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“We Are Good at Surviving”: Street Hustling in Addis Ababa's Inner City

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Recent studies of the informal economy have tried to understand how the politics of informal actors and their attempts at organizing themselves have created new collective platforms for social practice and social action in the African city (Lindell Africa's informal workers. Collective agency, alliances and transnational organizing in urban Africa (pp. 1–33) 2010; Meagher African Studies Review 54(2):47–72, 2011). These studies have suggested that the informal is not only the domain of the poor and their form of solidarity but also a terrain where new powerful actors in and outside the city might emerge and where power dynamics and forms of differentiation are at work. With a similar theoretical concern, this paper focuses on how engagement with the “street economy” among men between their mid-20s and mid-30s in Addis Ababa's inner city reveals broader experiences of exclusion and marginalization.

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  1. Khat is a plant with a narcotic effect that is chewed across East Africa and Yemen.

  2. For overviews on recent Ethiopian politics, see Aalen and Tronvoll (2008), Abbink (2006), and Human Rights Watch (2010a, b).

  3. In 1975, the socialist regime, the DERG, which ruled the country until 1991, nationalized urban land and housing facilities. Even though the construction of condominium houses throughout the city and ongoing process of gentrification are now bringing about substantial changes in management of land and housing in Addis Ababa, those tenants who still live in government houses, usually coming from the poorer segments of the urban society, pay a low rent that is directly collected by the local government bureaucracy, the kebelles.

  4. The birr is the Ethiopian currency. Exchange rates have been changing rapidly over the past few years. During 2010, the US dollar exchange rate went from 12.52 birr to the dollar in January to 16.39 in December; by mid-2011, this had risen to nearly 17.

  5. Between 2003 and 2005, the city administration arranged small metal container shops throughout Addis Ababa in order to boost income generation activities through small-scale commercial businesses.

  6. Wacquant (1998, pp 3–4 )defines hustling as “a field of activities that have in common the fact that they require mastery of a particular type of symbolic capital, namely, the ability to manipulate others, to inveigle and deceive, if need be by joining violence to chicanery and charm, in the pursuit of immediate pecuniary gain. These activities span a continuum that goes from the relatively innocuous and inoffensive…—to the felonious” (italics of the author).

  7. For an interesting examination of this in urban Ethiopia, see Mains (2012, Chap 5).


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Special acknowledgements go to the Wenner Gren Foundation, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Wolfson College and All Souls' College at the University of Oxford, and the British Institute in Eastern Africa for their support. I also thank the staff at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa for facilitating my research in Ethiopia. Finally, a special thanks go to my informants and my neighbors in Addis Ababa to whom this paper is dedicated.

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Correspondence to Marco Di Nunzio.

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This article is part of my doctoral research project, based on 16 months of fieldwork carried out in Addis Ababa before and after the 2010 national elections. My research has focused on marginalized subjects' everyday tactics for getting by and their quest for social mobility in the context of increasing political control and persisting forms of social exclusion.

The real names of my informants that appear in text have been changed to protect their privacy.

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Di Nunzio, M. “We Are Good at Surviving”: Street Hustling in Addis Ababa's Inner City. Urban Forum 23, 433–447 (2012).

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