Garbage Citizenship: Vital infrastructures of labour in Dakar, Senegal

Reviewed by Loritta Chan


When one thinks of infrastructure in globalizing cities, inter-city roads and bridges that allow for greater connectivity, airports, flashy malls, residential complexes and so on that build toward a spectacular urbanism all come to mind. However, undergirding this modernity, are the invisiblized infrastructures of waste – “the constitutive outside of political modernity” (Gidwani & Reddy, 2011, p. 1627); and the bodies who deal with waste that make the modernity of these cities possible. Infrastructure is normally silent and invisible, but at times of breakdown, it becomes visible and powerful in its potential to disrupt. Waste is no exception. Through her ethnographic research in the capital city of Senegal, Dakar, Rosalind Fredericks explores the physical, spatial and affective properties and materialities of trash work and its intersections with labor. Trash work not only becomes a powerful language to protest urban austerity and assert workers’ rights, but as Fredericks’ research reveals, the devolution of infrastructure onto laboring bodies “produces intersecting precarities that can threaten not just labouring bodies but the integrity of the infrastructure as a whole” (p. 153).

In Chapter 1, Fredericks talks the reader through Dakar’s political history around waste to show how the politics of governing-through-disposability emerged. In the 1980s, the Senegalese economy spluttered toward a crisis, which heralded a turn toward structural adjustment. Inequalities grew, existing infrastructures were slowly eroded, and formal employment collapsed. Among all this, dissatisfaction toward the government was brimming over. With the worsening social conditions and skyrocketing unemployment, youths took to the street to express their dissent and disillusionment toward the state. It was in this political climate that the social movement, Set/Setal, was born: trash work was leveraged as a way for youth and community members to claim their citizenship rights to a city, to take development into their own hands, and to mold the city toward their desires. The infrastructural rearrangements around waste over time, which Fredericks documents in her book, reveals the powerful capacity of garbage to both disrupt and discipline. What I found interesting throughout the book, was the specific materialities of the waste which was dumped – putrid, oozing, rotting organic waste – that particularly strengthened the disruptive nature of waste. It would be interesting to see how this compares to other types of waste, such as metal or e-waste, and the types of politics and intersectionalities other kinds of waste produce.

Chapter 2 follows the development of the Set/Setal movement, and the effects which its formalization had on trash workers of different genders. Through the case study of a community-based project in Dakar’s Yoff district, Chapter 3 furthers this discussion by exploring how discourses of empowerment leveraged by the project have left women trash workers in a precarious state of entrapment and discomfort. Because of the cleaning and waste work which they already do at home, and their intimacies within the community, women were framed as ideal liaisons for these projects, “thereby extending their social-reproductive duties [beyond the home and] into the neighbourhood space” as well (p. 111). While the women initially got involved in the hope that it could lead to better future opportunities, “the negation of their labour value, the nefarious implications of working with waste, and the uncomfortable tasks they were charged with as the new taxman” (p. 122) left them in difficult, paralyzing situations with their family and community. The community-based project has not only influenced women trash workers, but as the chapter also reveals, has exacerbated divisions and inequalities between the Lebou elite and the impoverished Geejndar community. Amidst these tensions, it is therefore of no surprise that the project was eventually scrapped.

Finally, in the last chapter, the values and affective edifices undergirding the garbage infrastructure are explored. Trash work resonated with practices of cleanliness and purity in the Islamic faith, and for the workers, cleaning the city was a pious act that deserved respect. Not only does this illuminate the moral geographies that allow trash workers to reverse the stigma associated with waste, but it also serves as an explanation for the observed “bricolage modes of meaning making” (p. 127), where they employ their own bodies and labor to patch the gaps and insufficiencies of broken-down machines and infrastructure.

Amid the growing literature about waste in modernizing cities of the Global South (see Doron & Jeffrey, 2018; Luthra, 2015; Nguyen, 2019), Garbage Citizenship is a timely intervention and a recommended read for academics and practitioners who are invested in research on political geographies in the city, waste infrastructures and labor, as well as marginalized voices in the city. Looking beyond the symbolic value of waste and its positionality with modernity, Fredericks’ ethnography provides an excellent insight into the fluidities and intersecting precarities between waste and laboring bodies, the political capacity of waste to assert rights, and the splintering urbanisms exacerbated by institutional rearrangements around waste.

References

Doron, A., & Jeffrey, R. (2018). Waste of a nation: Garbage and growth in India. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Gidwani, V., & Reddy, R. (2011). The afterlives of “waste”: Notes from India for a minor history of capitalist surplus. Antipode, 43(5), 1625–1658.

Luthra, A. (2015). Modernity’s garbage: Struggles over municipal solid waste in Urban India. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

Nguyen, M. T. N. (2019). Waste and wealth: An ethnography of labour, value, and morality in a vietnamese recycling economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.