In Pursuit of Fitness: Bodywork, Temporality and Self-Improvement in Mozambique

Published in the Journal of Southern African Studies, 2021
Vol. 47, No. 4, 521–539

Sub-Saharan Africa is no longer an outlier in the global ‘fitness revolution’. In cities across the continent, a growing number of people are adopting a more active lifestyle. In Mozambique – where only a few years ago, gyms and joggers were few and far between, and not many people would have considered working out at all, let alone in public – exercising is now remarkably popular. Based on ethnographic research carried out in various fitness sites in Maputo, this article examines the new urban rhythms and temporal orientations fostered by the growing popularity of fitness in the region and extends genealogies of the self-improving subject by situating the pursuit of fitness in relation to successive colonial and post-colonial regimes that promoted various forms of body-work as part of broader ethical projects of the self. I argue that, while it might be tempting to dismiss the growing popularity of fitness as the mere encroachment of neoliberal ideals of the self-improving subject, doing so would not only gloss over significant historical continuities but risk overshadowing the ways in which the pursuit of fitness is enhancing the quality of life of many. In recognising the ethical value that these projects have for those who pursue them, the article sheds light on the appeal of fitness in a specific space–time, while moving away from what are often contemptuous assessments of this global trend. I show how, as an aspirational pursuit that operates at the intersections of health and beauty, fitness creates a particular orientation towards the future that borrows from socialist registers of discipline and struggle while, in turn, highlighting the continued relevance of such registers within contemporary imaginaries. At a time when global health priorities are shifting, ethnographic accounts like the one presented here are needed to help to complicate understandings of the articulation between health and moral imaginaries of self-improvement.

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