Uncanny Exposures: Embodied Infrastructures and Toxic Solidarities at Dakar’s Dump
Dakar’s massive, unplanned waste dump, Mbeubeuss, is one of the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 1968, thousands of urban outcasts and rural migrants have sought their fortunes in its detritus, bearing witness to the yawning disparities and intensifying precarities of urban modernity. Through fierce competition, cooperation, and solidarity, they have built intricate networks of recycling that stretch across West Africa and reach all the way to Asia. Waste pickers’ labors forge embodied infrastructures (Truelove, under review) structuring exposure and reward in an uncanny ecology yoking together the human, natural, and otherworldly.
This paper draws on extensive ethnographic research conducted at Mbeubeuss over the last five years. In the context of a major World Bank funded plan to upgrade the dump, it examines the production of value, as well as bodily, spiritual, and ontological (in)security. These apocalyptical edge spaces filled with smoke, oozing chemicals, and rotting matter are landscapes of intense exposure. Material intimacies between bodies and wastes breed biochemical intimacies which, in turn, produce chemical kinships (Agard-Jones, 2013; Balayannis & Garnett, 2020) between the recyclers in each niche and amongst workers at Mbeubeuss as a whole. Just like the shared expertise demanded of the matter being transformed—metal wires, tires, PET plastic bottles, decomposing food—there are shared burdens of heavy metals, carcinogenic smoke, hormone disrupting chemicals, and parasitic worms. Embodied infrastructures enable expert practices but also literally get inside. Pickers’ understandings of the wider political landscape necessitates persistence through porosity (Roberts, 2017) or living with toxins to enable a workable claim to life. Refusing their contamination, pickers’ claims to bodily immunity reinforce their stakes in this urban commons.
But as these once forgotten spaces are slowly rendered legible to state and international capital, attempts to poach their value are a double assault on already abjected bodies. Beneath the surface of bodily insecurities faced pickers at Mbeubeuss are a range of spiritual and ontological insecurities—a psychic infrastructure of vulnerability. The dump has always been an enchanted infrastructure (Harvey & Knox, 2012)—one in which the human and the uncanny operate side-by-side, at times erupting into tension, in other moments operating at peace. Many reclaimers understand their work extracting materials as a form of ritual labor involving a delicate relationship with the spiritual world. Attempts to upgrade the dump have disrupted reclaimers’ ability to manage spectral forms of authority —the spirits (djinn) present on the dump – and the humility that this vitality demands. An intensification of deadly fires on the dump since 2016 has provided tragic evidence of the risks implied by what they see as the state’s hubris. Some, moreover, are more vulnerable to the spirits than others.
Through grappling with how pickers apprehend and navigate exposure to biochemical and social toxicities, the paper endeavors to render the violences of Anthropocenic urban modernity visible and offer new provocations for how socio-material relationships may be revalued. To learn with the pickers at the dump is not to focus on damage or harm—because those are not the terms of their struggle. It is to take seriously their claims to bodily immunity for how they enable political acts of persistence; it is to recognize the value forged in the material intimacies between human and non-human agencies; and it is to excavate their carefully honed practices harmonizing physical and psychic infrastructures. Not just a locus of bare survival, the dump is a landscape of opportunity, value, kinship, and piety, where the city’s most disenfranchised pursue the good life.
Agard-Jones, V. (2013). Bodies in the System. Small Axe, 17(3), 182-192.
Balayannis, A., & Garnett, E. (2020). Chemical Kinship: Interdisciplinary Experiments with Pollution. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 6(1), 1-10.
Harvey, P., & Knox, H. (2012). The Enchantments of Infrastructure. Mobilities, 7(4), 521–536.
Roberts, E. F. S. (2017). What Gets Inside: Violent Entanglements and Toxic Boundaries in Mexico City. Cultural Anthropology, 32(4), 592–619.
Truelove, Y. (under review). Embodied Infrastructure: Towards Bodies that ‘Matter’ and a Corporeal Geography of Infrastructure. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.
Rosalind Fredericks’s research and teaching interests are centered on development, urbanism, and political ecology in Africa. With a PhD in geography, she has focused her research on urban citizenship and infrastructure in contemporary Dakar, Senegal, where she has conducted ethnographic research on labor and youth movements. The bulk of her research has explored the politics of urban discards as a lens into questions of urban citizenship. Her book manuscript, Garbage Citizenship: Vital Infrastructures of Labor in Dakar, Senegal (Duke University Press, September 2018) chronicles Dakar’s volatile municipal garbage politics in the wake of structural adjustment. A new research project, supported by the National Science Foundation, examines planning and activism surrounding informal recycling labor at the city’s dump Mbeubeuss. She has also studied the role of hip hop in Senegalese elections. Fredericks has also edited two books with Mamadou Diouf on citizenship in African cities: Les Arts de la Citoyenneté au Sénégal: Espaces Contestés et Civilités Urbaines (Editions Karthala, 2013) and The Arts of Citizenship in African Cities: Infrastructures and Spaces of Belonging (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).