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The Act of Living

Street Life, Marginality, and Development in Urban Ethiopia

The Act of Living explores the relation between development and marginality in Ethiopia, one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. Replete with richly depicted characters and multi-layered narratives on history, everyday life and visions of the future, Marco Di Nunzio's ethnography of hustling and street life is an investigation of what is to live, hope and act in the face of the failing promises of development and change.
Di Nunzio follows the life trajectories of two men, "Haile" and "Ibrahim," as they grow up in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, enter street life to get by, and turn to the city's expanding economies of work and entrepreneurship to search for a better life. Apparently favourable circumstances of development have not helped them achieve social improvement. As their condition of marginality endures, the two men embark in restless attempts to transform living into a site for hope and possibility.

By narrating Haile and Ibrahim's lives, The Act of Living explores how and why development continues to fail the poor, how marginality is understood and acted upon in a time of promise, and why poor people's claims for open-endedness can lead to better and more just alternative futures. Tying together anthropology, African studies, political science, and urban studies, Di Nunzio takes readers on a bold exploration of the meaning of existence, hope, marginality, and street life.

Author Information

Di NunzioMarco:

Marco Di Nunzio is Lecturer in the Anthropology of Africa at the University of Birmingham.


Shimelis Bonsa Gulema, Stony Brook University, New York:

"The Act of Living is one of the most thoughtful and insightful books written about contemporary Ethiopia in recent years. While weaving a rich story of living meaningfully under conditions of exclusion and subjugation, Di Nunzio offers a radical critique of such pivotal issues as development, marginality, exclusion, agency, and incommensurability. This is a book with verve, well-crafted and theoretically engaging."

Bahru Zewde, author of The Quest for Socialist Utopia:

"With double digit economic growth over the years, Ethiopia has been a paragon of "Africa rising". Yet, the much vaunted economic success has excluded and marginalized a sizable portion of its population, notably its youth. This book is a tale of that exclusion and the struggle to overcome it. It is anchored on the lives of two archetypical characters who resort to street smartness (aradanet in Ethiopian parlance) not just to survive but rather to live and attain a modicum of dignity. It is a life that has within itself the potential of possibility and reversibility. This fascinating story forms an important backdrop to the change that the country is undergoing currently."

Tobias Hagmann, University of Roskilde, and editor of Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa:

"Marco Di Nunzio has written an outstanding and inspiring piece of scholarship and is on his way to becoming a leading voice in Ethiopian studies. Di Nunzio is to be congratulated on this anthropology of street life that adds rich stories to ethnographic narrative."

Jonny Steinberg, University of Oxford, and author of A Man of Good Hope:

"The Act of Living accomplishes a number of tasks at the same time. It is a thoughtful and tender exploration of what it means to act, and to leave a mark upon the world, among those who live on the margins of a political and urban order. It is also a highly original study of the Ethiopian state's governance of a population considered to be threatening. It will thus be of keen interest both to a burgeoning scholarship in existential anthropology and to scholars of authoritarian statecraft."

AbdouMaliq Simone, University of Sheffield, and author of For the City Yet to Come:

"Those who are excluded from enjoying the benefits of economic growth, even when integrated into projects of national development, and yet manage to keep open the possibility of being something other than their constraints, are here accorded the seriousness they deserve. In this masterwork of storytelling, political analysis, philosophical reflection, and street smarts, the tensions of living poor are rendered with all of their complexities and inventiveness. Like its two main Ethiopian protagonists and makers of history, the book keeps moving across various repertoires of urban practices to grapple with the incommensurability of lives simultaneously self-fashioned and subjugated. Rarely have the details about making a good life no matter the systematic constraints been depicted with such unflinching understanding and compassion."

Deborah James, London School of Economics, and author of Money from Nothing Indebtedness and Aspiration in South Africa:

"This masterful book combines an intimate and detailed account of young men's lives with a broadbrushstroke insight into wider issues. Following two young 'parking guys' in Addis Ababa who withstand their marginality through smartness and toughness, it shows how these 'acts of living' illuminate changes in Ethiopian (and African) social and economic life. Democratisation, transcending an authoritarian approach in which poor urban youth were seen as dangerous vagrants, involved attempts to include them by 'developing' the street economy. But this deepened forms of political subjugation for those unable to mobilize the all important relational networks upon which any chance of social mobility depends. Challenging existing accounts that criticize neoliberalism, the book eschews simple binaries, showing instead how 'acts of living,' although unable to slough off constraints, help to withstand and transcend them."

Jon Schubert, Brunel University London, and author of Working the System:

"The Act of Living is an ethnographically rich book, clearly informed by years of careful, meticulous fieldwork and strong links of sociality and trust between the author and his informants."

Audience: General/trade;