DirtPol's blog posts tagged with 'academic research'

Who is Project Dirtpol?

Mar

28

DirtPol is an international cultural studies research project based at the University of Sussex with Professor Steph Newell at the helm and with all the research currently being done in Kenya and Nigeria. 

 

Meet the Kenyan DirtPol'ers: (l-r) Rebecca, Job, Dr Mbugua wa Mungai (regional coordinator) and Ann.

The Kenya-based DirtPol team, Rebecca, Job, Dr Mbugua wa Mungai and Ann

 

And introducing the Nigerian DirtPol contingent: (l-r) John, Jane, Toyosi and Dr Patrick Oloko (regional coordinator).

Team Lagos

 

For more information on the DirtPol project, please stop by:

// our website at www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

// our blog at dirtpol.wordpress.com

What is meant by "Cultural Politics"? By Professor Steph Newell

Apr

01

For more information on the DirtPol research project, please visit www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

 


I wrote the following in response to a question from John in Lagos, who asked what is meant by "cultural politics"? What follows is a version of my reply to him:

The first thing to note is that “cultural politics” does not signify two separate categories: it is not culture separated from politics. The term cultural politics refers to the way that culture—including people’s attitudes, opinions, beliefs and perspectives, as well as the media and arts—shapes society and political opinion, and gives rise to social, economic and legal realities. To give an example that is relevant to DirtPol: in February this year, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia described homosexuals as “vermin” who should be tackled like malarial mosquitoes. Over in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni’s new toughened legislation against homosexuality arises from similar underlying beliefs relating to contamination and disgust (i.e., the category of moral filth). In these two examples, we can see how culture (public opinion, arts and media) imbues politics (government and the law) with perspectives about homosexuality that are predicated on the category of vermin, infestation, contamination. Sexual violence against women often follows a similar discursive pathway.

 

Our project seeks to make visible and understand a multiplicity of similar processes, not always negative nor as extreme as the above case. The case of the media/communications fieldworkers, for example, you can trace a pathway from perception/opinion via the media to the political and social outcome. Thus:

 

Homosexual (a label) =

vermin (a metaphor) =

filthy (a moral/evaluative category used in the media and by politicians) =

elimination (proposed action at social and legal level)

 

In another extreme historical example, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was initiated by a media campaign, especially on RTLM (Radio Télévison des Milles Collines), to “exterminate/crush the cockroaches”. Here you see how the media made use of the “cockroach” metaphor in a similar way to “vermin”: but this time it was used in relation to ethnicity, and the metaphor became murderous. This is “cultural politics” in its most violent manifestation. But it is important to look out for the ways that labels such as “cockroach” can be used satirically or ironically by the very people they are designed to describe (“queer” is an example from the UK where homosexual people regularly describe themselves as “queer”).

 

The above examples are negative and unsubtle, but I hope they show the process of how opinion on the streets enters media/communications/political networks. In other words, the use of particular vocabularies about dirt gives rise to political and legal interventions in people’s social lives. As the website www.culturalpolitics.net states, “cultural politics … [is] an arena where social, economic, and political values and meanings are created and contested”. Creation and contestation are words that sum up the focus of the DirtPol project., In taking a category like ‘dirt’—with its vast spectrum of different connotations, words and interpretations—we can create a starting-point to understand people’s changing definitions of home and the city, and ideas about beauty and ugliness, marriage and sexuality, multiculturalism and migration, the past and present.

 

In the Information for Project Researchers document we circulated when you started your job, “cultural politics” was defined like this: “the ways in which urban identities, encounters and relationships may be marked and transformed by categories denoting dirt. Crucially, the project asks about how the retrieval of local people’s voices and perspectives challenges or changes existing paradigms and methodologies for examining the everyday lives of urban African subjects and the environmental challenges they face,” through popular art forms, the media and ethnographic research.

 

The key point is that urban encounters and identities—relationships with others, as well as the implementation of environmental and public health policies, and anti-racism initiatives—may be understood differently if they are filtered through concepts relating to dirt rather than to hygiene and cleanliness. The DirtPol project thus asks: what are the implications of locally situated understandings of dirt for current debates about urbanisation, the environment, sexuality and ethnicity?

 

The questions this raises for further investigation in research (especially through questionnaires, focus groups and one-to-one discussions, about which there will be training in Sussex in May, so do start to design draft questions to bring over and work on in May) include:

 

  1.        i.         What words and phrases (including proverbs, jokes, etc) exist in African languages and English to describe the dirt or dirtiness of others? Who uses these words and about whom are they used?
  2.      ii.         What words, categories, proverbs, etc., are used to interpret a) health and environmental issues; b) the topic of sex, sexuality and (im)morality more generally; c) the topic of neighbours and strangers in one’s vicinity and in other neighbourhoods? By whom and about whom are these words/categories used, and how many of them relate to dirt?
  3.     iii.         What words, categories and/or proverbs are used to express positive evaluations of dirt (esp. in the sense of earth/mud), including the artistic transformation of ‘rubbish’ into beautiful or useful objects? By whom and about whom are these words/categories used? What are the social and cultural factors that influence these representations and perceptions?

 

THE POLITICS OF DIRT AND THE DIRT OF POLITICS: DEMOLITION FEVER GRIPS MAKOKO by John Uwa

Apr

15

When the news first hit the Stand that the Lagos State Government of Nigeria plans to demolish the water settlement which goes by the name Makoko, what first came to my mind and all other followers of the event, as I supposed, was the demolition of Maroko in 1989. Like Makoko, Maroko was inhabited by low income earners who lacked some basic social amenities like portable water and waste disposal materials. With the absence of these basic amenities Maroko was tagged “dirty” and marked out for demolition. Today, some the choicest areas in Lagos like Lekki Phase 1 and 2 where top class Lagosians now live is what we have left of Maroko. Makoko is one of the over 40 slums we have in Lagos State (Betty Abah: 2014), and the state government is stopping at nothing to claim this settlement which is situated in front of the lagoon and also boast of a sizeable number of lumber mill, water trading and fishing. With the government’s threat of demolition which has attracted human right activists, locally and internationally, Makoko is now in the spotlight of a serious political debate and litigation between the State Government and other stakeholders. “Dirt” appears to be the main issue of contention. The state government has given two reasons for the attempted demolition of Mokoko. 1. The huge dirt generated from this slum pose serious health and environmental threat; and 2. The master plan and the beautification of Lagos stipulate that such areas of the state like Makoko should be demolished and reconstructed (for who?). On its part, the inhabitants, human right and environmental activists are claiming that the government has deliberately abandoned the area so as to justify its demolition plans.

As a ‘dirt’ researcher, I thought that a visit to this slum would provide some insight into the politics of demolishing and the reclaiming Makoko; and indeed, my visit to this part of Lagos revealed some truth. The area which is situated in front of the Lagoon provides some sort of ambience which can connect one with nature; the same kind of landscape which ‘influenced’ the takeover of Maroko by the State Government. I also thought that the huge waste generated in this slum must be really disturbing when we begin to talk about health and environmental challenges. Incidentally the adjoining water is used for bathing, fishing and defecation. While I was still thinking of this discovery, I realised that the presence of government in terms of public school, health centre, portable water and waste disposal materials is totally unavailable. What came to mind afterward was a series of questions which every researcher of ‘dirt’ may have to ponder upon. Why is the government not making it presence felt? Could the tag “dirty” be used as an excuse to demolish Makoko?  In whose interest is the demolition? Can dirt be used as an index to exclude some people or give advantage to some people over others? What does Makoko need, demolition or government presence?  One thing is obvious; ‘dirt’ appears to have been employed as and index to justify certain action, and to compel recognition.

The attached pictures from Makoko and Otto Ilogbo which were taken in the course of DirtpPol research may provide some sort of semiotic view for further interpretation and investigation.

 

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MAKOKO

 

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MAKOKO

 

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RIGHT ON THE SLUM. OTTO ILOGBO

 

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OTTO ILOGBO

 

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Defecating right into the water

 

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Floating Restaurant



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

Ethics in the Field by Rebeccah Onwong'a

Apr

23

There are few challenges I have encountered while working in the slums that I would like us to discuss. First, it is important to note that slums vary in one way or the other. For example in Dandora slum, it is not easy to get information because the residents fear talking to strangers. This is because the the gangs in the slums forbid them from talking to strangers and anybody who is seen talking to strangers is “disciplined”. On the other hand, in Kibera slum nobody cares about strangers. So far, I have not heard of any gang operating in the slum. The problem in Kibera is that nobody is willing to volunteer information for free. The informants always insist that you have to give them lunch. They argue that they use their time to take you through the slum.They say that this time could be used to engage in other income generating activities. It is surprising that even the idle ones insist on the “ lunch”. This has forced me on several occasions to hide my identity as a project researcher. Most of the time I pretend to be a college student to avoid being asked for money. It is in this context that I would like us to discuss if it is ethical to lie or give lunch to get the information you want. While responding to the question, it is important bear in mind that if you don’t lie or give lunch, you might not get the information you want.


About the author:  Rebeccah Onwong'a is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in health and environment.  Rebeccah's based in Nairobi, her academic background is in Biology and she gained her Masters degree in Belgium.

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

Talking to a Dustbin by Job Mwaura

Jun

17

On my trip to UK, I took several photos of dustbins whenever I went. Then the other day, I was pondering whether animals have a soul like we humans have. It got me thinking about plants, trees, and insects. Then I began to look a little deeper, if we know that animals, plants, trees talk to each other they must have some form of consciousness, but does that mean that everything around us has a conscious awareness. I mean everything that we have in form of technology come from this earth, therefore we would say that the earth is alive with consciousness; if that is the case, then my dustbin has a consciousness, doesn’t it?

But again, a bin has no life, it just sits in the corner and I doubt many would communicate with it. We speak to our cars or motorbike on the other hand and we yell at them, praise them, and even mourned when they die. All these are just a collection of lifeless parts and only comes to life when life is in it. A dustbin is nothing but a bin full of dust.

Since lifeless parts may come to life when life is in it, I placed my hand inside my dustbin today and spoke to it a little to see if it would respond. I am not nuts, and unfortunately it did not. I wonder if a dustbin would need the same loving treatment like we do to our vehicles. What if it spat out the dust and garbage we fill it with, when it becomes annoyed? But again, does a dustbin have feelings? Below is my collection of dustbin photos.

Picture 1: A dustbin outside Bramber House, University of Sussex.

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Picture 2: Dustbins at University of Cambridge

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Picture 3: Dustbin at Clacket Lane Service Area, Tatsfield, Westerham TN16 2ER, UK

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Picture 4: Dustbin near Chichester, University of Sussex.

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Picture 5: Two dustbins below The Bridge Café, University of Sussex.

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Picture 6: Dustbin at Churchill Square Shopping Centre, Brighton.

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Picture 7: Dustbin at Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton

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 Picture 8: Dustbin at Brighton beach

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Picture 9: Dustbin at King’s Rd, Brighton, UK

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 Picture 10: Dustbin in one of the classes at Fulton, University of Sussex

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Picture 11: Dustbin at Northfield Residence, University of Sussex

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Picture 12: Dustbin at United Nations Headquarters in Africa, Nairobi Kenya

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Picture 13: Dustbin at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi Kenya.

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 These photos can tell many stories and one would have many interpretations of them. I have told my own story with these photos. 

 

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.

Between Prostitution and Polygyny in Africa: The Implication for Culture by John Olatunde Uwa

Aug

07

As a researcher and a cultural archivist sampling perception and conceptions of dirt in Africa, I have had the opportunity of engaging a number of individuals on topical issues that revolve around ‘dirt’ in Africa. Some of these issues cut through the themes of religion, ethnicity, corruption, prostitution, civil partnership, robbery, poverty and such like. On a particular occasion, I had cause to interview a man on the theme of prostitution as a canvas for the collective odium that has followed those who solicit. This fellow made two striking submissions which I thought might be of interest to this forum. The first is that, prostitution is totally alien to Africa; while the second is that, polygyny is a structure that was put in place from primordial time in Africa to check, curb or prevent the practice of prostitution.

Whether prostitution is alien or not is not the question here as prostitution is already a global phenomenon, even in countries where the practice is considered as ‘haram’. What is quite puzzling here is that, between prostitution and polygyny in Africa, there are cultural codes that signify how both practices may be perceived. The former is an abomination; while the Later is a valid cultural practice, believed to have been handed down to prevent prostitution. But since prostitution is a ‘trade’, can polygyny solve the financial requirements of the woman? Of what economic benefit is polygyny to the woman? Even if we assume that prostitution is for sexual gratification, is it possible for a single man in a polygamous union to give all the women in the union the gratification they require? The assumption is that, while the man may be getting all the gratification he wants, some or all of the women in the union are denied total sexual gratification.  

 In spite of these burning questions, proves abound to show that about 90% of Nigerian women would rather be involved in a polygamous union than get involve in prostitution, when faced with the two variables. This is mainly due to their cultural and religious orientation more than what they are truly capable of doing. These cultural orientations which manifest themselves in taboo, abomination, witchcraft etc. tends to act as a strong restriction against the activities of the id. However, there is a latent content that becomes operational beyond the limit of social conformity.  Beyond this limit of social conformity in which culture and religion gives no answer, and in which ‘prostitutes’ find themselves, every woman become capable of soliciting. In other words, there is a limit to which every human can be in social conformity and there is a limit to which culture and religion can provide answers; and beyond this point, there is an ambient in which humans are capable of anything, and prostitution is not an exception. It is at such point that women are also capable of exhibiting the same tendencies that can make a man crave for more than one wife or woman.

Elsewhere in the world, especially among some nations of Europe, polygyny is unacceptable; however, it is an ‘accepted’ norm in Africa. Considering this paradox and the influence of a dominant culture, which is propelled by financial crunch, in a new global order which African is part of, what is the place of a primordial culture that is believed to prevent prostitution? What is the future of prostitution as we push towards the limit of social conformity and beyond? While it may be easy for us to keep theorizing, it must be must be noted that a culture that is inelastic is like a carved deity who becomes vindictive to those who provide it with palm oil and other libations; he is either reminded of the tree from which he was carved out, or turned into firewood while other deities are erected in ‘his’ place.      

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

DirtPol's PI Prof Steph Newell shortlisted for Herskovits Award

Nov

17

DirtPol's principle investigator, Professor Stephanie Newell, has been shortlisted for the Herskovits Award, an annual prize given by the African Studies Association to the work perceived as the most important scholarly work in the field published that year.  The award is well established, having been running since 1965 when it was named after one of the founders of the ASA.

"Between the 1880s and the 1940s, the region known as British West Africa became a dynamic zone of literary creativity and textual experimentation. African-owned newspapers offered local writers numerous opportunities to contribute material for publication, and editors repeatedly defined the press as a vehicle to host public debates rather than simply as an organ to disseminate news or editorial ideology. Literate locals responded with great zeal, and in increasing numbers as the twentieth century progressed, they sent in letters, articles, fiction, and poetry for publication in English- and African-language newspapers.

The Power to Name offers a rich cultural history of this phenomenon, examining the wide array of anonymous and pseudonymous writing practices to be found in African-owned newspapers between the 1880s and the 1940s, and the rise of celebrity journalism in the period of anticolonial nationalism. Stephanie Newell has produced an account of colonial West Africa that skillfully shows the ways in which colonized subjects used pseudonyms and anonymity to alter and play with colonial power and constructions of African identity."

 

For more information on the book: http://www.ohioswallow.com/book/The+Power+to+Name

 For more information on the award and the ASA: http://www.africanstudies.org/awards-prizes/herskovits-award

 To buy the book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Power-Name-Anonymity-Colonial-Histories/dp/0821420321/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1416229897&sr=8-13&keywords=the+power+to+name

 For more on Professor Newell's DirtPol project visit: www.sussex.ac.uk/dirtpol

The Anatomy of Disgust - book review

Nov

17

The Anatomy of Disgust by William Ian Miller
Published 1997 by Harvard University Press in Cambridge
Originally written in English. Translated to Spanish and Italian in 1999, and Slovenian in 2006
Number of pages             320
Chosen best book by the Association of American Publishers, 1997, in sociology/anthropology.

 

William Miller’s sensational book Anatomy of Disgust describes all the disgusting things that we humans encounter and emit in our daily lives. Disgust According to William Miller is relative and almost everything can be disgusting depending on where it is placed or the nature of it.

To begin with, disgust is considered as a revulsion of something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is experienced by sense of taste, smell, touch or through vision. Therefore, disgust is very sensational. According to William Miller, anything could be disgusting depending on how someone imagines it or sees, smells, tastes and feels it. Brian Curtis in his book titled Dirt, disgust, and disease: Is hygiene in our genes? States that elicitors of disgust include body products, food, animals, hygiene, body envelope violations, death, and visible signs of infection. These elicitors are discussed comprehensively by William Miller in his book, Anatomy of disgust.

Disgust, according to Miller, is a serious subject of discussion that implicates our morality, love, politics and the sense of self. What then this means is that disgust is part and parcel of our daily lives. We cannot run away from it. It is what has been used to define our morality, love, politics and the sense of self. The author thus views disgust as a very broad theme.

William Miller insist on the essential and domineering nature of disgust and its physicality and analyzes its sensational nature, citing how it has affected the human beings in almost every way. On page 201, the author says that with disgust, we are always in the grip of a sensation, not empowered by it but in the power of it. The author says that a review of the five human senses shows how each claim an independent and very important relation to disgust and its pre-modern synonyms, such as loathsome, abhorrent, abominable, rank and fulsome. Therefore, our five senses are very important in the discussion of disgust. We cannot talk of disgust without talking of the senses. They go hand in hand.

In a further discussion of the sensational nature of disgust, William Miller in the opening pages of the book cites Charles Darwin who at one time was eating dinner in his camp at Tierra del Fuego and a native touched the British food he was eating and immediately he felt disgusted. Darwin then lost appetite. He quotes Darwin as saying that “I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty”. Although this shows Darwin’s utter hatred for the savage, it is a clear example of how much disgust is imagined and to a great extent, sensational.

Disgust is a relative aspect and what could be disgusting to you could not be disgusting to someone else. However, Miller points out some universal or shared feelings of disgust. He says that if we want to find a common response on which all people at all times and all places can agree, then the pus drinking of St Catherine of Siena is surely where to look at. As Catherine attended on one of her fellow nun who had breast cancer, she would decant pus from her breast and drink it. She did this to punish herself after vomiting during the dressing of the wound due to the stench from the wound. By Catherine vomiting, it means that the stench made her feel disgusted. Reading Catherine’s story brings unimaginable disgust to everyone. Miller thus points out that some situations brings a feeling of disgust to everyone.

Looking at Chapter three of the book titled Thick, Greasy Life, Miller describes several substances and how they could be disgusting depending on their form. For instance, he sites that although water in many situations is considered as a good thing, wateriness of some substances could be considered as a sign of disease and suppuration. This does not however mean that dryness of a substance is good enough because the author states that some dry substance such as scabs, skin flakes, and crust are also disgusting.

seaweed1 When it comes to a comparison of animals and plants, the author states that animals are much more disgusting than plants. Some animals are more disgusting than others. This, in my view is a very objective statement. The decomposition of plants is what particularly makes plant disgusting. Plants in their natural form are rarely disgusting. True to this because I cannot think of any disgusting plant in its natural form. However, the thoughts we evoke when it comes to eating some plants, can be disgusting. For instance, the thought of eating sea weed can be disgusting. This is a confirmation that disgust is sometimes a construction of our thoughts.

The author brings in an interesting aspect that what makes animals disgusting is not their disgusting nature but the mere thought of we eating them (pg. 48). Some animals that disgust do not disgust themselves but their characteristics disgust. The sliminess of some animals, slitheriness and teemingness of others. I got thinking of how a snail is disgusting due to the fact that it has mucus like substance covering its body. The mere sight of it is disgusting. I wonder then how disgusting it would be to imagine of eating it.

William Miller views boundaries in human beings as being defined by disgust. He cites it as what distinguishes “us” vs. “them”. To him, disgust locates the bounds of the other either as something to be avoided or something to be embraced. Something that is not disgusting is likeable but everyone distances him/herself from something that disgust. Regardless of whether that “thing” is human or just an object. The looks and behavior would normally bring some level of disgust and thus a boundary is created. I agree to the fact that disgust helps mark boundaries of culture and boundaries of self.  disgust

Miller also illustrates how disgust can be discussed in political arena. Disgust has been used to define the spaces between the bourgeoisies and the proletariats. The upper class individuals consider the lower classes as smelly. This of course works against the ideas of equality. But it also explains one of the reasons why there is normally less interaction between these two classes.

Towards the end of the book, Miller gives a very strong reason as to why the discussion on the subject of disgust is important. He says that disgust involves morality, self-loathing, prejudice and more private agendas of honor and duty. Therefore, he reminds us to be mindful to another cornerstone of polite society and respect.

 

 

About the author of this post: 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.

Follow us on Twitter: @ProjectDirtpol

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.

‘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.

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