Brenda Chalfin. 2023. Waste Works: Vital Politics in Urban Ghana. Duke University Press.

Review by: Patrick O’Hare, University of St Andrews


Ghana, Brenda Chalfin tells us, is something of a paradox. The first (sub-Saharan) African country to gain independence, it is often held up as a model of political stability and prosperity on the continent. At the same time, more than any other country in the world, people rely on sanitary facilities outside of the home for what my grandfather euphemistically used to call their “business.” Rather than focusing on the lack of domestic toilet provision for all but the elite, Chalfin opts to explore the diverse, novel, hierarchical as well as democratic, popular alternatives to state sewerage provision and private toilets. If looking at sanitation in the global South through an “overarching optic of inadequacy” (6) would be wrong-footed, Chalfin instead proposes to consider “urban politics through the lens of excrement” (8).

Whilst this admittedly sounds rather murky, I was excited to read Chalfin’s monograph, having thoroughly enjoyed her fascinating article drawing on the same research and published in the American Ethnologist a decade ago. If in that article she focuses on the waste politics of Tema, Ghana’s model and modernist new city of the 1960s post-independence-era, in her monograph Chalfin takes us to four geographically connected fieldsites that each have different sanitary arrangements. Tema proper is the new city that boasted household pan latrines and a modern sewage system but which now finds itself in a state of disrepair and, arguably, ruination. Tema-Manhean, meanwhile, is the town where many autochthonous residents of Tema were relocated when the new city was built, and whose residents relied and continue to rely on shared toilet blocks. The last substantive chapters focus on two further agglomerations in the hinterlands. The first is Ziginshore, a settlement for transitory labourers where the focus is on a sanitary and biodigester complex established by a successful prodigal son of the settlement, known as “Uncle Director.” The subsequent chapter focuses on the “breakaway republic” of Ashaiman, another place where the absence of the state has led enterprising residents to invent their own sanitary solutions, this time converting part of their homes into public toilets, to be used for a fee.

Each arrangement displays a different configuration of the private and the public. In Tema, we have public sewage infrastructure serving private homes. In Tema Manheim, we have public infrastructure that, despite attempts at privatisation, have largely passed from public (state) to public (community) ownership and management. In Ziginishore, we have the private (sector) provision of public toilets, whereas in Ashaiman, despite the presence of some run-down public toilets, residents prefer to use the costlier but better maintained semi-public toilets that have been added on to private homes. Each model also calls forth a different theoretical framework: in Tema’s toilets we can find Hannah Arendt, in Tema-Manhean Henri Levebre’s “right to the city” inspires a discussion of a “right to shit,” in Ziginshore’s biodigester Thomas Hobbes makes an appearance, while in Ashaiman’s Private Commercial Toilets (PCTs) there is room enough for both George Bataille and Thorsten Veblen. Although all of the individual cases discussed are intriguing, the effect of moving consecutively from one fieldsite to another, each with its own theoretical framework, is that we are somewhat lacking a central narrative thread and overarching argument, and nor do we get to know the book’s ethnographic interlocutors particularly well, as they appear in individual chapters but then rarely resurface. Infrequent interlocutor narratives perhaps also stem from the cultural context in addition to the book’s structure. Chalfin opens the book with an apology for its subject matter, linked to a footnote that explains that “to speak directly of faeces and defecation in Ghana is inappropriate in public discourse” (295).

The rich and diverse theoretical grounding can at times be overwhelming and doesn’t always seem to offer the best fit for understanding the ethnographic material at hand. For instance, Chalfin has to engage in some theoretical gymnastics in order to make Arendtian theory fit her argument. This is because Arendt railed against the emergence of what she called “the social” in public life – including housekeeping, bodily labours, and self-interest – and the way that these undermine the quality of public debate in the political sphere. For Arendt, Tema’s “excremental infrastructures” would not be considered properly political spaces and indeed, as Chalfin puts it, “represent all the ills of Arendt’s grand category” (31). As a sharp thinker, Chalfin finds a way around such apparent incongruencies between her argument and her chief theoretical inspiration but if she has to “think with Arendt against Arendt” (Benhabib 2000: 198), one is left wondering: did we really need Arendt at all?

Alongside a diverse body of theorists, we also find a dizzying array of novel conceptual terms including “vital politics,” “vital remains,” “infrastructural intimacy,” the “infrastructural inchoate,” and “deep domesticity.” Sub-titles provide more neologisms – “architectures of excremental uplift,” “cultivating excremental accountability”; “poo-populism” – with which Chalfin seems to be having a bit of scatological fun. One feature of these did raise an eyebrow: despite the fact that people use toilets to shit and piss, Chalfin’s focus is overwhelmingly on the excremental, which boasts a rich indexical entry, whereas we are lacking a single entry for urine. This bias is unacknowledged and thus lacking explanation. Does it matter? Well, it does in the sense that public sanitary infrastructure is often differentiated for urination and defecation for men but undifferentiated for women. Indeed, there is a lack of attention paid to the differing sanitary needs and associated ideas of dignity for men and women in the Ghanian context. The mixing of urine and excrement in most sanitation systems, although widespread, is generally seen as unwise from a human-health, resource, and ecological perspective, particularly where sewage treatment facilities are inadequate or overstretched. Chalfin steers away from a discussion of such issues or from championing particular popular sanitary models, rendering this “a matter for health experts to determine” (25).

Such an approach seems like a missed opportunity, for this book is at its strongest when, in Chalfin’s terms, it engages “with popular or subaltern practices as ethico-political responses…rather than simply denigrating them from the vantage point of some absolute wisdom” (7). This is a book geared towards social theory instead of sanitation policy, yet surely public health experts and policymakers, rather than reaching conclusions disengaged from the political sphere that is Chalfin’s main focus, have much to learn from this book, and its close consideration of a fascinating plethora of public-private politico-sanitary arrangements. In particular, I found the parallels with municipal waste management striking, and echo Chalfin’s call to work with rather than against popular and vernacular experiments in the management of waste in the broadest sense. To conclude, Waste Works provides scholars of waste, sanitation, and the region plenty of food for thought and an invitation to rethink sanitary infrastructures as sites of political experimentation grounded in bodily rhythms. As the old Akan proverb has it, “if we can eat together, we can shit together.”

Patrick O’Hare is a Senior Researcher and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) and a member of the editorial board of ‘Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies’. He received his PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (2017), has held research positions at the Universities of Cambridge, Manchester, and Surrey, and has conducted research in Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, and the UK on themes relating to labour, waste, cardboard publishing, and plastics.



© 2024 Patrick O’Hare