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Managing uncertainty: livelihoods in lockdown

charlotte.hawkins.1722 May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the widespread uncertainty of everyday lives in global capitalism. For example, uncertainties related to health and resources have been exacerbated, and it has been clearly exposed how they are both often so closely intertwined. Various ethnographies around the world have demonstrated the contextual specificities of how people pragmatically mitigate uncertainties, for example through work and cooperation. This is at once a global and a specific experience.

The expected linearity of ageing is evidently disrupted by factors in the wider world, such as pandemics, politics and the economy. Typical ‘industrialist’ categories of age assign certain everyday activities of economic production to particular life stages (Honwana, 2012: 12): education and childhood, a time of dependence; work and adulthood, a time of independence; and retirement and rest in old age, which in Uganda, is said to be ideally said to be a time of interdependence (Whyte, 2017). This feeds into the stereotype of old age as a condition of certainty, in contrast to precarity faced by youth. The majority of older research participants in Kampala are still in full-time work to provide for their families, often ‘Monday to Monday’. This challenges notions of work in the city as an activity of younger generations, and of transient uncertainty as a preoccupation of youth (Honwana, 2012; Thieme, 2018).

Woman carrying mangoes to sell in April 2019.

Many sources of income have been interrupted by social distancing regulations in Uganda. Many people rely on daily income to feed their families, so relief efforts for social protection at a household level are increasingly urgent[1],[2]. To friends in Kampala, this has emphasized the importance of social networks, and particularly neighbours, who can share whatever they have, sometimes assistance they may have received from further afield. And besides resources, the current pandemic situation has shown how people often ‘engage with the ambiguity of our surroundings’ through solidarity and dialogue with each other (Whyte, 1997). Particularly accentuated is the role of mobile phones as a tool to navigate conditions of uncertainty. We saw this across our fieldsites, in the ways people use mobile phones to overcome distances and maintain relationships and care for older people. And we’ve since all seen how important phone calls and WhatsApp have been to adapt to unprecedented times and keep us in contact. This uncertain context also supports the role of ethnographic research, which allows us to look at the patterns in dialogue, how people engage with the wider and indeterminate world, and how this responds to and shapes certain trajectories.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/04/09/kampala-epidemic-un-ugandan-society-in-times-covid-19/
  • Honwana, A.M., 2012. The time of youth: work, social change, and politics in Africa, 1st ed. ed. Kumarian Press Pub, Sterling, Va.
  • Whyte, 2017. Epilogue: Successful Aging and Desired Interdependence., in: Successful Aging as a Contemporary Obsession: Global Perspectives. Rutgers University Press., NEW BRUNSWICK, CAMDEN, NEWARK, NEW JERSEY; LONDON, pp. 243–248.
  • Thieme, T.A., 2018. The hustle economy: Informality, uncertainty and the geographies of getting by. Progress in Human Geography 42, 529–548. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132517690039
  • Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA). https://cda.co.ug/2140/ugandas-economic-response-to-covid-19-the-case-for-immediate-household-relief/
  • Whyte, S.R., 1997. Questioning misfortune: the pragmatics of uncertainty in Eastern Uganda, Cambridge studies in medical anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York.

[1]Anguyo, I and Storer, L. (2020) ‘In times of COVID-19 Kampala has become ‘un-Ugandan’, LSE. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/2020/04/09/kampala-epidemic-un-ugandan-society-in-times-covid-19/

[2] Walter, M and Bing, J. (2020) ‘Uganda’s Economic Response to Covid-19: the case for immediate household relief’ Centre for Development Alternatives (CDA). https://cda.co.ug/2140/ugandas-economic-response-to-covid-19-the-case-for-immediate-household-relief/