polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Deciphering Simone Part 1: Beginnings

by Hector Fernando Burga

AbdouMaliq Simone is an urbanist and professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Since 1977 he has held different professional and academic positions across Africa and Southeast Asia, in the fields of education, housing, social welfare, community development, local government and international development. His best known publications are In Whose Image: Political Islam and Urban Practices in the Sudan and For the City Yet to Come: Urban Change in Four African Cities. Hew newly published book is entitled Movement at the Crossroads: City Life from Jakarta to Dakar.

This interview was originally conducted for the Berkeley Planning Journal v. 22, in the summer of 2009. In this and the following posts, it will be republished under the headings: Beginnings, Method and Practice. This interview is posted in Polis with the permission of AbdouMaliq Simone and the editors of the Berkeley Planning Journal.

How did you become interested in writing about African cities?

I spent a large part of my childhood in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in a kind of situation which was fairly folded in a parochial community, a network of people who didn’t have a lot of money. They couldn’t spread themselves out into the surrounding urban area. So there was this kind of mixed existence; being part of a complicated neighborhood, but also being apart and withdrawn from the city and folded in a network of schools and institutions, a kind of expatriate community that didn’t have a lot of money and had precarious status. In some ways this is how I grew up and later on in late adolescence, early adulthood, I escaped back to West Africa. It was at that moment that I revisited these memories and began to have an interest in African cities.

You received a degree in psychology here in the Berkeley area, correct?

Yes at the Wright Institute.

Yet, eventually you entered the world of development practice.


Was that something that happened by chance? Or was it an engagement based on prior experiences?

I dropped out of university after one semester and had some personal connections in the world in psychiatry. I had to do something and this was it. But the kind of institutions in New York, the kinds of networks I was involved with, were very much oriented toward community psychiatry. At that moment in American psychiatric history there was a great deal of focus on working on localities and social networks. My first jobs were in this kind of inter-sect oral, interdisciplinary work, in urban areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn. When I decided to leave the professional practice of clinical work this phase represented a touchstone, an orientation that I could come back to. Issues of housing and local economic development, which during the 1970’s, were major issues in psychology became less dominant as time went on.

But the City as a topic was not necessarily something that you thought about as a central subject? You are recognized as an urban theorist and when we read your work you produce urban theory. How did the city become a scope, a framework, a scale, a source of analysis?

I think the formative work around this question occurred when I was asked by various Muslim social welfare organizations to think about what was taking place with Muslim residents in cities in West Africa countries. Particularly in Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, where Muslim residents seem to be marginalized in various dimensions of their everyday lives. Even though in all of these countries you had very strong professional religious-political networks, there was something about the way in which many of the residents didn’t fully come to grips with their possibilities of being in the city. So there were several projects over a period of years, from the 1970’s to the 1980’s, where I collaborated in coming up with new concepts of schools, new concepts of neighborhood organizations, new ways of intensifying and extending the engagement of a particularly kind of majority in Muslim neighborhoods in cities such as Abidjan and Accra. In this respect, I think that I was trying to rethink the way in which spaces, histories, and precedents were articulated into a larger system. Then I began to think about what kind of system it actually was. So I think that was the key issue. I also taught at different African universities. I was teaching psychology formally, but often times these universities were closed down for a variety of reasons, so I had to find other ways to make money, other things to do.

Credits: Image of AbdouMaliq Simone from Goldsmith University London.