Wastelandia: Infrastructure and the Commonwealth of Waste in Urban Ghana

Winter 2014 African Studies Distinguished Lecture

Can infrastructure provide the basis for urban public and political life and the foundation for the commonwealth? How is this possible in contexts of modernist failure marked by the evacuation of resources, rights, state investments and social capital, and the accumulation of waste, from human excreta, to industrial discharge and the detritus of everyday consumption? These questions are explored through a case study drawn from the wastelands of Ghana’s city of Tema. At the heart of the analysis is an expansive, privately-owned, public toilet complex turned hostel, school room, meeting place, site for transactional sex, communal kitchen, and fledgling biogas plant. Akin to Hobbe’s Leviathan, here we see a late-modern state of nature transformed into a commonwealth of waste replete with the attendant possibilities and ambivalences.

brenda_chalfinBrenda Chalfin earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998. She specializes in Economic and Political Anthropology with an emphasis on Ghana and West Africa . Her book, Shea Butter Republic (Routledge 2004), examines the impact of neo-liberal policies and cosmopolitan consumption trends on rural women’s livelihoods in northeast Ghana . Developing her interest in state processes, citizenship and bureaucratic reform, in 2000-2001 Dr. Chalfin conducted an ethnographic study of Customs officers in Ghana funded by NSF and Wenner-Gren Foundation. Now working from a supranational vantage-point, she continues to research global transformations in customs regulations and the impact on sovereignty within the late-modern state. In 2002-2003 Dr. Chalfin was a member of the School of Social Science at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton , NJ . She was awarded a 2005-2006 Fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC . Dr. Chalfin teaches courses on African Ethnography, Urban Africa, Political Economy, Economic Anthropology, the Anthropology of the State, and Political Anthropology.

This event is presented by the Committee on African Studies and cosponsored by the Center for International Studies and the Program on the Global Environment.

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