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under the wire_fieldwork (2017-2019)

ESRC-funded

This fieldwork explored the politics of life and land in the spaces of an emerging centre in Accra, Ghana. This was a politics that was animated by the conditions of living and working beneath an electricity transmission line - or the politics of life 'under the wire'.

 

In Ghana, as elsewhere, electrical transmission line right-of-ways (ROW) are designated strips of land, stretching 30-40 metres either side of overhead electricity wires.

 

Established in order to preserve and maintain the electricity transmission infrastructure, as well as ensure the safety of nearby populations, ROWs remain as open space zones in official planning documents and obtaining permits for development within these demarcations is prohibited.[1]

 

While many transmission lines pass through less densely inhabited places, a significant length of the network passes through urban areas, where substations convert the voltage for local distribution. Here, as transmission lines pass through cities like Accra, the ROWs carve up urban space into designated zones of illegality.

 

While there are policies in place for the compensation of land owners and users during the acquisition of land for the construction of pylons, lines and ROWs, once the ROW is established, any activities or structures that encroach into these designated zones are subject to removal without compensation.[2] Despite these established zones, as one moves through the city, it is not uncommon to see people living and working in the ROWs (Today Ghana, 2017). In this way, many are experiencing life ‘under the wire.’ 

 

Thinking through urban life under the wire draws our attention to the infrastructural interfaces that shape the making and experience of the city. As Graham and Marvin argue, urban regions may be understood as ‘staging posts in the perpetual flux of infrastructurally mediated flow, movement and exchange,’ and thereby, ‘as an extraordinarily complex and dynamic socioetechnical process’ (2001:8).

 

Yet this process is not neutral and many have since exposed the inherent politics embedded in the ‘technological fabric of the city,’ largely via references to governance, nationalist ideologies, capitalist accumulation, unequal access, disruption and failure (McFarlane and Rutherford, 2008:363).

 

This researched engaged more specifically with the ‘electropolis’ – or the infrastructural landscape of energy and power (Graham and Marvin, 2001).

 

In Accra, as elsewhere, the electropolis remains marked by fragmentation[J2] . As Silver observes, ‘the ongoing interruption experienced across the city is produced by the historical development of the electricity network within and beyond Accra, which has resulted in a fragmented, splintered infrastructure that reinforces urban inequalities’ (2016:984).

 

Indeed, despite Ghana boasting one of the highest levels of access to energy in sub-Saharan Africa (endev.com, 2019), access to electricity remains fractious and intermittent. In the years of the Mahama presidency (2012-2017), regular and persistent power shortages plagued the nation.

 

Christened dumsor – translated as ‘off and on’ – this electrical geography was felt unevenly, with those able to access generators likely more immune to the unpredictability of dumsor.[3]

 

While this research engaged with the politics produced in and through the electropolis, it did so by detailing a different kind of urban splintering to that rendered visible by Silver.

 

Indeed, this research exposed not only the ways in which Accra’s electric infrastructure sets in motion fragmented energy flows, but rather how the materiality of Accra’s energy scaffolding carves out its own fractious geographies of occupation in the shadows of the overhead transmission wires.

The research engaged directly with the language deployed by residents under the wire, who repeatedly described their condition as one marked by an ongoing temporariness.

 

Drawing on events and narratives under the wire, the research showed that ongoing temporariness is not a linear process, but should rather be understood as a condition punctured by events that suspend temporariness into the realm of potential re-making.

 

In this sense, I argue that it is only by attending closely to this ‘punctuated’ temporality (Guyer, 2007), that we may grapple with the ways in which ongoing temporariness takes form and thus by extension, render visible the terms on which temporary conditions of the city may become ‘permanently stabilized and/or institutionalized’ (Goldstone and Obarrio, 2016:13).

  

Outputs:

i.     Shifting Sands in Accra, Ghana: The Ante-lives of urban form

       [Doctoral thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science]

ii.    Under the wire: The making of ongoing temporariness in Accra, Ghana

       [Paper accepted in CITY]

iii.   Temporary horizons: shifting sands in Accra, Ghana

       [Presentation at the Conference of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration, Forthcoming]

iv.    Shifting Sands: Anxious Landscapes in Urban Worlds.

       [Photography exhibition @ Hoxton Basement, London 2019]

v.     LOCAL

       [Photography exhibition @ Clapham Studios, London 2019]

vi.    Urban Wall community art installation

       [Accra, Ghana 2018]

vii.   Shifting Sands in Accra, Ghana: The sandy ante-lives of urban form'

       [Presentation at Royal Geographical Society, Cardiff 2018]

[1] As set out in the Volta River Authority (Transmission Line Protection) Regulations, 1967 (LI 542) as amended by Regulation No. 1737 of 2004, a distance of between 30 and 40 metres is demarcated, depending on the voltage of the transmission line.

[2] ROW land belongs to GRIDCo – the sole operator of electricity transmission – however, the removal of populations from the ROW is performed by local city authorities responsible for implementing the physical planning of the city.

[3] The underlying cause of dumsor remains both historical and multifaceted, attributed to lowering water levels in Akosombo Dam, surging demand and technical difficulties with both transmission and distribution.