Brenda Chalfin: "Excremental Experimental: Human Waste as Laboratory for Capital in Urban Ghana"

Departmental Seminar Series features Brenda Chalfin, Director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida.

The seminar is followed by informal gathering, at which refreshments are served. All are welcome!


How does human waste in the global south emerge as a laboratory for development capital? What are the ethics of turning the excrement of the urban poor into new sources of value in the marketplace of urban sustainability? Why is the worth of urban bodies reduced to waste-making in lieu of productive labor? How do ideologies and practices of sustainability science obscure the appropriation of urban space and resources?

Focused on Ghana’s edge-city of Ashaiman, Chalfin examines the workings of an international NGO turned private utility invested in converting organic wastes – human faeces prime among them – into electricity through a massive biodigester. Chalfin’s talk traces the initial standing of Ashaiman’s “Excreta to Energy” program as a laboratory experiment and eventual emergence as a bona-fide business proposition funded by the leading lights of development finance. Georges Bataille’s (1988) notion of general economy, centered on the co-production of waste and value, provides the theoretical touchstone along with sociologist Jason Moore’s (2015) thesis regarding the contradictory transformations of nature in the context of late-capitalism. In this urban experiment, the paired valuation of bodily waste and devaluation of the persons who produce it reflect a broader move to redraw and purposefully exploit “the boundary between the human and the non-human” in the search for new sites and sources of urban surplus.

Research profile

Brenda Chalfin is Director of the Center for African Studies and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida. With a longstanding interest in borders zones, built environments, and maritime governance in West Africa, Chalfin is the author of Shea Butter Republic: State Power, Global Markets and the Making of an Indigenous Commodity (2004) and Neoliberal Frontiers: An Ethnography of Sovereignty in West Africa (2010). Advancing the Anthropology of the State, she has written extensively on port security and off-shore oil governance in the Gulf of Guinea. Chalfin is currently completing a new book manuscript on waste, infrastructure and the boundaries of private and public life in Ghana’s high-modernist city of Tema. Her articles appear in American Ethnologist, Current Anthropology, Environment and Planning D, Africa (IAI), and elsewhere. Selected publications

Published Dec. 11, 2018 1:32 PM - Last modified Aug. 8, 2019 3:38 PM