Wylie on Fredericks, 'Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal'

Rosalind Fredericks. Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 216 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0141-6; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0099-0.

Reviewed by Diana Wylie (Boston University)
Published on H-Africa (November, 2020)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55912

Garbage and the City

Mounds of fish guts, plant detritus, and animal entrails litter the streets of Dakar, capital of the West African nation of Senegal. The city did not always look so disorderly. Twenty-five years ago, trash began to pile up as the city’s population grew and, most important, its municipal budget shrank. Neoliberal austerity measures had struck home. Today the sight and smell of street garbage advertises how far the city has fallen from the heady promises made by politicians in the early days of independence from France. The failure to keep Dakar clean is not for want of trying. Political actors struggling to deal with this mess have ranged from the World Bank, Senegal’s presidents, and Dakar’s mayors, to the citizens of the city, including, not least, the garbage collectors themselves. 

Geographer Rosalind Fredericks has written an African case study of the gargantuan problem of waste disposal afflicting most cities today. Conducting her doctoral research in Dakar from 2007 to 2008, Fredericks interviewed 250 people, many of them eager to talk with her about the challenge of disposing household trash before it grows rank and dangerous to health. One woman told her of feeding vegetable waste to her goat and drying fish remains and bagging them with sand, before asking permission to move the bags under a neighbor’s tree to await the prayed-for arrival of the garbage truck. In sharing these stories, Fredericks contributes vivid details to our understanding of how modernism in the Global South failed over the past quarter century. She goes on to tell how new, postmodern forms of both labor and citizenship are, in turn, being born. 

Reading Fredericks’s tales of Dakar, urbanists will recognize familiar patterns. Three come readily to mind. Like many urban scholars, especially of the Global South, Fredericks believes that cities, not the nation-state, constitute the new “key locus of citizenship”; and so, her work reflects the “rising importance of rights-based approaches which focus on access to substantive urban public goods like housing, sanitation, and employment” (p. 157). Like architect Rem Koolhaas exploring Lagos, she has learned that what looks at first like urban disorder is actually a highly organized and dynamic urban system made by poor working people as they struggle with the dual burden of receiving only minimal urban services while they are stuck in the informal economy. Further, her case study adds yet another example to the growing list of cities whose leaders yearn to make them world-class destinations for tourists and capital; one has only to think of the Moroccan king’s desire to make Casablanca the financial capital of Africa, or the Kenyan plan to make Nairobi a glamorous city whose real estate can be sold on international markets and whose poor, removed from the center, have become invisible.

Fredericks is ultimately concerned with labor practices that are not only effective but also “just,” or, in her words, with the crafting of “ethical infrastructures” (pp. 26, 154). To understand how the work of trash collection might be made more just, she poses a series of questions heavily inflected with theoretical language from contemporary social science: How is neoliberal state power “materialized in everyday infrastructures” as labor is transformed through “flexibilizing” (pp. 6, 13)? How do citizens respond by engaging in “participatory citizenship” (p. 2)? What is the “cultural politics of labor” as it is informed by age, gender, and the values of Islam (p. 151)? I will return to this language in my conclusion. 

Fredericks applies these theoretical questions to a city that up to the 1970s had been inhabited mainly by educated civil servants living in subsidized housing. Their wage bill took up 60 percent of government spending. In a country with stagnant industry, few natural resources, a peanut economy bedeviled by drought, and rising unemployment and urban migration, this budgetary model did not prove sustainable. In 1979, the neoliberal austerity axe began to fall when the World Bank mandated structural adjustment policies in return for loaning money to Senegal. The government thereafter invested minimally in old and new urban infrastructure, including trucks and people. By the late 1980s, the trash collectors’ union went on strike in solidarity with ongoing national political protests; garbage piled up worse than ever before and became “a symbol of state crisis and an important terrain on which to battle for control of the city” (p. 43). Only when the government paid members of a youth movement calling itself Set/Setal (Be Clean/Make Clean in Wolof) did some form of cleanliness and order ensue. The respite from squalor did not last, even after trash collection was privatized. In 2007, the trash collectors’ union launched a general strike. Only in 2016 did trash workers win formal contracts and higher salaries, though Fredericks predicts that “competition over scarce resources and power will continue to politicize Dakar’s trash collection” (p. 56).

Fredericks does not take the easy route of making the World Bank the sole author of this messy situation. Instead she does acknowledge, albeit in a footnote, that there is “vast debate” over whether Africa’s economic decline resulted from the principles of structural adjustment policies or, more precisely, from how they were implemented (p. 161n19).She shows how intensified multiparty democratic competition, not just World Bank policies, led to a new “scaled-back, low-tech, participatory garbage sector” (p. 44). Shrinking state coffers heightened competition especially between the president of Senegal and the mayor of Dakar. The workers and their occasional unions were thus pawns in a power game. As the president and mayor battled for local control and legitimacy, they continually reinvented garbage collection, rarely satisfactorily. (Sixteen different entities were responsible for collecting Dakar’s trash between 1960 and 2017.) Episodic and ultimately inadequate collection resulted, especially in poorer neighborhoods, whether the prevailing national ideology was socialist or liberal. 

The actual labor of trash collection was increasingly carried out by the people themselves. They are the “vital infrastructure” of the book’s title. First came the youth. When unemployed young people rioted in 1988, they posed a threat to the city’s peace, but they also provided the government with an opportunity. If they were paid—as day labor and without benefits—to collect garbage, they could clean up the city cheaply while allowing the government to bypass the politicized, strike-prone trash collectors union. The World Bank was pleased. In the process of contributing to the city’s “vital infrastructure” and taking responsibility for public space, the young people upset the local social hierarchy based on age. Their ranks were joined by women, many of whom became, for the first time, household breadwinners. Gender hierarchies were thus being upset as well, though new problems ensued. Women collectors were paid meagerly or not at all and had the onerous task of trying to collect user fees from people who thought trash collection should be free. They were being made into “municipal housekeepers” (p. 26). Unfortunately, local hierarchies based on ethnicity persisted. The relatively elite Lebou group monopolized the trash collection in the Tonghor neighborhood and blamed the garbage there on landless and poor Geejndar. A case study of this particular neighborhood reveals that what had once looked like a “Third Sector” solution—combining popular and state collection efforts by using both horse carts and municipal garbage trucks—ended in failure. 

Fredericks shows that there is no magic bullet solution: infrastructure is complex and socially embedded. She also warns that low-tech solutions should not be romanticized. And yet the activism of garbage collectors, both within and outside unions, succeeded in winning popular support. Islamic stress on the importance of purity boosted popular acceptance of workers and their strikes, which, Fredericks states, has “allowed them to stem the tide of labor flexibilization” (p. 26).

Fredericks set out to bring subtlety and complexity to the study of neoliberalism. She has certainly succeeded. She intended to treat garbage as “matter” that makes its own demands, as opposed to being mainly a symbol of impurity, as Mary Douglas once famously argued. She wants to integrate the Global South in the study of urban political ecology, which she believes has focused overmuch on the Global North and been less than sensitive to feminist and postcolonial concerns. Her goal is to incorporate human labor and therefore power relations in conceptions of infrastructure, though she takes issue with AbdouMaliq Simone’s optimism when he coined the phrase “vital infrastructure” by observing that labor is not just a human contribution to society but also a process that can waste lives. 

It can be difficult to make subtle points clearly. Fredericks’s reliance on contemporary social scientific language like “flexibilization” or “bricolage” sometimes clouds her meaning. For those who appreciate neologistic abstractions, this book will enhance their knowledge of modern African urban life. For those who do not, question marks will proliferate in the margins, as beside sentences like the following: “[Certain] forces accelerated a mode of governing-through-disposability premised upon performative, fragmented infrastructure investments and strategies to flexibilize the urban workforce” (p. 25). Fredericks conducted valiant research in circumstances that are difficult, not only because they are smelly and potentially unhealthy but also because the politics of trash collection are complex and murky, as she amply demonstrates and expresses.

Citation: Diana Wylie. Review of Fredericks, Rosalind, Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55912

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.