Invention and grace: Taking turns in a streetcorner bureaucracy

Michael Degani


This article analyzes the styles of work and conflict of a group of electrical contractors who congregate across the street from a power utility office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Drawing on a rich tradition of urban Africanist ethnography, as well as the work of Roy Wagner and Lars Spuybroek, it argues that their long-running streetcorner bureau is a “turn” that brings together the logics of entrepreneurial accumulation and bureaucratic legitimacy into generative counterpoint. Performed well, the effect of this turn is a kind of grace, characterized by increase and bounty, but also social recognition and dignity. Performed poorly, it is received as a parody of the logics it aims to transfigure. The “taking of turns,” in all of its contrapuntal difficulty, characterizes much of the social drama that unfolds daily.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/730136