A broom to the head: ‘Cleaning Day’ and the aesthetics of emergence in Dakar

Blog post by Branwyn Poleykett

18 Feb 2021, 2:49 p.m.
Branwyn Poleykett



Dakar is a city that is justly famous for its inhabitant’s constant, expressive, annotation of urban space. Every available surface is crammed with graffiti, religious iconography, political slogans, advertising and messages of all kinds. This practice is particularly associated with the Set Setal movement and a series of events that swept the city in the late 1980s and early 1990s when young people began to voluntarily cleanse their neighbourhoods of rubbish and to paint colourful and striking murals on the city’s walls. Cleanliness and set practices remain important in contemporary Dakar and, via the writings of key urban theorists like Mamadou Diouf and Rosalind Fredericks, the mattering of rubbish in Dakar has become a key reference for understanding urban imaginaries as repositories of collective memory.

Ebola mural in Guediawaye, 2017Ebola mural in Guediawaye, 2017

My article picks up the story of Set Setal in January 2020 when President Macky Sall called on the population to join him in a series of official ‘Cleaning Days’. The erasure of Dakar’s complex history of public cleansing infuriated Dakarois and several Cleaning Days culminated in violent confrontations. To Sall’s detractors and political opponents, Cleaning Day was an example of how urban authorities refused to share public space with the people and represented a flagrant attempt to claim the symbolic power of public cleansing for the state. I argue that this conflict over the meaning and ownership of public space should be understood in the context of Senegal’s current politics of emergence: a series of policies designed to accelerate the country’s journey towards attaining a middle-income economy.

Urban policy in a time of emergence focuses on investment in zoned areas outside the city’s boundaries and an expansion of social protection to support low income urban households. Building on Mamadou Dimé and Boubacar Ba’s argument that emergence seeks a break with past projects of development, I examine how people in Dakar seek to satirise, historicise, or otherwise appropriate emergence. At stake is the question of whether or not, as one reviewer asked, publics in Dakar can “emerge with emergence”, can they integrate the vibrant participatory and communitarian ethos of a Set Setal into a programme of growth-oriented economic and infrastructural reform? Conflict over ‘Cleaning Day’ in Dakar represents a clash between a deeply historically and culturally rooted set of vernacular aesthetic practices, and a future-oriented, state-led politics, and provides a lens onto complex processes of marginalisation and the production of unbelonging in an era of emergence.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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