The Spatial Grounding of Life on the Streets

The Spatial Grounding of Life on the Streets

Space was an important structuring feature of Juma’s survival on the streets as a Nyenga Dog. His gang was strongly identified with several blocks adjacent to the downtown center (which was itself a neutral territory where all street boys roamed). As Juma discussed on numerous occasions, his personal vulnerability increased dramatically whenever he ventured from the specific territory associated with the Nyenga Dogs:

If I go to [another neighborhood] where I’m not known, whoever owns that place will want to hurt me. They don’t know me and maybe they don’t know I’m a Nyenga Dog. They only see me as a piece of shit who’s all alone. It doesn’t have to be other [street boys] either—people who live there, guards, police, whoever . . . I’m just a piece of shit to them. But here it’s different. [Juma, May 2006]

Everyday Violence in the Time of AIDS 105

Throughout Mwanza, certain groups or gangs of street boys were associated with specific neighborhoods. Association with a specific territory was critical for survival, as it afforded individual boys like Juma a much higher degree of physical and emotional protection. It also strengthened their social networks, which were themselves important pathways for the flow of material goods and information critical for day-to-day survival. As gangs defined and policed their territory, much of the violence experienced by Juma and other street boys—including kunyenga activities—was tied to the control of that space. Subsequently, the nexus defined by kunyenga, survival, and the search for respect was grounded in the politics of space and the struggle over specific territories between different gangs of street boys.

The spatial grounding of Juma’s life as a Nyenga Dog was reinforced further by certain external factors. Specifically, as a result of ongoing retrenchments and extensive cutbacks in government services, Mwanza’s social services adopted a somewhat unofficial policy of containing the city’s street boys to the downtown center and surrounding neighborhoods. Boys who were caught outside of these areas were subject to arrest or fell victim to one of the city’s infamous “roundups.” A containment approach to the “street boy problem” was also practiced by armed groups of private militia composed of local citizens who patrolled Mwanza’s streets at night. These groups, known as sungu sungu, arose in the early 1980s in response to an increase in crime across the country coupled with a growing disillusionment with the police force. These factors, coupled with the fact that the survival strategies of street boys depended on being in close proximity to Mwanza’s downtown center, made it difficult for individual street boys like Juma to break free from the social behaviors and street culture that garnered respect and ensured survival. For Juma, as with most street boys, life on the streets was both spatially circumscribed and socially all-encompassing.

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