Garbage Citizenship

Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal. Rosalind Fredericks. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

Reviewed by, James Ellison, Dickinson College

Garbage Citizenship is a rich ethnography of citizenship and belonging at their most intimate and substantive core, through waste—how it is managed, what it means and does, and the political relationality that comes into being around it. The material-semiotic properties of trash, Rosalind Fredericks shows, shape its importance in ordering spaces and disciplining bodies. Waste is modernity’s excess, she explains, and development creates challenges for its collection, with success being unseen and failure a clear sign of nonprogress and state failure. Garbage thus vivifies infrastructures of substantive citizenship, and Fredericks contributes well to the emerging ethnographic literature on waste infrastructures.  

Following the introduction’s historical and theoretical overview, the book’s four main chapters examine the politics of garbage infrastructures through Fredericks’ ethnographic fieldwork—250 interviews and everyday interactions mainly from 2007–2008 and continuing through 2016—and strong use of diverse and unique documentary sources. Chapter one presents struggles between the national and municipal governments over Dakar’s garbage infrastructures after economic and political liberalization, illustrating how urban public life, waste work, and democratic participation involved “governing-through-disposability” (25). Fredericks’ materialist reading of a community organized participatory trash collection movement in chapter two “flesh[es] out” (61) the articulations of technologies and young men and women’s political subjectivities and gendered bodies. In chapter three she interrogates development studies concepts of community, participation, and empowerment by analyzing flexibilizing labor in an NGO-led project that treated women and horse carts as “appropriate technologies.” In chapter four, Fredericks describes challenges to precarity through a trash strike by waste workers, public garbage dumping, and Islam’s spiritual contributions to communities of affect that shaped citizenship and human infrastructures. In the conclusion, Fredericks argues for bridging “new and old materialist” approaches through the entanglements of labor and infrastructure, with an interest in how more just urban infrastructures could be built.

Fredericks views the politics of garbage infrastructures through several lenses: a gendered perspective built from feminist theory and ethnography; attention to youth and generation; and consideration of religious piety and spirituality. She merges historical materialism and its focus on resources, technologies, and labor with new materialist attention to the agentive qualities of materials, technologies, and infrastructures. Political anthropologists should find Fredericks’ work with these lenses important, as she elucidates tensions in labor flexibilization and the downward push of responsibility for wellbeing amid structural adjustment programs (SAPs), neoliberal reforms, and continual political negotiations over collective life in the city.

Trash has been a material and symbolic agent in Dakar from colonial sanitation and hygiene efforts to debates over structural adjustment and legacies of Senegal’s socialist foundations. Fredericks reveals apparent contradictions in garbage politics, such as participatory efforts emerging during late socialism in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by the consolidation of the city’s trash collection under a national government office during then-president Abdoulaye Wade’s neoliberal presidency. With structural adjustment negatively affecting trash collection, youth organized Set/Setal (be clean/make clean in Wolof) garbage clean-up campaigns, resulting in “a whole new citizen . . . and whole new infrastructure for managing the city” (45). Demonstrating the material/semiotics of governing-through-disposability, after Wade’s election in 2000, a national government trash collection agency contracted with an Italian company and hired many former Set/Setal workers, newly unionized. Through ongoing struggles between Dakar’s mayors and the national government over patronage and infrastructures, trash work increasingly devolved to precarious people, including youth and women.

Fredericks investigates the symbolic and material burdens on bodies in socio-technical relations of disposability, through people’s nostalgia for Set/Setal and neoliberalism’s often-dispiriting effects. Set/Setal’s popular moral citizenship became promoted by ENDA, a Senegalese environmental NGO, and appropriated by Dakar’s mayor for partisan recruitment, in harmony with the World Bank’s shift to a “kinder, gentler, ‘revisionist’ neoliberalism” (71). Young men and women constituted themselves as gendered political subjects working side-by-side, but women gained residents’ respect, some earning jobs and political recognition, while men seemed more challenged by trash work and threats to status. With trash collection centralized, employment opportunities largely went to men. Some women were conscripted into “voluntary” NGO-led participatory trash management schemes using horse-carts. That “empowerment” afforded novel spaces of citizenship but reproduced gendered inequalities.

The quality of Fredericks’ ethnographic fieldwork shows clearly in her work with NGO personnel, NGO records, and politicians, and interviews and participation with trash workers of different generations and people pursuing mundane, intimate trash management routines. She examines ENDA’s 2001 community-based waste collection project through which women “animatrices” collected trash and household payments and trained local women to store and separate garbage. Some were Set/Setal veterans, and this flexibilization “render[ed] women the new technology of this ‘more’ appropriate waste infrastructure” (111). Despite its community veneer, ENDA managers and older male residents designed the project. Exemplifying governing-through-disposability, male drivers were considered workers, whereas women, being “empowered” by participation, were not seen as deserving similar compensation. By 2003, the project was in shambles, although matters improved, particularly after municipal collectors gained better working conditions in 2009.

In the final ethnographic chapter Fredericks analyzes Islam’s place in mid-2000s union organizing and trash strikes, illuminating infrastructure’s affective and spiritual dimensions. During a 2007 strike after Wade’s re-election, working class residents piled garbage in a main boulevard and in front of the mayor’s office, a public infrastructure spectacle contrasting with Wade’s grand projects that materialized unprecedented wealth accumulation and inequalities. Decomposition demanded urgent resolution. Union organizers built on communal relations established since Set/Setal and articulated the spiritual aspects of cleanliness in Islam and trash collection. Where Set/Setal made garbage workers more representative of society, and SAPs altered trash work’s importance, spiritual framings helped invert trash work’s stigma. The piety of refusal, Fredericks contends, offered a language for contesting neoliberal austerity and reframing the value of garbage infrastructures. But these too were gendered views, offered by men but not women.

Granular ethnographic detail makes Garbage Citizenship an engaging ethnography of social and physical garbage infrastructures and substantive citizenship’s gendered, generational, and moral dimensions. Political anthropologists and political anthropology graduate students should find value in Fredericks’ attention to the politics of disposability and nuanced considerations of citizenship and infrastructure, as interest grows for examples linking historical materialist concerns with the vitality of things. The book should also, with appropriate guidance, be accessible to advanced undergraduates studying any of these matters.

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