning people, territories and resources in a myriad of specially designed ensembles, in 1964 Julius Nyerere, the founding father of a newly independent Tanzania, launched Ujamaa - a nation-wide philosophy with a spatial component: Villagisation. Rejecting the successive colonial experiments Tanzanians had been subjected to prior to independence, Ujamaa was implemented in a quest to rethink space, territory, and landscapes in new ways to ultimately escape the logic of colonialism. As a result, Black subjectivity was put at the centre to articulate a radically different future. With Ujamaa’s restorative and transformative ideological positioning, Nyerere intended to undo the incipient class-formation of the colonial empire and recreate traditions inherent to the pre-colonial institution of the extended family in Tanzania. Ujamaa, therefore, sought to dismantle the idea of urban life and the urbanisation processes that accompanied it. It did so by attempting to re-establish a traditional level of mutual respect, of collectivisation, and ‘returning the people to settled, moral ways of life.’ In short, it came to signify the rejection of capitalism and colonial logic, only to be disrupted by the Structural Adjustments imposed on the country, forcing Tanzania to adopt neoliberal policies.

Archival encounters: Forms and spatial layout of Ujamaa villages.
Source: Fig. 01-02,  P.K. Lyamuya, 1990; Fig. 03, P. Lal, 2015

Against the backdrop of this legacy, Ujamaa’s uncompromising ideas, however, continue to live on in current tactics and acts of resistance deployed by the community in Bagamoyo. Insisting on their rights to remain custodians of their land, on their ways of being, they continually oppose the global regime of mobility. Through organised micro-tactics deployed at multiple scales, and under the leadership of five village representatives, new languages are continuously developed to vocalise their struggles and disparities. These include spatial interventions such as the construction of new spaces of necessity as a health care centre and new homes to meet the needs of a growing population (without permits); the strengthening of local micro-trading networks by collectively investing in new commercial spaces and modes of transportation allowing for ease of interconnectivity; and through a series of gatherings, conversations, and community organising - all of which are designed to oppose the stop-order policy enacted on them, leaving the community in stagnation for a decade.

In the optics of these tactical arrangements, the acts of insurrection may allow us to think beyond the ways we conceive of infrastructure as being ‘reticulated systems of highways, pipes, wires, or cables’ or as spatial networks that allow us to move through time and space, but rather as AbdouMaliq Simone so eloquently put it, we may also consider people as infrastructure.10 The efforts of the community have not only come to emphasize both the economic collaboration and the spirit of collectivisation as forms of resistance amongst residents seemingly marginalised by a global trade regime. They have first and foremost come to symbolise examples of resisting a system of racial capitalism that plays out on African soil by centring Black subjectivity.

1. A Swahili word usually translated as ‘family hood’, Ujamaa was also the name given to the social   and economic policy developed and implemented by the late president of the Republic of Tanzania,       Julius Nyerere, after the country gained independence from Britain in 1961.
2. Mbembe, A., ‘Africa in the New Century’, The Massachusetts Review, Volume 57, Number 1.             (Massachusetts Review Inc, Spring 2016), pp. 91- 104.
3. A phrase coined by Adeyemo, D., Camp, I., Randulfe, D. in a program brief for the Royal College of Art ADS2 Studio exploring the realm of the demonic (2020).
4. See Meghan Maruschke’s authorship on the subject of ports and zones, in particular, ‘Are There   Connections Between Previous Free Port Practices and Special Economic Zones? The Case of Mumbai’s     Ports,’ TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, April 2015. The full blog post is available here:
5. See Easterling, K., Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. (Verso Books: 2014)
6. Bräutigam, D. & Xlaoyang, T., ‘African Shenzhen: China’s special economic zones in Africa’, Journal of Modern African Studies, Volume 49, Issue 1. (Cambridge University Press, March 2011), pp. 27 – 54
7. Cross, J., ‘The Economy of Anticipation: Speculations and Special Economic Zones’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Volume 35, Issue 3. (Duke University Press, December 2015), pp. 424 – 437   
8. Mchome, E., Ngamesha, I., Richelsen, A. et al. ‘COWI - Bagamoyo SEZ Master Plan’, Final Report (January 2013), developed for Export Processing Zones Authority EPZA. The full report is available here:
9. A view that was historically formed by settler colonialism. The concept is borrowed from a conversation between Mpho Matsipa and Léopold Lambert titled “Post-Apartheid Spatial Futurities” as part of The Funambulist podcast series “A True Moment of Decolonization”. The podcast is available here:
10. Simone, A., ‘People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg’, Public Culture, Volume 16, Issue 3. (Duke University Press, fall 2004) pp. 407 - 439

Margarida Waco originally hails from Angola, having lived between geographies spanning from DR. Congo, the Republic of the Congo, France, and Denmark. She holds a degree in architecture from The Royal Danish Academy (KADK) and the Aarhus School of Architecture. Her work lies at the intersection of architecture, research, publishing and curating. In addition, she heads the Strategic Outreach of The Funambulist - a bimestrial magazine dedicated to the politics of space and bodies.

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