A Political Anthropology of Waste in African Urban Contexts
In Garoua and Maroua, the main cities of the North and Far North regions of Cameroon, waste management can be analysed from the perspective of urban governance, as a local political arena. Such an approach, through the study of the connexions between material culture, the appropriation of space and techniques of the body, can also reveal how «waste » has been defined locally as an ambivalent object of power, at times as its emblem and source, at times as the stigma of its collapse.
A Northern Cameroon aphorism states: “The great chief must be like the great trash pile.” For the outside observer, this saying recalls the until recent proliferation of large accumulations of waste in public spaces in Garoua and Maroua, in sharp contrast with the strict cleanliness inside houses as well as the intensive practices whereby discarded objects are sorted and recovered. It also conjures up the ancient large rubbish heaps erected in traditional chiefdoms both near Maroua, and in the heart of both towns.
Waste Management as a Political Arena
The deterioration of waste management public service at the end of the 20th century has been frequently read through the lens of urban governance, notably within the context of an institutional anthropology of development (E Dorier-Apprill, J Bouju, JP Olivier de Sardan, G Blundo or M Mérino). This public service is identified as a local, conflictual “political arena” revealing the political issues and strategies for the acquisition of political power and legitimacy, and involving the numerous actors of urban management : municipal, national and traditionnal authorities, local associations, NGOs and international cooperation representatives, private companies, informal workers, and users. In Garoua and Maroua, this analytical framework allows one to understand how, throughout the history of the two cities, waste management has gradually been constructed as a defining concern for the different authorities successively in command of the two towns. From the 1980s until the mid-2000s, this public service deteriorated considerably as a result of local political conflicts related to decentralization and the transfer of responsibilities to municipal authorities. The 2008 installation in Garoua and Maroua of a private waste disposal company mandated by the Cameroonian state enabled governing bodies to regain control over garbage that had overun the urban public places. However, the arrival of this new actor in the local political arena of public waste management has also complexified and intensified struggles for the control over waste as a means of power and political legitimacy. For instance, the different city councils battle each other in order to see their own districts cleaned first, and local traditional and administrative authorities flood the refuse disposal company with requests for a dumpster near their homes to act as a symbol of their ability to run the city and its inhabitants.
Waste as an Object of Power
Waste management is not a public service among others, like street lighting or roads maintenance. As M Douglas observed in her seminal book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), “disorder […] symbolises both danger and power.” Indeed, urban authorities and political elites in Northern Cameroon always attempted to take over waste, even if this means becoming themselves, for better or for worse, “like the great trash piles.” The longitudinal study of the evolution of the local ways of defining and handling discarded objects, and their relationship with the appropriation of space, the conceptions of the body and material culture (following the work of JP Warnier), reveals to what degree control over waste has always been intimately related at once to the representation and the practice of power and to the persons who embody it.
The chiefs of the great kingdoms that ruled over the site of the future Maroua and its surroundings between the 16th and 18th centuries, initiated a process entailing the identification of waste as both an emblem and a source of power. They erected great garbage heaps ostentatiously displayed in front of their palaces, symbolizing both the chiefdom’s seniority on its territory and its leader’s wealth in goods and men. Subjects and vassals were obliged to deposit their refuse regularly on these piles as an expression of allegiance. The headmen’s great trash piles also constituted one of the occult sources of their power, by virtue of the “forces” and spirits they were held to shelter and whose domestication guarantied the chiefdom’s strength, prosperity and protection. These great accumulations of trash were surely signs of chiefly power, but they were also in continuity with the chiefly bodies, and as such are seen as providing both the basis of the chiefs’ personal power and weak points through which they may be attacked.
While having the same conceptions of relationship between power and waste, the Fulani and Muslim conquerors, who founded the towns of the North at the beginning of the 19th century, imposed that waste be concealed inside compounds, this following an ethic of reserve and restraint regarding the expression of one’s living standards and bodily needs. Also conceiving waste as intimately linked with the person who produced it, they were worried that publicly disposed waste be recovered as used to attack people from a distance through sorcery. Although Fulani and Muslim elites scrupulously followed this prescription for waste concealment, due to overcrowding, urban dwellers were increasingly forced to evacuate their garbage from their homes and deposit it in front of the neighbourhood chiefs, whose large trash piles henceforth no longer indicated their wealth, but rather their ability to control and manage their constituents.
Although German then French colonial administrators took command of the both cities at the beginning of the 20th century, public waste management remained in the hands of the traditional local authorities until the independence of Cameroon in 1960. Beginning in the 1950s, sanitation health services and rudimentary trash collection services were set up and subsequently developed by the Cameroonian administration until the end of the 1970s, notably in Garoua, home city of the first president A. Ahidjo and showcase for Cameroonian urban modernity. However, with the economic crisis of the early 1980s, and the fall of A. Ahidjo and the election of P. Biya, from Yaounde, municipal services of waste collection start to decline and both cities are invaded by garbage. Garbage heaps are still perceived by city-dwellers as an occult threat, because of the spirits they may shelter, but also, from this time forwards, in a Pasteur-inspired hygienist perspective, as a sanitary danger which can only be neutralized by removing placing waste at a distance from living areas. Within this context, for those who live in these two cities, the great trash piles which bloom through out the urban landscape attest above all to a breakdown of governing authorities who prove incapable of concealing of their contistituents’ garbage through evacuation.
It is only in 2008, when a private company takes over public waste management in the northern cities, that there is a return of the idea of publicly exhibited symbols of power, but applied not to waste itself but to the new technical devices used to manage it: dumpsters. The latter once again are taken to be indicative of the elites’ ability to rule the city, while the individual plastic bins become a new “status” symbol for local notabilities. That is also why urban political representatives fiercely compete to be the first to have their jurisdictions (districts, but also specific streets) cleared of its rubbish dumps and brand new dumpsters, emblems of a “modern and scientific” city management, installed in their place.
A Governmentality of Garbage
The study of how ways to conceive and to manage waste in Garoua and Maroua has evolved reveals a real “governmentality” (M Foucault) of garbage. It is realized through the control of waste as an expression of a power successive authorities have wielded over the city-dwellers of these two towns. However, this “governmentality” can also be described as a control that each individual, mobilizing techniques of the body (M Mauss), can exert not only over oneself but also over others, and more generally those assemblages over which he or she has some degree of authority, from the domestic groups, to neighbourhoods to entire urban communities. This way of conceiving and of dealing with waste, particularly the notion that its accumulation (trash piles) or more recently its collection devices (dumpsters) constitute « objects » of power, is grounded in the idea that a continuity exists between a person and the waste deriving from his or her body and his or her household. This continuity is thought of both in metaphoric terms (waste represents what one is, but also what one has, and therefore one’s wealth and living standard as well) and as a synecdoche (waste is a part of oneself, but also a part in which one’s essence is concentrated so as to contain the person themselves). Throughout the history of these two cities, this continuity has been alternately valued as a source of power, or on the contrary fought against as a problem. Mobilising prevailing conceptual registers used to think about and to manage waste (magico-religious practices, ethnic etiquette, pasteurian hygienics), urban elites have strove to maintain both a metaphorical relationship (identification) and a synecdochical relationship (incorporation) with waste, and with its accumulations and its collection devices in particular, or on the contrary, have sought to break their symbolic and physical connections with it. In the first case garbage was displayed conspicuously near their houses, whereas in the second case, it was concealed so as to keeping their living spaces scrupulously clean. City-dwellers’ waste, as representative of the city-dwellers themselves, is equally subjected to the oscillations between these two conceptions and modes of management modes associated with them (ostentatious display or strict concealment). If local political elites are able to manage their subjects’ garbage in collectively shared urban spaces, this becomes the sign that they are able to impose their control on the city-dwellers themselves, that is, on the city itself.
Two analytical viewpoints are entertained in this research, the one sensitive to the dynamics of urban governance, the other emphasising the linkages between material culture, appropriation of space and techniques of self-making. Together, they constitute a proposition for a political anthropology of waste that aims to understand the complexity of relationships to garbage in African urban situations, but that can also be applied to the study of waste in other contexts. Moreover, it open a path to a new understanding of “power” as the ability to control ambivalent objects such as waste, its accumulation and its collection devices for the benefit not only of the entire community, but of a small number of individuals as well.
Emilie Guitard is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, and associated with the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative (LESC) and the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD). She has been working on peoples’ relationships to waste and discarded objects since 2005, especially in African cities