DirtPol's blog posts

My Dirtpol journey thus far … by Olutoyosi Tokun

Apr

28

I have been working as a project researcher on the health and environment aspect of the Dirtpol project in Lagos, Nigeria. Basically I have been investigating all sides of the word ‘dirt’ as it is being used by Lagosians. My study population consists of users and residents of Waste Management Sites, Public Health providers, Public Health users, and Non-Governmental Organisations.

My Dirtpol journey has been an eventful one. At the start of the project it was quite challenging to get study participants to speak about dirt beyond hygiene and sanitation. I had to do some digging on social media and make a list of behaviours, situations and trends that have been described as dirty. This list seemed to help facilitate conversations. From that point the list grew longer and longer as the project progressed.

In the first few months of the project I established communication with a community known as Dust-bin Estate, located in Ajegunle, Lagos. The community is so-called because it was built on a refuse dump. Interviews conducted with residents of this community have been quite revealing; we talked mostly about human interactions within the community. These kinds of discussions have become relevant considering the rate of urbanisation in Lagos.

After obtaining approval from the Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA), I visited the main landfill site in Lagos and other waste management facilities operated by LAWMA. I also interviewed private waste collectors; it was interesting to know how they felt about their job and the attitude of Lagosians towards them as they carry out their duties.

Discussions with public health users and providers have been very rich. Issues such as sexuality, polygamy, the activities of traditional birth attendants in certain areas, skin bleaching, and individual beliefs that influence health-seeking behaviours have been covered. I have been able to gather very diverse opinions on these issues.

Leading up to the general elections in Nigeria that held on the 28th of March and 11th of April, 2015, a lot of data was collected in the form of election campaign materials. It was not unusual for one political party to accuse another party of playing dirty politics. Also certain campaign strategies were simply described as “disgusting” and “repulsive”.

I was surprised to find that the labelled recycle bins provided on campus at the University of Lagos in order to encourage segregation of recyclable waste were not being used appropriately. Hence a quick survey was conducted on campus to investigate the situation. I interviewed Environmental Health Officers, as well as students on campus, and the phrase ‘The Nigerian Factor’ kept coming up as the reason for the situation. It would help to know what ‘The Nigerian Factor’ is all about; meanwhile one of the Environmental Health Officers interviewed on campus told me all about the role of sanitary inspectors during the colonial era. We touched on the ‘White man’s plague’ and other issues prevalent during the colonial era.

It has been a pleasure working on the Dirtpol project; I look forward to reading publications produced based on the data that has been collected. I hope the findings will add significantly to already existing knowledge and pave the way for more study opportunities.

The DirtPol team in Lagos

Say “cheese”!!!!!

The ACT of Transcription by Jane Nebe

Apr

20

Recently, much of my time has been spent transcribing audio recordings collected from interviews and focus group discussions that I’ve conducted during my data collection phase. Transcription isn’t as straightforward as it might first appear and that’s evidenced in theory-heavy literature. Avoiding the theory for the purpose of this article, I will run through my process and pitfalls of transcription.

boxLanguage

Most of the interviews and focus group discussions were conducted in English, although interspersions in local languages such as Yoruba and Nigerian Pidgin were common. I use footnotes to provide literal and contextual meanings of these phrases, and separate them in the transcribed text by use of italics, “quotation marks”, ‘inverted commas’ or a different font colour. Interviews conducted in languages other than English are transcribed in the original language and translated.

Software

To begin the process, I load my audio into the transcription software Express Scribe. The software allows for transcription through voice recognition, however this wouldn’t work with the nuances and accents of non-native English speakers so I avoid that function. I type directly into the software, and handily it automatically saves the typed work.

Process

After I create a first draft using the provided writing software, I copy this into a Microsoft Word document. Its editing capabilities are much more advanced so I go through the highlighted spelling errors here. I insert detailed information about the respondents, a reflective commentary on the activity, links to associated materials and a summary of the transcription interview. I also include line numbering for easy referencing.

Editing and Formatting

The first draft is edited initially using the spellcheck, then I start the formatting by placing the interviewer’s statements and questions in bold italics. I then denote the translations of non-English words and statements as described above. Then would begin the final proof-reading which personally I find to be the most challenging part of the process. I listen to the audio data again, paying close attention to the details. This is to make sure the written transcript accurately reflected both the content and the meaning of the audio data. A lot of rewinding, forwarding, pausing, deleting, adding, correcting, punctuating etc. occurred at this stage. Finally, I skim over the entire document to ensure that the page alignment, numbering, highlighted text and footnotes are in order. The finished transcript is then uploaded to the DirtPol archive.

Summary

box2The act of transcription is interesting but time consuming; it easily becomes tedious and uncomfortable due to sitting down at a computer for extended periods. It’s therefore important to use comfortable working equipment, including using seat, desk, keyboard adjustments as well as suitable headphones. For me, the major challenges were low quality audio due to background noise or the respondent(s) being too far from the microphone and the complexity of shared meanings or contexts. To overcome this, I sought assistance online and informally to ensure correct translation of meanings in local languages. I also needed to ensure I was doing the transcribing in a quiet environment in which I could fully concentrate. As the aim of transcription is accuracy and reliability, factors that could jeopardise this must be dealt with before, during and after the act of transcription.

 

About the author:  Jane Nebe is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in education and schools.  Jane is based in Lagos, her academic background is in pedagogy and she speaks Igbo, Yoruba, Nigerian Pidgin and English.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit the DirtPol website.

 

[1] Kowal, S. and O’Connel, D. C. (2004) Analysis, Interpretation and Presentation: The Transcription of Conversations in U. Flick, E. Von Kardoff and I. Steinke (eds), A companion to Qualitative Research, London: Sage Publications, pp. 248 -252.

Perfection Soap

Apr

14

We loved this soap advert from Zimbabwean TV.  What does it tell us about dirt and cleanliness?

 

 

 

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

Follow DirtPol on Twitter: @ProjectDirtPol

From Common Waste to Art with a Message: An Interview with Durodola Yusuf by JOHN UWA, DirtPol researcher

Apr

07

Curious about the shouts of “Oh my God!” coming from outside the DirtPol office at the University of Lagos, project researcher John Uwa decided to investigate. Outside the building on prominent display was a large portrait of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos.

The reason this work of art elicits such a strong reaction from viewers is that the portrait is composed entirely of waste materials. Using Coke bottles, sardine cans, children’s toys, shoes, electrical circuit boards, shoe polish tins, and many more discarded everyday objects, the artist Durodola Yusuf put together this remarkable portrait of the VC in 2014 for his final degree show as an undergraduate in the Department of Creative Arts at the University of Lagos.

The portrait was not the artist’s initial idea when conceiving this project, but when he found that he could not afford the materials or time for his original concept--a three-dimensional “documentation” of UniLag Senate House made from metal screws--he decided to find an “icon” to stand in for everything that the building symbolises. What better subject than the Vice-Chancellor himself? Entitled “General Overseer”, the portrait of the VC is made entirely of waste materials. Through it, the artist interprets and represents the VC’s ability to negotiate with different people across the spectrum of the University.

 DirtPol researcher John Uwa interviewed the artist about his motivation and inspiration for creating this striking work of art:

JU: What informed your choice of this picture which you have virtually made from recyclable materials?

DY: As a final year student, my original intention for a project was to document the Senate House of the University of Lagos, such that it will break a Guinness world record. This is because I thought that people leaving UniLag should do things that are quite monumental. The Senate building to me is an architectural masterpiece that I have always wanted to document using screws; but when I took consideration of the timing and the financial implication, I realised that I may not be able to meet up within the specified date for project submission.

JU: O! This is sad.

DY: So, if I am unable to document the Senate building, then I should be able to document someone who works in the building, someone who controls the building and someone who can stand as an icon. Having decided to document a picture of the Vice Chancellor, I then thought of what to do to make the picture amazing; so I decide to use the data around me. These were the basic factors which informed my choice of this image.

Besides documenting an image which represents the Senate building, the picture also illuminates a person who is in charge of the school and its affairs; and this is how I came about the title: “The General Overseer”. The general overseer is someone who oversees the affairs and activities of somewhere or others. As someone who oversees the affairs of the school, I thought that different things should be used to represent the VC as one who oversees every aspect of the school, and to reflect the title of the work. I went round the school and saw how people dump things; how they pick up, use and dump items. This became another source of inspiration.

In an academic environment where various activities like academics, security and a whole lot of things are going on, the General Overseer must be receptive, tolerant, patient and accommodative to successfully manage the institution. He must be ready to accommodate so many people and their divergent behaviours. Having conceived the idea and picture of what I wanted to do, a picture of someone who can take a lot of things, I had to start collecting materials to develop my image. I decided to use ‘dirt’--the disposable things around me, recyclable materials from trash drums. This work which is experimental involves moving round and bringing materials together; and while I was collecting materials for work, both around the art studio and elsewhere on campus, people were wondering and asking, “what do you want to do with waste materials?” This is the whole essence, bringing things together, to recreate another. If you take a look at the book over there in the portrait, it is written: “coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success”. 

So the beginning of this work is the collection of waste materials and merging them together. This involves moving around, picking up waste materials and dropping them on the project. The process of attaching the collected materials is what I have termed as keeping together, while working together is the final manifestation of the work which elicits the kind of surprises that you hear from outside your office. 

Interestingly, when I started the project, people asked all manner of questions--Why? What? Is he going to like this? But what was on my mind was to show people that with the right thinking, something can be created out of nothing; that problems can be solved through meditative thinking. So beyond what people can see, I am trying to imply, through this art work, that there may just be relevance behind that which appears to be irrelevant.

JU: That’s quite brilliant! Sometimes we sit up there in the DirtPol office and we hear people, who for the first time are catching a close glimpse of the picture, screaming--“Oh my God, Dirt!”. From what you have said, one of the symbolic implications suggested by your work is that the Vice Chancellor is an administrator who is endowed with the capacity to contend with the varying challenges of the institution. Now, do you by some chance know what the VC, or anyone close to him thinks of your artistic impression of him? Or have you had occasions where you were told by people around you that you didn’t have to do this work?

DY: Yeah, a lot of people said it. Even my supervisor said it, “Heh, in terms of art this is fantastic, this is good, but I don’t think this person will like you using junks like this to depict him”. But as an artist, one of your duties is to project and rebrand the nation. So, beyond using dirt to project the need for national rebranding, I am also using the work to pass on a message to the VC; and that is, he should be ready to take a lot of things and still remain focus.  Talking about focus, people condemned me when I first started this work, asking all manner of questions but I remained focused; and in the end, the same people returned back to sing praises of the finished work. This final acceptance of what was initially unacceptable in an achievement as far as I am concerned.

JU: You have used the word waste to describe the materials you gathered together for this work; and just now, you have also talked about the initial rejection and indifference your effort to put up this masterpiece received.  How would you want to reconcile the idea that something beautiful like this, something aesthetic, can come out of what you call waste?

DY: [Pause] I believe you can get beautiful things from waste materials. It’s about looking at it. As I said earlier, give yourself time to think what you can do. So when I looked at the materials before me, I realised that I can transform them into something acceptable. I realised that I can also inculcate African patterns and motifs, I can look at, say, Coca-Cola cans and introduce lines and motifs so that when people are having a second look at it, they won’t really be seeing waste materials but a transformation of it. People interact with the society the way they see it; immediately they are made to see these junks and dirt differently in the work, they started appreciating it. We should be able to appreciate our environment. That is when we can have peace. Rather than degrading the environment with the way we dispose waste materials, we can begin to say, “Oh, this Coca-Cola I am disposing can actually be used for something else”.  In this way, people’s minds are not only opened up, it also gives the inclination that nothing is really useless. 

JU: There is also a common sanitary clause in Lagos which says: “Keep Lagos Clean” and another one which says: “Keep UniLag Clean”. We notice that some artists are using their works to promote this message by using recycled materials to create art. Do you have that inbuilt intention when you started to put this up?

DY: Yes. Yes, because of recent, UniLag has a waste bin with three different colours. There’s red, there’s green, and there is another one. One is paper, one is can, one is plastic, and so when I’m working on the project if I need plastic, red, I go straight to that one. I think there should be exhibition where art works created from recycled materials and junks are displayed. In this way awareness will be created in people to actually see that what they call waste can actually be put into positive use; and they [the society] can begin to keep these waste items properly. People will start talking to themselves: “this thing might be useful; I shouldn’t damage it or dispose it inappropriately”. So, to an extent, this is another way of keeping the environment clean. And this is the whole idea of rebranding; not necessarily rebranding the environment, but re-branding the mind of people so that they can see waste appropriation as an aspect of environmental management system (EMS). Once they get it right, then the environment becomes free from dirt, and you don’t necessarily have to be there; in fact, you can’t be very where. A perfect example was when I was doing the project; having been well informed of what I was doing, people started picking up waste materials and dumping them at a point near my studio, even when I am not around. All I need to do is thank them, pick it up and put it into use in my work. The mechanism is simple, people saw that what I was doing is good, and without being told, they understand that the solid waste they generate, like Coca-Cola cans, are useful to my work; so rather than dispose it in the usual way, the just routinely drop it near my project work. So if people can be made to understand, if they can have a channel, they won’t dispose their waste indiscriminately. They will dispose or keep it in such a way that people who need it can come and gather it and take it away. That’s the way I’m seeing it.   

JU: Thank you so much. This beautiful edifice and your description of how you were able to put the materials together is referred to as “good housekeeping” in safety parlance- a situation where things are kept properly. Talking about keeping things properly, did you notice that people drop things indiscriminately: paper to rubber, rubber to tin while you went on collecting your materials from your selected bins?

DY: Yes, I saw some waste indiscriminately disposed. I saw papers where I am supposed to see cards; however, I must confess that the whole thing is a gradual process. You will agree with me that prior to the availability of waste bins, people have been dropping waste materials like cans and papers on the floor; but now, they are dropping in the bins, but not in a proper way. Both with time, and with the kind of job artists, like myself, are doing, orientation will change. So I say again, if you want to rebrand, you rebrand the mind, not the environment.

About the author:  John Uwa is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in media and communication.  John's based in Lagos, has an MA in English Literature and speaks Yoruba, English and Pidgin.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

Follow DirtPol on Twitter: @ProjectDirtPol

 

 

 

   

Dirt attracts ... tourists?

Mar

19

A Cup of Tea with Milk in Downtown Cairo — Introducing our Data Management Assistant, Hadeer El Shafie

Jan

30

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 Cities are like us: They have moods. This is how I’ve always experienced Cairo. I have had the privilege to spend the majority of my childhood years in Cairo, with many, many days spent with my Grandmother, who back then, lived just three kilometres away from Tahrir Square.

When I spent the nights over with Mama Laila, I followed her routine. Every morning, we got up to do a little bit of exercise, followed by a very indulging Chai-Latte making in the kitchen, which we sipped in the veranda. On the stove, Mama Laila boiled water, added about half a spoon of gunpowder black tea. Then, she slowly added fresh milk. “This is the right colour”, said Mama Laila with the teaspoon in her hand. “Slightly dark cream colour. Add the sugar only at the end”.

The distance between the kitchen and the veranda was about 10 meters, but those ten meters marked the mental and emotional separation between the private and the public. From the veranda I could see life happening in the street. Cairo was pumping with life. Honks, school busses parking second rows, passers-by, street vendors, postman wearing his sweaty cap and bending forward with a bulgy duffle bag full of white and brown envelopes, “look, that envelope has the same colour as our tea!”. I always confirmed my milk-tea knowledge to Mama Laila whenever I had the chance. Day after the other, month after the other, this very veranda became my window to city life. From the veranda in my house, I sat there in salience next to Mama Laila and slowly merged into the life in the street.

Everyday, Cairo worked very hard to keep her dwellers, residents, homeless, and hope-seekers alive. She carried all the weight of the asphalt, the concrete, and the much lighter weight of the soil in public parks. She felt the rubber of the wheels too. Some went so fast like cars and busses, others went slowly like bicycles. But I could imagine, for Cairo, nothing felt like the footsteps of all the people wandering in the city.

Cairo heard all the noise, but she only listened to the brief silence every morning when the thin line of sunlight broke the dark skies. It was then that Cairo was able to take a deep breath.

Every day, Cairo experienced a cacophony of aromas: garlic-infused fava beans, the falafel, the rose scented waters in the fridges, and the incense in the Churches and Mosques, and indeed, the dust and the exhaust.

Cairo was alive. The city was pulsating with life. Everything and everyone in it was part of its ecology. 

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I did not know that those precious times I spent with my Grandmother would later materialise into an academic career. Everything in the city became an object of interest: the crowds, the walls, the doorways, the parks, the buildings, the squares, the cars, the Nile, the bridges, and well, dustbins!

Today, I study the dynamics of citizen action in urban contexts. I am interested in how the urban form and citizen action interact. I am especially interested in environmental issues and in what urban societies do in order to improve their environments. How do people perceive of concepts like the environment, cleanliness and nature? How do societies construct their understanding of environmental issues, and how do they create moments when they share a common understanding of a problem? How does this impact their choice of action? Are these social and cultural constructions of environmentalism fluid? Do they change or mutate and why? Do forms of citizen action around single issues evolve over time? What does this tell us about the city as an organic space in which politics and policies unfold? 

After all, cities are the constructions of our imaginations. The experience I had with my Grandmother during my childhood cannot be separated from the way I see Cairo today. I can tell, how over the years, Cairo moved through different phases, or perhaps, moods. In the city, each of us experiences a fluid self that changes and can be changed by the mood of the city we live in.

Hadeer

About the author: Hadeer El Shafie is a new member of the DirtPol team and she will be working with us on managing our increasing archive of collected data. Hadeer is of Egyptian heritage and is currently a PhD student in IDS, already having carried out research in rural and urban Egypt.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex. For more information please visit the DirtPol website.

Follow DirtPol on Twitter:@ProjectDirtPol

‘IT’S NOW MY TURN!’: ETHICAL CHALLENGES IN FOCUS GROUP DISCUSSION (FGD) ENVIRONMENTS by Anne Kirori

Jan

05

During one of my many field visits to XXX School in Nairobi, I had an interesting experience. I thought it better to share and get opinions from the others who get a chance to read this. As part of a data collection exercise for the DirtPol Research Project, a focus group discussion was scheduled to take place […] at the school bus park. This focus group discussion was pre–planned and the different participants were expecting me at 9am on a Monday morning. I prepared well and at 8:30am I walked into the school and was received by A., the leader of the sub-ordinate staff. A. was the one who had organized the FGD and he was pleased to tell me that the participants were ready and eager to start. I thanked him and went ahead to greet the 15 members who had been gathered in one of the school buses for the FGD. I informed the participants that we would start in 10 minutes time and this gave me some time to relax, reflect and go through my topic guide just to refresh my memories. I noticed that all my participants in the interview were male. This did not bother me but I knew it would be a memorable one because it was the first FGD that I had done that was male–dominated.

10 minutes later I walked into the bus and was shown where to sit. This was at the front of the bus. A crate of soda which was turned upside –down was my seat. There was total silence as my participants looked at me waiting for what I would say. Once seated I greeted them warmly. I could sense the tension in the room. Everyone did not know what to expect including myself. I looked at all the participants and observed that they were from different age groups. Their age ranged from 25 – 60 years. We had a round of introductions which was done by A. who then handed the ball back to me. I took this opportunity to explain to them briefly about the DirtPol Project and the reason why we were gathered there. Most of them acknowledged to have seen me in the school for several months now. I went ahead to seek their voluntary informed consent to have the group discussion recorded. A. also informed me that he had briefed them earlier on about being recorded and they were okay with it.

I started the discussion going by asking them their opinion about Ebola disease. This was an issue that was being aired on media frequently for the past weeks. This set the discussion going and as we progressed other topics such as foods & eating habits, housing, politics, house chores, cleaning practices, occupation, lifestyles, culture, city life and challenges were discussed. 30 minutes later, one of the participants excused himself and went out. He was replaced by a new member 3 minutes later just as I was starting a discussion on cleaning practices. The new member fitted into the discussion very well and provided very useful insights together with the others. I did not mind since the change did not affect the flow at all. 10 minutes later, another member went out and just as in the first case was replaced by another new member. The discussion continued. This second new member was talkative and would motivate the quiet ones to talk as well. He seemed to have the energy and influence on the others. This trend of participants walking out and being immediately replaced by some ‘new’ others went on throughout the 3 hour session. By the end of the discussion, I had 14 new members, different from the ones I started with. The only constant participant was A. who was my contact person and was responsible for organizing the entire FGD. The number of members remained 15. I was amazed at this turn of events and also by the fact that the constant turn-over of participants did not affect the quality of data (but see Comment on Ethics, below).

At the end of the session everyone seemed happy and wanted to take part in a similar exercise next time. I ended the discussion and promised to be back. Once everyone was gone, I called A. aside in an effort to understand how the ‘turn-over FGD’ came to be. A. seemed disappointed in his people and could not also understand how it happened. According to him, the sub–ordinate staff in XXX School are 40 in number and he had randomly selected 15 of them to participate in the FGD. He struggled to understand how 14 new members got involved. I told him not to worry, thanked him for the effort to organize the group and went away. I took time in the evening to listen to the interview once more while and later reflected on the day. I only came to one conclusion that more than 15 sub-ordinate staff wanted to be involved in the FGD but since their leader, A. only selected 15 of them, the rest decided to come up with a plan of getting involved. This plan had to be implemented in collaboration with the selected sample. The aim was to ensure the sample size remained as 15 while at the same time ensuring that 30 participants got a chance to get involved. It worked!! Everyone was happy and I collected my data. My conclusion is just an assumption and I could be wrong. The big question remains. “Is this type of methodology acceptable in modern research?”

About the author: Anne Kirori is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in education and schools.  Anne's based in Nairobi, is 26 years old and fluent in Kiswahili, English and German.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit the DirtPol website.

Follow DirtPol on Twitter: @ProjectDirtPol

GUEST POST: The Politics of Decay in a Nairobi Council Estate by Constance Smith

Dec

22

The Politics of Decay in a Nairobi Council Estate

On 14 May this year, an article appeared in the Nairobi News with the headline “In Comes Chinese Money, Out Go Eastlands Estates”. The article describes a memorandum signed between Nairobi County Government and two private Chinese companies to demolish current council housing and build 55,000 apartments on the site, as part of the city’s so-called ‘urban renewal’ programme. The Eastlands estates are several neighbourhoods of colonial-era housing in the east of Nairobi, built by the British colonial government between the 1920s and 1960s to provide affordable housing for Africans in Kenya’s rapidly growing capital city. Although today they are dilapidated and in disrepair, tens of thousands of Nairobians still call them home.

According to the article, the new apartments are to be designed, constructed and then sold by the companies, in effect suggesting that this will be the end of public housing in this area of Nairobi. One of the targeted estates, Kaloleni, is the focus of my PhD fieldwork on architecture, history and materiality, where I have been exploring residents’ responses to this looming threat of redevelopment.

Kaloleni

The Eastlands Urban Renewal Strategy was developed as part of Nairobi County government’s plans to combat so-called urban decay in the city.

In Kaloleni, after years of neglect, most residents would welcome some form of state-instigated investment and construction within their estate, but many reject the label of urban decay.

As a policy category imposed by the state, urban decay is a judgement. It implies material and social failure and the condemnation of a whole community, whilst simultaneously allowing those who built or manage the estate to avoid being held accountable. In their refusal to be branded as a site of urban decay, Kaloleni residents object to the state’s evasion of responsibility.

They argue not only that they live in a historically and architecturally important site but that the neglect of their neighbourhood is politically motivated on the part of the local government, as they seek to condemn and redevelop it.

As with so much public housing all over the world that gets labelled as ‘dangerous’ or ‘decayed’ and earmarked for regeneration, Kaloleni was once a model estate, intended to generate a bright future for its new residents. Built in the 1940s and based on the garden city ideals of urban design, it was one of the first estates in Nairobi aimed at African families. It marked a period of British colonial urban planning in Africa that moved away from functional “bed-spaces” for migrant labourers towards a more ideological model that would refashion domestic life and build the exemplary colonial subjects of the future.

By the 1950s and 1960s, Kaloleni was at the heart of a growing urban middle class in Nairobi, and it was an aspirational place: it was the most well-to-do of the African estates, and it was a marker of some success to live there. Today, older residents are nostalgic for a time of order and maintenance, with neat lawns, playing fields, daily milk delivery and a well-equipped music room and library. But from the 1980s, widespread corruption and mismanagement at both municipal and national levels meant that the administration and upkeep of Kaloleni began to decline, and today there is almost no formal state presence in the estate at all. Despite still being council tenants, residents are now largely left to fend for themselves.

Whereas once the council swiftly managed repairs, these days any pretence at maintenance has been abandoned and it is up to the residents to fix their own homes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet there is something of a paradox apparent in Kaloleni. Though residents dispute the label ‘urban decay’ and the ramifications it entails, decay is nonetheless a powerfully affective force in Kaloleni. Homes are dilapidated, previously tarmacked roads have turned to dust. Water no longer runs in the pipes, broken streetlights lean precariously at awkward angles, the bulbs long gone. Rubbish is no longer collected, electricity is intermittent and the sewerage system is at breaking point. Families are now at the poorest end of the spectrum, and the estate has become dirty, congested, and unsafe.

What this makes visible is an important slippage between decay as a governmental category and a material process.

Many residents regard the material degradation of Kaloleni as a political act on the part of the city authorities. They feel that the council are deliberately running things into the ground so that they can condemn the estate as decayed, and so justify the demolition and redevelopment of the site, evicting the current residents in the process. This gives a very different gloss to the visible signs of neglect. These are not neutral processes, the product of some natural cycle of decay, or the consequence of Kaloleni being simply ‘forgotten’ by city authorities. Household maintenance is a political issue for residents, and their practices of management and repair inscribe the houses with their own personal histories. They are not simply repairing their homes for functionality and comfort, but in a small way trying to stem a much bigger tide of institutional neglect, and making a statement about their right to reside in the estate.

In some ways, there is a sadness and nostalgia to this decay, a loss of pride in an estate which was once desirable and orderly. But Kaloleni should not be regarded as a ruin, a relic of a colonial past destined for oblivion. Much recent scholarship on decay implies ruination, abandonment and desolation. The quintessential image of architectural decay is one of loss, a monumental relic of a ruined past: a decrepit fort, an abandoned factory, a deserted village.

Instead, the processes I have been following suggest that ‘ruin’ and ‘decay’ should not be conflated. Rather than headed for ruination, decay in Kaloleni is more productive: a sedimented history with which residents are increasingly engaged.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Ann Laura Stoler has encouraged us to consider the political life of imperial debris, “the material and social afterlife of structures, sensibilities and things” (2008: 194). This afterlife is vibrant in Kaloleni. Far from being abandoned, the population is today many times higher than its original intended capacity, thanks to residents’ construction of ‘extensions’, one room corrugated iron dwellings that they rent out privately. Amidst the decay is also a sense of opportunity, as formality and stricture give way to informality. Where previously economic activity was limited to formal outlets in the centre of the estate, today kiosks, hair salons, cafes, car mechanics and market stalls are flourishing across the neighbourhood. Governmental failure to fulfil mundane responsibilities of maintenance is countered by opening a front door to reveal a dramatic modification and vivid redecoration of a proud resident’s home, whilst many others have hedged and planted beautiful front gardens to create private outdoor space and keep the encroaching rubbish and mud at bay.

What is this kind of decay that is not ruination? In one sense, we could simply say that this is what happens when formality is replaced with informality. The failure of the council to manage their social housing has led to a ‘making-do’ culture, in which residents come up with ingenious fixes and creative solutions to issues such as lack of piped water, unreliable electricity provision and poor sanitation.

Whilst at a certain level this may be true, for me, it doesn’t really get at the social and material implications of such neglect. As I followed the materiality of decay in Kaloleni, tracing what was disintegrating and what was not, and questioning how people felt about it, I began to see decay not as something associated with loss and oblivion, but to see it as accumulation. What I was observing was a build up of material traces, a sedimentation of the remains of lives lived. If rubbish is not collected, broken objects are not removed, houses are not repainted, what we are left with is not less, but rather more – what we might term an excess.

There is no ruined enchantment to these residues, they are not often beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, but they reveal the way in which a landscape can be inscribed with multiple ordinary histories as they accumulate in the estate. I began to suspect that living within and among such sedimented histories generates an engagement with the past, a way of relating to the material structures of the estate that has helped to shape the resentment and rejection of the label urban decay.

front gardenThis was particularly clearly articulated by one resident, Limush. He compared Kaloleni to the new Thika Superhighway, one of the Kenyan government’s flagship infrastructural projects in recent years. He commented how the area bisected by the road has now changed so much that it is unrecognisable to him. It has been cleared, obliterated, all traces of what was once there removed. Importantly, he said not only can he no longer remember what was there before and how it looked, but “I can’t remember what I used to do there”. That is to say, he has lost his embodied knowledge of that area, its location in his lived experience. He said “if the buildings come down, Kaloleni will be gone” – not just physically but gone from history: “without the buildings you cannot remember, you have no memories”.

In this way, oblivion and loss may emanate not so much from decay itself as from its elimination. Once branded as a site of urban decay, that place becomes dead-end, futureless. It is a condemnation, an obliteration of slowly amassed material and corporeal micro-histories. Conversely, by starting to see decay as a process of accumulation rather than loss, new possibilities begin to emerge. Instead of a descent into oblivion, decay remains unforeclosed, an ongoing process of sedimentation. We start to see how the relationship between people and architecture is generative; the accumulated traces of decades of habitation leave their mark – both on buildings and people – in an ongoing process of place-making. Interior - me and Georgio

Constance Smith is a PhD candidate at University College London, a Social Anthropologist specialising in Material Culture

Nakedness Disgusts

Dec

18

The recent incidents in Nairobi where some women were embarrassingly undressed in public by some matatu gangs for what they termed scant dressing has made me write my views on the relation between nakedness and disgust. The incidences brought strong reaction on twitter to condemn the action with the hash tag #MyDressMyChoice trending for two weeks in Kenya. A section of other Kenyans advocating for decent dressings had their hash tag #NudityIsNotMyChoice trending for the same period in Kenya.

While I personally condemn these actions of public embarrassment by forcibly undressing women, the disgust expressed in seeing a naked being is not a new thing. Perhaps the matatu goons, as matatu operators are known in Nairobi, were unable to hide their disgust on seeing a scantily dressed lady on the streets. Mary Douglas cites Charles Darwin in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966) as feeling very disgusted when a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat he was eating, even though the hands of the native did not appear dirty. Could Darwin’s feeling be the same as that of the matatu goons?

While Darwin seems not have translated his feeling of disgust into action, the matatu goons went ahead to attack the ladies. Studies of disgust show that disgust is influenced by cultural background; additionally, disgust is a relative term and people from a shared cultural background may not express it about the same thing, or in the same way. In short: your disgust is not my disgust. Before the lady was stripped, obviously many others had seen her without necessarily feeling disgusted. While disgust-elicitors such as body secretions and decaying flesh are reported as universal, nakedness is not a universal elicitor of disgust.

Sights of nakedness–such as seeing an animal without fur–are likely to elicit disgust. Seeing a naked man on the streets is likely to make one feel disgust and/or fear. In a court case in the UK in which a couple was charged for walking naked, part of the judgement read as follows:

“At least one female member of the public veered out of his way. Evidence from two women was to the effect that they were “alarmed and distressed” and “disgusted” at seeing him naked. One of the women was with a number of children at least one of whom, 12 years old, she reported as “shocked and disgusted”.

In Ezekiel 23:18 in the Old Testament, Noah narrates how Lot uncovered her nakedness and he became disgusted with her just as he had become disgusted with her sister. Several other stories in the in the Bible relate to nakedness and disgust, including Leviticus 18 and 20, which combines the scene of Noah’s nakedness with the story of Lot and his daughters to condemn/rebuke incestuous relationships.

Although the actions of the matatu goons were unwarranted, nakedness is therefore an elicitor of disgust. The advocates of decent dressing (#NudityIsNotMyChoice) could be individuals who easily get disgusted by nakedness.

About the author:  Job Mwaura is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in media and communications.  Job is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and completed his Msc in Communication and Journalism in 2013 at Moi University.

About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex.  For more information please visit the DirtPol website.

 

GUEST POST - Scavenging in Kenya, Then and Now by Lucy James

Dec

02

 

Rubbish is a perennial problem for politics. On a practical level it requires a significant amount of coordination, organisation and expense on the part of local councils. A great deal of urban planning design in Kenya's history has been structured around the ideal of a 'clean' garden city, free from the dangers and unpleasantness of waste. But deciding "what to do" with this rubbish is not just a matter of neutral and objective schemes for town development. Decisions about waste management involve sets of political choices that are structured by hierarchies of power and influence. Who collects rubbish, where it is put, how it is organised and who is permitted to access it has effects not only on issues of public health, but land ownership, class privilege and economic livelihoods. In academic terms this can be illustrated through the Marxist concept of "urban trash"; what we do with rubbish as rooted in political, economic and historical dynamics that structure spaces designated as dumps, tips and wastelands.

 

It is therefore not just geographical spaces that are shaped by waste. For communities living in and around rubbish dumps in Nairobi, everyday life is structured by its presence. Here the worthless rubbish of others becomes both a way of making money and a source of sustenance; things that can be extracted, resold, recycled and eaten. However, the issue of 'scavenging' is problematic for authorities whose job is to draw a line between the sanitary and insanitary, and to make sure rubbish remains rubbish, out of sight and mind of affluent urban areas. In this situation, the people who pick through waste themselves become a problem that must also be 'dealt' with politically.

 

Today the problem of scavenging in Nairobi and other African cities is framed as one of basic human rights. The Dandora dump in Nairobi, which was scheduled for decommission in 2012, has come under fire for the poor management of waste which has led to severe pollution of the water, soil and air of surrounding settlements of Korogocho and Dandora . The vulnerability of those who live off the dump to disease, abuse and social exclusion has become a mobilising issue for advocacy groups who seek to see scavengers integrated in to society and employment. However, the problem of scavenging has not always been framed in such a way.

 

While I was at the Kenya National Archives the other week, I came across a very interesting file. It contained correspondence concerning scavengers at the Makupa tip in Mombasa, from the 1950s to the 1970s. The letters and telegrams showed how various authorities, including the Municipal Council, the police and social services, grappled with the question of "what to do" with African communities scavenging off the waste.

 

The significant thing about these documents is the perceptible change in the language used to describe the scavengers, as well as the proposed solutions for "dealing" with them. In early letters from the 1950s, scavengers are referred to pejoratively as "nuisance", "hindrance" and "no-goods". However by the late 1960s, the documents began to describe the groups at Makupa not in terms of the (un)desirability of their behaviour, but as identifiable individuals. Thus, a report by a social welfare assistant from 1964 draws attention to "twenty women with young girls" and a lady "who had a two week old baby on her back". A letter the Housing Department 4 years later gives a further sense of scavengers as people with identity and personal histories, for example by citing a case study of a Luo man and his young family who eked out a living on the dump.

 

The changing language around unauthorised people who lived and worked on the tip echoes the shift in thinking about how to deal with the problem of rubbish in urban spaces. The vast majority of all the letters cited concerns about the impact of scavenging on public health, given that groups were known to forage for discarded food and materials to cook for others or re-sell in Mombasa town. Initially, this was thought to warrant strict measures such as arrest and prosecution.  A letter from June 1952, for example, suggests that without strong police action it would be "impossible" to stop groups of people collecting discarded maize, wood and other materials. However, later on scavenging comes to be recognised and promoted as "a social problem" caused by poverty and destitution, and solved by measures such as the alleviation of unemployment. These later examples have a clear resonance with the framing of issue of scavenging today: as a product of social marginalisation and inequality that requires political intervention.

 

Rubbish is therefore not just a question of physical waste and city management. In historical and present day Kenya, decisions about what to do with rubbish also intersect with issues of security, social welfare and human rights in different guises. The position of scavengers within this policy space illustrates the complexity of the politics of waste disposal. For example, even when human rights agencies and local NGOs campaign for closure of dumps, a whole series of questions are thrown up about "what to do" with the people who depend on rubbish itself to live. Thinking about these issues through my research for DirtPol brings me back to a concept often used in academic discussions of sanitation and hygiene. The issue of scavenging is a perfect illustration of how the 'abject' refers not only to taboo elements of the self that has been separated off (i.e. physical waste) but also to the state of marginalised groups who live and work among these rejected elements. Dealing with rubbish is therefore as much about culture, symbolism, political power and interpersonal relations as it is about sanitation infrastructure and the lofty visions of contemporary town planning in Africa.

 

 

 

Lucy James is a graduate attaché at the British Institute in East Africa. Lucy completed her MSc in African Politics at SOAS, with a particular focus on governance and society in Lusophone Africa.

Follow her on Twitter:  @lajames1291 

For more information on our research project, please visit the DirtPol website here.