Unveiling Urban Politics: DEI Seminar Explores Waste Infrastructure in Ghana

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The fall 2023 Civil Empowerment Seminar Series, hosted by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, featured University of Florida anthropologist, Dr. Brenda Chalfin. Chalfin’s presentation centered on the intricate relationship between waste infrastructure, private and public spaces, and urban politics in the planned city of Tema, Ghana.

“I got very interested in Africa as an undergraduate student and was able to do a semester abroad. I became fascinated with an understanding of African history, culture, politics, and economic questions, and that really drew me to anthropology as a career,” said Chalfin as she reflected on her academic journey.

Chalfin’s talk, based on her newly released book Waste Works, unveiled a compelling narrative starting with Tema’s mid-century inception and continuing on to showcase present-day community efforts. The book explores the evolution of waste management in the planned city of Tema, where residents would have electricity and piped water directly to their homes and a full-scale underground sewage system.

These features of modern infrastructure in the city weren’t exactly unheard of, but there were very novel for the time and place. For Ghana, the 1950s were an era of transition, as it was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence. The country elected its first president, Francis Kwame Nkrumah and was well on its way to becoming an example of economic power in Africa.

“The planned city of Tema was supposed to be this kind of ideal new face of African possibility,” explained Chalfin.

However, not everything held up to this ideal. Tema grew much faster than expected and the municipal sewage system began to fail. City officials and workers were overwhelmed trying to take care of the old system, and soon, individual citizens began taking matters into their own hands. Small networks of neighbors started working together to lean on their local representatives as well as repair and manage the sewage system themselves. In fact, some citizens came up with the solution of having public toilets in private homes.

"I think it becomes a very exciting place to think about future possibilities and different kinds of resilience, especially in the face of environmental change and environmental challenges."

Brenda Chalfin

“Someone might have a public toilet that’s available for their neighbors to use. Anyone was welcome as long as they paid a small fee, so it’s both private and public,” said Chalfin.

These waste infrastructure solutions also presented an opportunity for positive social interaction between the residents of Tema. They quickly became gathering points for the community. The creative, citizen-led solution of private/public toilets helped solve Tema’s infrastructure problem and created additional social benefits for the city.

During this time of need, residents innovatively reimagined urban sanitation against the backdrop of established systems. This reimagining underscored how the citizens of Tema have transitioned from a state-controlled private matter to a collective endeavor managed by private individuals or neighborhoods. This shift, Chalfin argues, propelled excrement from the private sphere into the public domain.

“People in a variety of different communities within the planned city came up with solutions to provide sanitation when this municipal sewage system was inadequate,” said Chalfin.

These new waste management practices increased the sense of domestic responsibility for communal well-being. This domestic system gave rise to infrastructure projects driven by communities, creating a pivotal arena for asserting rights, forming alliances, and establishing societal status.

“I think it becomes a very exciting place to think about future possibilities and different kinds of resilience, especially in the face of environmental change and environmental challenges,” said Chalfin, underlining the innovative spirit of Tema’s residents.

The seminar provided a unique platform for students, faculty, and staff to engage with Chalfin’s research.

Published November 8, 2023