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Gathering the African Technosphere: An Ethnography of Informal Electronic Waste Recycling in Tanzania


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Gathering the African Technosphere:

An Ethnography of Informal Electronic Waste Recycling in Tanzania

Samwel Moses Ntapanta

Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Social Anthropology, University of Oslo


Paul Wenzel Geissler Ruth Jane Prince Theodoros Rakopoulos


© Samwel Moses Ntapanta, 2022

Series of dissertations submitted to the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Oslo No. 927

ISSN 1504-3991

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be

reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without permission.

Cover: UiO.

Print production: Graphics Center, University of Oslo.


Gathering the African Technosphere:

An Ethnography of Informal Electronic

Waste Recycling in Tanzania


Table of Contents














































JIKO ... 163


















CROWS ... 224

THIEVES ... 226

JUNKIES ... 228















I would like to extend my heartfelt, warm, and sincere thanks to everybody who has helped, inspired, and guided me during the process of writing this thesis. First and foremost, writing this thesis wouldn’t have been possible without my walimu (teachers), who allowed me into their lives and work and let me share their life stories with the world. I am forever indebted to everyone at Mahakama Ya Friji: Rajabu Juma Gambilu—the chairperson of Mahakama Ya Friji workshop, Iddi Athuman Tambalile, Hamis Gudi Singa, John Sofi, Charles Sofi, Edward (Mwanawane) Sofi, Shujaa Bonifasi, Abubakari (George) Salum, Ally Fakiri, Rajabu Juma Maneno, Abadalah Mnyonge, Sharifu Muhidini, Saido Hussein, Juma Tambalile, Hamisi Manigo, Akida Manibu, Ernest Msambaa, Abdalah Sofi, Mechael Edward, Njama Said, Iddi Said Msambaa, Salum Esia, Abdalah Kari, Issa Muhidini, Mandela (Mangi) Denis, Salumu (Roadmaster) Mlangi, Ndinyo Sela, Mkali, Babu Ali, Dada Ligu, and others that are not on this list. Thank you.

The study was enabled by ethical clearance from the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) and the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). I would also like to extend my gratitude to the University of Dar es Salaam, where my journey started as an undergraduate student, for hosting me during my fieldwork. I also extend thanks to the University of Oslo: Life Science for funding this study.

Paul Wenzel Geissler, Ruth Jane Prince, and Theodoros Rakopoulos deserve a seat at the front. Thank you for guiding me tirelessly throughout the study and the writing process.

Wenzel, you taught me to think about the subject in many ways and from different angles.

Ruth, thank you for enriching my writing, which I have to say was horrible when I started. And to Theo, thank you for your critical thinking and eagle eye, especially when the logic of my work was not well-aligned.


A special debt of gratitude is owed to my colleagues at the Anthropology of Toxicity (AnthroTox) project, with whom I have collaborated throughout my study: Ane Haarr, Christian Medaas, Signe Mikkelsen, Franziska Klaas, and Maja Nipen. I also extend warm thanks to all members of the AnthroTox project: Katrine Borgå (University of Oslo, Biosciences), Knut Breivik (University of Oslo, Chemistry), Susanne Bauer (the University of Oslo, Technology, Innovation and Culture), Aviti John Mmochi (University of Dar es Salaam), Peter Mangesho (National Institute for Medical Research), Vendelin Simon (University of Dar es Salaam), Anders Ruus (Oslo), Martin Schlabach (Norwegian Institute for Air Research), Jan Ludvig Lyche, and Anuschka Polder (Norwegian University of Biosciences).

At the Department of Social Anthropology (SAI) at the University of Oslo, I was lucky to be surrounded by extraordinary colleagues. Rune Flikke, representing the whole department of academic staff, thank you for nurturing and supporting me. However, I would be lacking if I didn’t mention Mette Kristin Stenberg. You are my hero. I still ponder how life would be without passing by your desk in the morning and having a little chat. And to all SAI administrative superstars—Hilde Kveseth, Liv Christina Varen, Nina Rundgren, and Katrine Blindheimsvik—thank you for accommodating my frustrating concerns.

I dedicate this paragraph to exceptional people who have been hand-in-hand with me throughout my study. Pierre du Plessis, brother, thank you for everything. The list will be too long to mention everything. Thank you. Heather Swanson, thank you very much for always being there, for guidance and understanding. I would also add Edwin Ambani Ameso for being a friend, colleague, and COVID-19 lockdown housemate.

Many others have generously contributed to this journey. I wish there was space to mention all of you. To all my friends in Tanzania who have helped me so much during this journey, thank you. A few to mention are Salim Mwanakatwe, Deogratius Mtei, Amani Mtei, Godfrey Mtei, Chukwu Chiduo, Grace Nanyaro, and Aloyce Ndyamukama.


Very special thanks go to my family. Indeed, Moe, Evy, and Martha, you have endured a lot. I cannot describe how grateful and happy I am to have you. And to the whole Mouritsen family, for the support and for taking care of the kids when I could not: thank you. To my parents, Annastazia Sungura and Moses Ntapanta: there are no words to thank you. My siblings, Catherine Ntapanta, Charles Ntapanta, Claudia Ntapanta, and Yohana Ntapanta, you are always in my heart. Thank you.

Finally, to my grandmother, Mdala Bilha Balisidya. For all the love you have showed me, thank you. And to my namesake, Samwel Ntapanta, continue resting in power.



• Anthropology of Toxicity (AnthroTox)

• Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM)

• Dar es Salaam Project (DSP)

• DART (Dar es Salaam Rapid Transport),

• Environmental impact assessment (EIA),

• Information and communications technology (ICT)

• Institute for Liberty and Democracy (ILD),

• International nongovernmental organisations (INGOs)

• National Housing Corporation (NHC)

• National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR)

• Persistent organic pollutants (POPs)

• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)

• Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

• Structural adjustment programs (SAPs)

• Tanganyika Law Society (TLS)

• Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH)

• Tanzania Minerals Audit Agency (TMAA)

• Tanzania Revenue Authority (TRA)

• United Republic of Tanzania (URT)

• Vocational Education and Training Authority (VETA)

• Tanzanian Shilling (TZS)

• The United States of America Dollar (USD)



This thesis is about the value that is extracted and exploited from discarded materials, salvaged from the ruins of capitalism, modernity, and empire. That little value, the value that remains in the debris of consumer products that ought to make people happy—maybe not entirely satisfied, however—make our lives less of a burden. Some things we cannot keep forever because they take up space where they are not supposed to in our lives, do not serve their purpose, or are outdated, out of fashion, or have lost their aesthetic appeal. Those things that stand in our way and disrupt the order of life. Objects that we throw away. Things we don’t want in our lives. It is about things, and specifically electronic waste (e-waste), that this thesis thinks with.

Far too often, Tanzania, where my thesis is based, is viewed exclusively through the lens of the Global North—the ‘developed’ industrial countries that endlessly reproduce stereotypes and tropes. Places like Tanzania are diminished to somewhere far away from European shores, from American lives, from the ‘more important’ concerns of the centres of production. The Global South and developing countries are often referred to dismissively as

‘poor countries,’ places Europeans see on TV or hear about on the radio and podcasts as sites of unending corruption, conflict, and sexual misadventures and disasters (rape and HIV). These are places they might visit once or several times, or places that they will never see or care about. Situations out of sight, where the appetite for consumption sends its tides, erodes the shores, and slowly swallows bodies.

These are places that the assumed audience (who is in the Global North) does not understand and where life is strange, where others dwell. Areas that are geographically half a world away and take the filthy, discarded, and unwanted objects of the consuming North out from sight. However, the Global South, in this case Tanzania, is an integral part of global value


chains. The lodged ingenuity and creativity in these places that turn e-waste into value are central to global and local capital systems.

This thesis is about a life shared by those who most people based in Europe and America do not know, do not see, and maybe will never see or understand; the significant, insignificant others. It is a thesis filled with names with a distinctive ring of the ‘other’ (Said, 2003): Salim, Salum, Mwanawane, Samwel, George, Mjomba Mjomba, Dinho, Msomali, Hussein, and others, my walimu (teachers) who have shared part of their lives with me. I have observed these people’s creative minds and their tireless hands. This thesis is about a refrigerator, a computer monitor, a CPU, and an air conditioning unit. This thesis is about humans and nonhuman e-waste actors, the life of people and things. The life of waste and those who live on the margins of our society. Those who feel the violence of the globalised world.

This thesis is about slow violence, the chemical particles so small that we cannot see them, we cannot feel them until they take over bodies, fill waters, and pollute the environment.

It is about the dangers within the devices that produce safety and a comfortable life. These chemical compounds make our essential gadgets: the Fitbit, smartwatches, air-conditioning units, mobile phones … the list goes on and on. They are safe to use because of these ghosts embedded within them. However, those unseen particles become detrimental once released from the devices—to us, ecosystems, and the planet.

This is also a thesis about resistance and persistence. It is about the endurance of things and of people, even when in ruination. It is about the value that people gather and utilise to stay alive. It is about livelihood, daily bread, a roof to sleep under, covering health expenses, and education for the next generation. This thesis is about making and finding new ways of life for things and people. It is about encounters of things, chemical compounds, and people.


Author’s note

In this thesis, all the people mentioned are referred to by their real names, including nicknames.

The thesis does not pose any danger to anyone mentioned. Therefore, real names are used. All observations were done between March 2018 and November 2022. The author’s life reflections and narrations are based on historical sources and personal memoirs. Because of this, there is back-and-forth use of the present and past tense. Heads of state, including Nyerere, Mwinyi, Mkapa, Kikwete, Magufuli, and Suluhu, are addressed using their last names, following Tanzanian custom; addressing them otherwise would be disrespectful. The author is responsible for all translations from Swahili to English. Swahili words appear in italics on first use, followed by their translations in parentheses; repeated Swahili terms are unitalicized after their first introduction. Where further clarification about translated words is needed, the information is placed in the footnotes. Non-academic sources are generally referred to in footnotes. All photos are taken by the author unless noted otherwise. Some of parts of the thesis were published at Anthropology Today journal published by John Wiley & Sons on behalf of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Currency exchanges between Tanzanian shilling (TZS) and the United States of America dollar (USD) are converted on average exchange rate in 2019 which is 1USD for 2307 TZS.


Figure 1 A map of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania Source; Google. Available via license: CC BY 4.0



In March 2018, shortly after commencing my PhD programme, I went on a pre-fieldwork trip to Tanzania together with my colleagues from the Anthropology of Toxicity (AnthroTox) project from the University of Oslo. AnthroTox is an interdisciplinary project that brings together social anthropologists, historians, STS scholars, and environmental toxicologists and chemists from Tanzania, Norway, and Germany to understand how environmental, social, and political-economic processes shape flows and impacts of anthropogenic toxicants from electric and electronic devices (‘e-waste’) in Tanzania and beyond.

Figure 2 E-waste at Pugu Kinyamwezi landfill


During our journey, we paid courtesy visits to government institutions responsible for waste management and the environment, as well as to research institutions, and visited electronic markets. We also went to a number of landfills both in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam.

The team’s imagination on this journey was fuelled in equal measure by the statistics about enormous amounts of electronic waste being exported from Europe to Africa, and by the powerful images of Western media reports on illegal waste imports and, in particular, unregulated electronics recycling. In particular, we expected to find landscapes resembling those depicted in the 2018 documentary ‘Welcome to Sodom’, directed by Austrian filmmakers Florian Weigensamer and Christian Krönes (Adjei, 2014; Weigensamer & Krönes, 2018).

However, although we did observe enormous amounts of new and (often well-) used electronics in the popular Kariakoo and Darajani markets in Dar es Salaam and Unguja, respectively, we were surprised, almost shocked, by the small amount of e-waste arriving in the landfills we visited. The little we found was mainly plastic used in electronics: polystyrene, polypropylene, or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. And there were few signs of e-waste-related informal activities to be seen. Where was the e-waste that we had come to study?

In the Kariakoo market, in the central business district of Dar es Salaam, thousands of electronics businesses sell new and second-hand electronics imported from abroad. Thus, there should be significant production of e-waste. Why did we find hardly any e-waste in landfills?

Dar es Salaam, with more than six million inhabitants, collects less than 40% of total waste produced in the city (Kaseva & Mbuligwe, 2005). There should be mechanisms to explain e- waste scarcity and the lack of e-waste-related activities around the Pugu landfill, the only landfill in Dar es Salaam.


My subsequent ethnographic quest to locate where e-waste ends up led me to the Mahakama Ya Friji, which translates as refrigerator court or workshop. The name Mahakama Ya Friji reflects the activities at this place. Scrap materials, including defunct electronic devices collected by scrap collectors around the city, are brought here. Upon arriving at the workshop, they are salvaged. Repairers find parts that can still be used in repairing other devices. The metals embedded in e-waste—copper, brass, cast iron, and platinum—are recovered to supply local and international manufacturing as raw materials. While some metals go back into manufacturing chains, others like aluminium are converted by crafters at the site into cooking stoves, pots, kettles, and roofing materials. Scrap iron ends up in local smelting industries and is used to produce iron rods that hold up Dar es Salaam skyscrapers and other infrastructure.

These are the reasons why the AnthroTox team found only plastics in the landfills.

Places like Mahakama Ya Friji are vital to Dar es Salaam’s urban metabolism and livelihoods. At the same time, the workshop is connected to technological changes, global waste streams, and value cycles. Mahakama Ya Friji is not the only informal e-waste workshop in Dar es Salaam. There are around 85 workshops in the Kinondoni district, one of four districts that form the Dar es Salaam metropolitan area. Around 2,125 people work in these workshops (Kyessi & Omar, 2018). These places do not in any way resemble the images of

‘Gomorrah’.They are structured and organised workplaces that are central to value recovery and the creation of value cycles.

However, because of their positionality in circulations of technology, capital, and value, the methods employed in these places release the toxic chemicals embedded in e-waste. These include chemical compounds like persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which help electronic devices function while negatively affecting the environment and health when they are not correctly handled (Sjödin, 2006). A good example of these sometimes-useful, sometimes


nefarious substances are the POPs studied by chemist Maja Nipen, my PhD colleague and another member of the AnthroTox project.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), phased out of use in the 1970s, were used in electrical equipment, including in cooling liquids in transformers; in dielectric fluid in large and small capacitors; as an additive in hydraulic fluids in mining equipment, vacuum pumps, laminating agents, and impregnating agents; as plasticisers in lubricants, inks, paints, adhesives, waxes, and carbonless copy paper; as casting agents and dedusting agents in cement and plaster; as well as in sealing liquids, fire retardants, immersion oils, and pesticides (Nipen et al., 2021).

In some functions, PCBs were replaced with polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), the production of which started around the 1970s before their regulation in the 2010s. PBDEs were used as flame retardants in electronics, furniture foam, and textiles, and in construction materials and vehicles (Nipen, Vogt, Bohlin-Nizzetto, Borgå, Mwakalapa, Borgen, Schlabach, et al., 2022). However, PCBs and PBDEs are currently no longer used because they are regulated under the Aarhus and Stockholm protocols.

Other compounds include ‘chemicals of emerging concern`(CECs), like the alternative brominated flame retardants that replaced PBDEs in electronics to meet fire safety guidelines.

The term CEC is applied to chemicals that are not yet subject to regulation, but which exhibit some or all the POP hazard criteria (Nipen, et al. 2022b). Yet another electronics-related hazardous substance from Nipen’s study is mercury, which, although not an organic compound, behaves in similar ways to POPs. Used in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, fossil fuel combustion, cement production, metal smelting, waste incineration, processing of e-waste, and biomass burning, mercury is known for its persistence, accumulation in organisms, and neurotoxic properties (Nipen et al., 2021).


There are increasing concerns about the health effects of chemical compounds embedded in e-waste. Several reported health problems related to exposure to e-waste include fetal loss, prematurity, low birth weight, abnormal thyroid function and thyroid development, DNA damage, and increased risk of some chronic diseases later in life for children, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease (Grant et al., 2013; Heacock et al., 2016; Noel-Brune et al., 2013; WHO, 2021).

Informal e-waste recycling locations, like the Mahakama Ya Friji, are at the downstream end of the technocapitalist system and are where the abovementioned toxic compounds are dumped. Workers and the environment are exposed to these toxic chemicals, and the sites are entangled with the ‘slow violence’ that gradually forms networks of toxic contamination (Davies, 2019; Nixon, 2011). Because of their volatility and semi volatility, some of these compounds can undergo long-range transport; they are therefore not only dispersed within Dar es Salaam but can also find their way back to the Global North to settle in polar-region ecologies (Breivik, Armitage, Wania, Sweetman, & Jones, 2016). These gradual toxic chemical networks that occur out of sight are delayed and dispersed across time and space (Nixon, 2011, p. 02).

This thesis follows e-waste and the sociotechnical assemblages that it creates in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The aim of my ethnography is to move away from a reductionist and alarmist depiction of e-waste recycling as an environmental problem and attend to the lived realities and socioeconomic practices that constitute electronic waste recycling in a capital city at the periphery of the capitalist world system.

Framing electronic waste

This thesis explores informal e-waste recycling using Anna Tsing’s salvage accumulation and Karl Marx’s metabolic rift concepts (Saito 2017; Tsing 2015a) as theoretical


starting points. Although very different from Tsing’s mushroom commodity chains and Marx’s metabolic rift, this thesis is inspired by their concerns in particular ways. In his London notebooks, Karl Marx ponders the productive potential of waste. Marx describes the significance of manure from London sewers that farmers could use to improve soil fertility and crop production (Clark, Foster, & Longo, 2019; Saito, 2014, 2016; Wendling, 2009).

Population growth in cities like London was caused by the enclosure of the commons land in the countryside, forcing peasants to migrate to cities to sell their labour. As a result, the demand for food crops in urban areas rose. With intensive capitalist production of crops for export from the farmland to feed the growing urban population, nutrients were also transported from the farms, leading to soil exhaustion in the countryside (Saito, 2016). For the soil to continue to produce, nutrients had to be returned to the farms. At the time, the fear of a short supply of food due to soil exhaustion was alarming to the extent that common soil fertilisers, bone and guano, were imported to England from overseas (Clark et al. 2019; Saito 2017).

Nevertheless, the city’s excretions were directed out of London’s sight and away. Marx argues that this excretion could be used to return nutrients to the soil and would boost the food supply for Londoners (Saito 2017). The failure to return nutrients to the soil was a ‘robbery of the earth’ (Foster, 2000).

Marx’s observations and descriptions allow me to apply his thinking to the contemporary production, consumption, and discard of electronics. Because of the continued

‘robbery from the earth’, virgin metals ores needed to produce electronics are being depleted.

Nevertheless, there are substantial amounts of the metals needed for producing electronics in e-waste. Thinking with Marx’s metabolic rift, recycling e-waste has the potential to close the rift between electronics production, the e-waste problem, and the reuse of resources already being depleted. By cutting off the contemporary linear chain of production, consumption, and


discard, recycling of e-waste creates a value cycle by integrating value from discards back into production, just like Marx’s proposal for sending manure back to farms.

Some statistics are necessary to understand e-waste’s metabolic rift. In 2019, the world produced 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste, a 21% increase in five years. Asia leads by producing 24 million Mt, followed by the Americas 13.1 million Mt, Europe 12 million Mt, Africa 2 million Mt, and Oceania 0.7 million Mt. However, only 17.4% of the total produced amount, around 9.3 million Mt, were correctly collected and recycled. Europe lead by

‘properly‘ recycling 42% of e-waste,1 followed by Asia at 11.7%, the Americas at 9.4%, Oceania at 8.8%, and Africa at 0.9% (Forti, Balde, Kuehr, & Bel, 2020). Seven to 20% of the amount produced in 2019 is estimated to have been exported for second-hand use, and 82.6%, equal to 44.3 million Mt, was not documented (See figure 1). The value of total e-waste produced in 2019 alone winds up at around 65 billion USD, higher than many countries’ GDP (Murthy & Ramakrishna, 2022).

1 ‘Properly’ still has many shortcomings—contrary to the self-image in the North.

Figure 3 Statistics on the amount of e-waste processed formally and informally across the globe (Source: Forti et al., 2020


The low rates of e-waste recycling globally, as in the above statistics, allow informal valorisation to step up to fill the rift. However, informality in e-waste recycling operates under the same capitalist system, which is known for exploitation and imposing violence on those living on the margins in order to maximise profits. For that matter, informal recycling is the continuation of primitive accumulation, or accumulation of wealth through the separation of peasants and smallholders from their land and dispossession of the means of production and survival from the masses (Harvey, 2003; Luxemburg, 2003; Whitener, 2022). In this thesis, primitive accumulation emerges in two ways: On the one hand, it is a re-enactment of the original primitive accumulation, the enclosure system that pushed farmers into cities to provide cheap labour. On the other, it is the continuation of colonial relations whereby Africa, even in the 21st century, remains a site of primitive accumulation, both in the appropriation of raw materials and more recently through recycling of materials needed by the metropoles.

My walimu (teachers) and many others working in the informal sector have been pushed from farms and rural areas to cities to provide the labour needed by capitalism. This happened first during colonialism, through taxation and the introduction of currency, and later under austerity measures like structural adjustment programs (SAPs), market forces, and the concentration of essential infrastructures in urban centres (Li, 2010; Nguyen, 2018). As Luxemburg (2003) observed, primitive accumulation never ended. Instead, it extended to the peripheries. Measures like the SAP maintained ‘social cohesion, exacerbated inequality, increased unemployment, and economic stagflation, leading to social desperation’

(Rakopoulos, 2018, pp. 02–03). These measures aid capital in feeding its ‘animal spirit’, as Tadeusz Kowalik proclaims in his introduction to the German socialist theoretician Rosa Luxemburg’s work (Luxemburg, 2003). Kowalik states that capitalists:

expands activities into backward regions not only because they generally have a thirst for profits anywhere, and not only because of rivalry among them. They are


compelled to do so because they as a class, as global capital of a given country, have declining opportunities … in their own country. Hence the process of exchange between the capitalist and non-capitalist environment acts as a feeding ground of accumulation, and is a sine qua non of the existence of the capitalist economy.

(Kowalik, 2003, p. XII)

Luxemburg argues that underconsumption and economic stagnation in capitalist nations leads to the extension of primitive accumulation to other regions that are not (or not well-) integrated into the capitalist system, and that primitive accumulation is an ongoing endeavour of capitalism (Luxemburg, 2003). The increased cost of production, taxes, labour, and environmental regulations in developed countries forces capital to the peripheries.

In Tanzania, the ongoing mass migration from rural areas to big cities in search of jobs or to start small businesses tells what is going on in the peasant economy. Unlike peasants during the enclosure of the commons in industrial revolution England, as peasants in Tanzania move to the cities, some still have access to their land back in rural areas. Why are they moving to the cities? The peasantry economy has collapsed because of exploitative crop pricing, removed subsidies, and the concentration of vital social and economic infrastructure in urban centres (Nguyen, 2018). Since the economic crisis of the 1970s and the liberalisation of the Tanzanian economy, the peasant economy has deteriorated significantly. Sam Moyo adds: ‘the underdevelopment of Africa’s agrarian production systems continues to reflect their subordination to monopoly finance capital’ (Moyo, 2011, p. 63).

Finance capital in Tanzania has not fully penetrated the marginalised peasantry sector.

Even though capital has managed to infiltrate other sectors, like mining and tourism, land has remained the last frontier for capital in Tanzania. However, the exodus from rural areas cannot be disentangled from capital. Forces of global capitalism, like markets for electronics, clothes,


and food, operate solely in urban centres. The market has created possibilities for earning a living in urban centres that is considerably higher than that possible in farming.

The disposable peasant labour, driven into cities, is exploited for the purpose of primitive accumulation (Doherty, 2021), and specifically deployed for the extraction of raw materials for the global market. Although those who migrate to cities might not be fully integrated with the capital system, such as by not being able to find wage labour, they come with noncapitalist relations like gender, ethnicity, lineage, and race that are needed by capital for wealth accumulation. Anna Tsing conceptualised this kind of wealth extraction, both outside and inside capital relations, as ‘salvage accumulation’ (Tsing, 2015a).

Salvage accumulation is a condition by which capitalism concentrates wealth from conditions and processes outside the capitalist system. It is ‘taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control’ (Tsing, 2015b, p. 63). In contrast to primitive accumulation, salvage accumulation refers to a distinctly late-capitalist, 21st-century phenomenon whereby wealth accumulation occurs by turning non capitalist relations into possibilities for wealth creation.

During these interactions, salvage accumulation occurs uniquely and innovatively (Tsing, 2015a). Accumulation through salvage practices instantiates new forms of exploitation and creates different material relations.

Most informal recycling in the African context is organised through kinship and family relations, adapting traditional techniques and adopting rudimentary tools. It is at this point that salvage accumulation happens. As Tsing (2015b) argues, ‘the concentration of wealth is possible because value produced in unplanned patches is appropriated for capital accumulation’(05). Tsing’s analysis is relevant to my work because e-waste can be approached as the quintessential material ruins of the techno capitalist mode of production. Informal labour that extracts value from e-waste, rather than being organised as in factories, relies on traditional


methods, technologies, and modes of organisation such as kinship, gender, and ethnic relations, a kind of peripheral and salvage capitalism (Tsing, 2015b).

The tendency to create ruins and perpetuate ruination is ingrained in the capitalist system (Stoler, 2008). Capitalism was built and depends upon wasting and ruination. Tales of the progress of empire encompass continual degeneration, violence, and exploitation, all of which are deeply embedded in capitalism accumulation tendencies in the peripheries (Moore, 2016; Tsing, 2015a).

Capitalism has first to produce disposable labour, such that people have no other means of survival than to be used by capital. However, the most violent feature of capitalism has been the creation of wastelands, where the life of humans, ecology, and more-than-humans have to be wasted to produce (Doherty, 2021). Those who live and work in wastelands are at the downstream end of capitalism. They are trapped between their livelihood needs and the brutality of late capitalism, becoming recipients of a diminishing value chain, waste, and toxins, that is, the ruins and rubble of capitalism (Gordillo, 2014; Steingraber, 2010; Stoler, 2008). However, the same system that destroys, produces, and then remakes its rubble again to continue to reproduce itself (Gordillo, 2014). E-waste recycling is remaking the rubble or the ruins of capitalism. Informal e-waste recycling is another form of salvage accumulation that reveals how capitalism never ceases to concentrate wealth from any condition.

The notion of ‘pericapitalist’ spaces, used by Tsing (Tsing, 2015a) to describe places where salvage accumulation occurs, aptly describes the nature of places like Mahakama Ya Friji workshop. The workshop is a space outside and at the same time inside the capitalist system, where ethnic and kinship relations, traditional knowledge, and people’s ingenuity produce wealth for capital (Tsing, 2015b). The workers have been systematically expelled from their farms, leaving behind women, children, and the elderly while using their ethnic affiliation to navigate cities and produce a livelihood for themselves and those left in rural areas. These


are disposable people, as in the Marxist enclosure, working on disposable commodities (Doherty, 2021).

Informal e-waste recycling workshops are significant places of salvage accumulation.

The capital is camouflaged in social and cultural relations for further accumulation. However, Tsing warns against any romanticisation of this modality of capitalism: ‘salvage accumulation is archaic… savage and salvage are often twins’. In the contemporary world, salvage mostly turns savage, ‘translating violence and pollution into profit’ (Tsing, 2015b, p. 64). The original sin of primitive accumulation still haunts capitalism (Harvey, 2003).

Similarly foregrounding the unequal distribution of toxic violence in late capitalism, in Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber (2010) explores the brutal effects of anthropogenic chemicals on vulnerable communities from industrial activities at the upper Illinois river. The term ‘downstream’, which designates both geographical fact and class position, aptly illustrates this ‘savage’ side of capital accumulation. I adopt the concept of the downstream for this thesis to denote those who live and work in marginalised areas, often caught between the need to provide for their families and the brutality of capitalism, as well as to mark the fact that these people are the end recipients of global ‘flows’ of potentially toxic electronic waste, at the bottom and end of a decreasing value chain, as well as of streams of waste and toxins.

Living downstream requires navigating between exposure to toxic chemicals and making a livelihood. In such situations, people adopt what Michael Edelstein (2003) calls

‘lifescaping’ initiatives. ‘Lifescaping’ is not yet a widely recognised English word. Collins Dictionary has placed it as a new word suggestion, defining it as ‘a narrative that details the intersection of events in an individual’s agency, emotions, health, socioeconomic circumstance, cultural norms, and behaviours over their lifespan’ (Collins Dictionary).

I use the term ‘lifescaping’ in this thesis to explore what workers at the workshop do to live with stigma, violence, and exposure to toxic chemicals. Instead of showing the Gomorrah,


I focus on my walimu’s ways of knowing, norms, and rationalities around their encounters with stigma, violence, and toxic chemicals. In order to understand these e-waste assemblages, I stay with the e-waste trouble at Mahakama Ya Friji workshop, as I was advised to do by Penelope Harvey.


Marx’s, Tsing’s, and Edelstein’s concepts offer ways to analyse and understand the e- waste crisis, consumption, labour, salvage accumulation, and the savage side of capital accumulation—all common features of capitalism. However, to explore the coming together of these things as relational entanglements, the novelist and philosopher Ursula Le Guin offers an essential tool that this thesis uses to think with informal e-waste recycling in Tanzania.

In the Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Le Guin proposes investigating the gatherer’s bag or container. We can understand the collector and the collectives through the bag (Le Guin, Haraway, & Lee, 2019). Through the bag, we can comprehend the diversity of the collectives and the collector. Le Guin’s carrier bag theory of fiction allows us to look into the collector’s container to understand what types of materials were collected and what they would say about themselves: the value resurrected, flows (where they come from), and embedded toxicity. We can also understand something about the collector’s labour relations, tools, knowledge, and the connection to the capital. Pierre du Plessis proposes the carrier bag theory of landscapes to explore ‘the heterogeneity of gatherings with which lifeworlds are entangled’ (du Plessis, 2018, p. 161). du Plessis divides gatherings into two perspectives: first, the practice of collecting or gathering things, and second, the act of coming together. Through the carrier bag theory of landscapes, du Plessis proposes that we can observe landscape movements and more-than- human interactions and disturbances (du Plessis, 2018).


The carrier bag theory and the image of gathering are particularly appropriate to the workers at Mahakama Ya Friji and to the economic and social practices that I will explore in this thesis. Building on this approach, I extend this thinking towards e-waste ecologies. I suggest that practices of electronic waste salvaging might be more fairly understood and better articulated as a technospheric form of gathering. This is the case both in terms of how workers at Mahakama Ya Friji locate, collect, and transform e-waste, and in terms of how these practices enact new collectivities (which, however, are intriguingly rooted in older collectives) that gather social-material assemblages that extend globally through the circulation of technology, waste, and toxicity. Finally, this also applies to new local forms of techno- and material-semiotic entanglements. Building on Le Guin’s carrier bag theory of fiction and du Plessis carrier bag theory of landscapes, Mahakama Ya Friji is the ‘bag’ of the e-waste technosphere that I am peering into to understand and explore e-waste assemblages in informal recycling settings in Dar es Salaam.

Field site: The workshop

In October 2018, seven months after the trip with my team, I was introduced to the workshop known as the refrigerator court, Mahakama Ya Friji, by Salim, one of the television repairers I had chatted to at his kiosk. I had arrived in Dar es Salaam for fieldwork at the end of June. At the workshop, I met my walimu: Salum, Rama, George, Mwanawane, Mjomba, Mkali, Babu Ali, Mkali, White, Mnyiramba, Calvin, Charles, Dullah, Samwel, and Jongo, just to mention a few.


I remember my first day at the workshop. From a distance, a building fully covered with corrugated iron sheeting was visible with piles of scrap materials scattered around it, and from within which emanated banging sounds, loud voices, and smoke. Standing a few metres from the entrance to wait for my host George, a charcoal stove artisan and one of the workshop leaders, I could see men seated on old car seats with pieces of rails positioned between their feet, hammers in hands. As they hammered away, I could attribute the sounds I had heard metres away while approaching the workshop.

Figure 4 Collectors arriving at Mahakama Ya Friji


The sheer effort by one artisan in his 50s, nicknamed ‘Uncle Mjomba’ (Mjomba Mjomba), bearing a blue t-shirt with the inscription ‘Happy to Do It’, became a fixation of mine. The satirical expression inscribed on his shirt signals global consumption patterns and their connections to his labour. As he effortfully banged the aluminium sheet to recast its shape, sweat streamed off his forehead. As he picked up his near-perfect rhythmic hammer movements, a sense of endurance and years of labouring could be deduced. I witnessed the precision from the cuts, edges, and shapes he produced. His mastery and competence in his

work are almost

unquestionable, as he can deliver a charcoal stove within an hour of my conversation with George.

Most of the informal recycling activities in Dar es Salaam are conducted on corners and in backyards around the city. Unlike the famous electronic waste districts of Agbogbloshie in Ghana or Guiyu in China, in Dar es Salaam, these places are hard to spot.

Mahakama Ya Friji is not easy to find. The workshop is located in the middle of Mwananyamala, a bustling low-income residential area in Kinondoni in the middle of the city famously known as ‘Uswahilini’ (a place where Swahili people live) (Mercer 2020). Five km west, towards the Indian Ocean coast, lies the city centre, occupied by offices of the government, embassies, financial institutions, and nongovernmental organisations.

Next to the city centre is Kariakoo market, a part of town named after the British colonisers’ First World War ‘carrier corps’, whose veterans had been settled here. Near the

Figure 5 Remade photo of the event on my first day at the workshop


city’s harbour, Kariakoo is now Tanzania’s leading business district. The Msimbazi River Valley separates the city centre and Kinondoni. On one side of the valley is Kinondoni’s low- income housing; on the other side stands gigantic skyscrapers penetrating the city centre sky.

To the northeast of Kinondoni is the Mikocheni district, Mbezi Beach, and the Msasani Peninsula, which host Msasani, Masaki, and Oyster Bay, the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Tanzania. Kinondoni is in a strategic location for this kind of workshop, near the scrap market and sources of defunct goods (Kyessi & Omar, 2018).

A few buildings hide the workshop from passers-by on busy Kawawa road, just 300 metres away. A strip 15-metres wide and almost 30-metres long is occupied by a tall building made from iron sheets and open on both sides. A small road stretches along the building’s front for at least 250 metres, then hits t-shaped junctions in both directions. The road has minimal traffic even though the workshop is in the middle of a bustling neighbourhood.

Scrap collectors occupy the street in the mornings and evenings without much disturbance from traffic. There are around 20 scrap collectors—almost all young, in their late teenage years to their 20s—as well as 25 to 30 charcoal-stove crafters and three scrap dealers.

Most of the workers are first- and second-generation migrants from rural areas, with the majority from Tabora, an inland region that is one of the poorest in Tanzania. A second-hand car-parts shop on the other side of the road is owned by a mechanic who spends most of his time fixing cars. He rarely comes to join others for a drink or a chat.

Next to the car mechanic’s shop stands a wall with a red gate at the front. Behind the wall, there is nothing but barren ground where houses used to stand. The workers told me that a wealthy person bought three houses in the compound and then erected the wall around the area two years ago, but that construction has not started yet. However, the collectors are happy, as the area in front of the gate is used for burning electrical wires to extract copper. Next to the wall, there is another tall wall topped with barbed wire. I saw a lady of Arabic descent driving


a car out of the gate a few times. No one knew who the owners were, but the wall and the house pointed to the fact that wealthy people lived there.

There is an open space at the back of the workshop. Several charcoal cookstoves and BBQ stoves are left to dry in the sun. The stoves are painted black, and the interiors are made of clay. The stoves need at least a day in the sun to dry the clay. There are also several shaded extensions to the main workshop on that side of the workshop. Around ten workers use them as their stations. A small bar with a kitchen is located on the south side of the workshop, with two kiosks on both sides. The district Blind People’s Association occupies the building to the left, followed by two food vendors’ makeshift stalls and an evening school attached to the district’s Occupational Safety and Health Authority office.

The fact that the workshop is made of iron sheets reflects its precarious temporality. At any point, my walimu are ready to move to another location if the current arrangement with the property owner breaks down. The workshop has moved many times before. The land on which the workshop is now built belongs to the ruling political party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). In front of the workshop, ‘jiwe la msingi’ (a local party wing foundation stone) is erected, painted green with yellow writing and with a flag post that holds a green flag on top.

Several CCM election posters can be seen attached to the corrugated iron sheet walls. The workers’ identification as members of the ruling party is central to the survival of the workshop.

Supporting opposition parties is not acceptable, regardless of whether some workers support opposition politics. The reasons are, first, that the land where the workshop stands belongs to the ruling party. Support for opposition parties by members of the workshop would mean their eviction. Second, because the workshop is not fully registered, being located on the ruling party’s land with their support protects them from the periodical hunting down of informal businesses by the government. I will discuss the history of the government and informal sector relations at the end of this section.


Ten years ago, before moving to the CCM land, the workshop had already moved between several places. Because of the lack of security, it is normal for informal businesses to move around the city.

When George and Mjomba Mjomba decided to start the workshop, they were working in someone’s workshop, a typical arrangement for those who have relocated to big cities. George moved to Dar es Salaam from Tabora twenty years ago. At first, he joined his uncle’s workshop around Keko Magurumbasi, a neighbourhood located between Kariakoo and the Keko industrial area.

However, the income was not sufficient for his needs. He convinced Mjomba Mjomba, who was working at the same workshop, to start their own business. They opened their workshop in an open space between two houses. One of the houses belonged to George’s maternal uncle at Togo street in Kinondoni. They made a shade structure from UNICEF canvases, which were cheap and widely available after the Tanzania government’s 2009 closure of Burundi refugee camps. The workshop did not last long in this location after neighbours complained to the local government that it produced a lot of noise.

The workshop then moved to an abandoned hotel at Kisutu street in Kariakoo. The hotel belonged to someone they knew from Tabora. They turned the cafeteria lounge into a working space. They were allowed to run their business for free at this building, paying only for security and cleaning services. However, the rapid expansion of Kariakoo forced them out. Eventually, the hotel was turned into a sausage factory. They had to move again, this time just a few streets

Figure 6 The Chama Cha Mapindunzi (CCM) local branch stone at Mahakama ya friji


away to an abandoned bus garage where the company had gone out of business. The garage had become unoccupied after the main bus terminal moved to Ubungo, 10 km outside of the city centre. Once again, they were forced out of the garage due to the workshop noise. They then moved even further away to Msufini Kisiwani, 8 km south of the Dar es Salaam port.

Kisiwani neighbourhood is in the south of the city, which is unlike the northeastern part that borders white sand beaches, five-star hotels, and affluent neighbourhoods with homes for middle- and upper-class Tanzanians, who share gardens and walls with expatriates from embassies, international nongovernmental organisations (INGOs), and monetary institutions.

Income differentiation and class become apparent while moving from these areas towards the southwest. Kisiwani is far away from the middle class, and materials are scarce and expensive.

For this reason, the workshop could not survive in the south of the city. Proximity to wealthy classes who regularly dispose of technology is vital to the location of the workshop, as it means a higher supply and lower cost of materials (i.e., defunct devices).

At last, they rented a place in Mwananyamala, just a few metres from where the workshop stands now. However, they lasted only five months in this location, as the property owner raised the rent erratically. They decided to move to an underdeveloped open space owned by the ruling party. They have entered into a contract with an agreement that, at any point when the party wants to develop the location, they can be asked to move. The iron sheet building reflects this readiness to move at any point. So far, ten years have passed since they moved here.

This historical description of the workshop’s movements shows that waste recycling sites like Mahakama Ya Friji do not just pop up. There are political and economic factors that determine their presence and their transience. Workers need to get along with property owners, create security networks, and be close to sources of materials to make their market practices


work. Otherwise, costs related to production, transportation, time, and capital become unbearable.

Gathering fieldwork

I have followed collectors as they gather, track, know, and extract value from scrap materials.

In apprenticing with crafters and during buying and selling of scrap and metals from scrap dealers, I observed how historical, material, social-cultural, and economic relations gather. I was also a gatherer. I was gathering information and stories and making sense of them.

However, my gathering was not from unknown patches and unregulated spheres. I was gathering at my home, in my city and my country. And the study was well regulated by the responsible institutions, my morality, my walimu, and society.

Getting into home

My fieldwork began in March 2018 with a reconnaissance visit to identify and familiarise myself with how Tanzania’s institutional, socioeconomic, and political landscape would shape my research. This pre-fieldwork visit with the AnthroTox team was meant to identify the field and familiarise ourselves with the field site(s). During the trip, the team visited landfills, electronic markets, and both governmental and nongovernmental institutions in Zanzibar and the mainland Tanzania. The pre-fieldwork visit offered us insights into issues such as the electronics business, city waste management plans, and repair workshops. There were two main problems that I encountered. First, I couldn’t identify any sites of e-waste recycling, and second, activities related to e-waste were scattered. The situation left me confused when I returned to Oslo to prepare for longer-term fieldwork.

During that initial visit in Dar es Salaam, my colleague Christian Medaas and I visited mobile repairers at Uhuru Street in Kariakoo. We established contacts with a few repairers, and they were ready to welcome us when we came back in June. However, one of the repairers


mentioned another Norwegian student who had also conducted a study with them. The problem was that the student never returned or wrote to them, even though they shared their contact information. This presented us with a reminder of the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships with interlocutors, and of the need to press for decolonising fieldwork. The repairer indicated that he and other repairers have ‘research fatigue’: they are tired of researchers coming to their workplace, studying them, and leaving.

My initial plan was to conduct fieldwork in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. When I returned for the main fieldwork, however, I decided to focus my ethnographic exploration only in Dar es Salaam. I wanted to commit to the people at one site. Conducting ethnographic research in big cities like Dar es Salaam is complicated; it is difficult and time consuming to establish meaningful relationships. Therefore, having two field sites would have not allowed me to conduct deep explorations in either of them.

Uhuru street was my entrance to the field. I arrived in June and started hanging out around Uhuru street while waiting for ethical clearance from the Tanzanian authorities. I was developing rapport as an apprentice. At the same time, I was visiting other repair shops around the city and occasionally chatting with collectors on the streets. In this period, the repairers at Uhuru introduced me to more repairers outside Kariakoo. Although I later decided to focus on recycling, the repairers at Uhuru street were the gatekeepers to the field.

After spending four months in the field, I was still wondering where my primary field site should be: at a location for repair, municipal waste management, or waste collection? I mentioned earlier that we went to the field with the idea that we would find massive e-waste activities. But after four months, I still hadn’t found substantial activities. I spent those months wandering around the city and spending time with mobile repairers at Uhuru street, TV repairers in Magomeni, and occasionally waste collectors and other groups. Where should I settle? Where should I put my focus?


I was introduced to Mahakama Ya Friji workshop in October 2018. However, I didn’t settle on the workshop until January 2020, after a fieldwork retreat workshop with the AnthroTox team at Amani Research Institute in Tanga. There, I had a conversation with senior researchers about my confusion and frustration with the fieldwork. At this meeting, I got the best advice on how to proceed. Staying with the trouble was a highly emphasised field technique, so I should stay at the Mahakama Ya Friji workshop and everything would connect from there. I would stick with informal recyclers.

When I returned to Dar es Salaam, I decided to stay with the trouble at Mahakama Ya Friji. However, as a Tanzanian ethnographer conducting a study at home, I had difficulty making people trust that I had no hidden agenda. I had been confident that it would be easier to conduct my study because I am from Tanzania and speak Swahili, as do most Tanzanians.

Even though knowing the language helped me as I got into the field to understand the underlying meaning of what people said, the language and being Tanzanian did not initially help me build trust. It is unusual for Tanzanians to have one of their own poking around and mingling with their daily businesses. ‘You do white things; I have never seen a Tanzanian researcher do what you do. You go to collect scrap. You walk all day in the sun, brother?’

Salim, a TV repairer, wondered. I was even asked if I was a spy for the mabeberu (imperialists).

Having lived and studied in Scandinavia, I felt a sense of disconnect from the real issues happening on the ground, especially the political atmosphere of the time. Observing from afar is not the same as encountering something in the field. When I started working at the workshop, everybody was sceptical about what I was doing there. They wondered: a Tanzanian but studying and living in Norway, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, who is then hanging out and working with collectors… What exactly is he looking for?

One incident illustrates this. During my fieldwork, after long days of collecting or crafting at the workshop, and after sharing breakfast and lunch with others, I would withdraw


to Uhuru Peak bar for dinner. First, the bar is near Mahakama Ya Friji. I could reach the place on foot after work. And second, the food is fantastic. In Dar es Salaam, the machinga (street peddlers) walk from bar to bar selling their merchandise. I befriended one of the machinga who sold me pants and shoes that I used in the field. One morning at the workshop, as I prepared to go collecting with Salum, the machinga happened to be passing by. He stopped, looking at me with a confused face. He asked why I was there and what I was doing. I replied that I was going to collect scrap with Salum. Out of nowhere, he started telling everybody there that he knows me, and that I am not the kind to collect scrap. ‘He is a Don,2 he can’t be collecting scraps, he is faking. I know him and his friends, sio muokota skrepa’ (he can’t be a collector). Salum politely explained that they knew what I was doing, and that yes, I was not a scrap collector but still went collecting with them.

Salum coming to my defence was the result of months of honest discussions I had had with the workers at Mahakama Ya Friji. I had explained what I was doing and translated my research proposal, research questions, and ethical paperwork. I had also presented the ethical clearance from Tanzania authorities. However, this trust emerged only after the workers discovered that I was from Tabora, where most of them also come from, and that I was from the same ethnic group. On the lucky side, the father of George, one of my main walimu, had worked with my grandfather as a correctional officer in Tabora. From this point on, I was trusted and accepted at the workshop.

Politically, my field site, Tanzania, was going through a democratic transition in leadership, redefining the political landscape under nationalistic and anti-Western rhetoric.

President Magufuli’s regime had created hostility and mistrust of any scientific knowledge that did not favour his political interests. In July 2018, Twaweza, a nongovernmental political organisation, published survey results on the president’s popularity. The president was furious


about the results, which suggested that his popularity had dropped (AfricaNews, 2018). The incident led the parliament of Tanzania to amend the Statistics Act. The amendments infringed on scientific freedom and were set up to control scientific studies that did not favour the government. Now, anyone who questions the accuracy of official statistics faces a fine of at least 10 million TZS (4,335 USD), a minimum of three years in jail, or both (Reuters, 2018).

The amendments were passed while my ethical clearance was under review. This extra scrutiny on research projects contributed to delays in my study. My research permit was tied up within this mess. It took me several weeks to acquire research clearance from the Tanzanian government. The study needed clearance from the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology and the Tanzania Institute for Medical Research.

On top of this, after amendment of the Act, government officials, NGOs, and even the public were afraid of talking to researchers. Most people were afraid to provide any sort of data that might implicate them. This situation explains why workers at Mahakama Ya Friji initially questioned the motives of my study. However, because I am also from Tanzania, it was possible to conduct informal interviews and obtain certain documents that I needed.

Thesis overview

The thesis is divided into three parts, following three themes that the thesis addresses.

As mentioned above, e-waste has two sides: as a potential resource and as a source of toxicity.

Labour relations and valorisation, which are central themes in the thesis, thus cannot be disentangled from toxic chemical compounds. For this reason, the parts are divided to respond to the nature of the study. Part A focuses on legislation and the politics of informality in Tanzania, followed by Part B, which explores labour relations, crafting, and scrap business.

Part C dwells on violence towards waste workers and exposure to toxic chemicals.



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