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Salvaging electronic waste (e-waste) is a critical sector for global south cities. Salvaging complements the gap of under-resourced waste-collecting and handling institutions. It also offers employment and steady income to many struggling under high unemployment and economic inequalities. How can we understand e-waste salvaging and its malcontents in a polarized global south city? Based on 14 months of ethnographic fieldwork among informal electronic waste recyclers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I explore e-waste salvaging and its polarization through walking in Dar es Salaam cityscapes. Walking with my walimu (teachers) during their labour, I travelled along the trail of value production; things moved, and people moved to generate value. Arguably, walking connects different parts of the city, material objects, histories, and violence, enhancing the city’s knowledge and materiality. This article focuses on collecting, the first stage of the e-waste salvaging process, which further down the value circle includes reusing, dismantling, sorting, and repurposing. I argue that e-waste collection in Dar es Salaam can be very well understood through walking, the primary labour method used by electronic waste gatherers (e-gatherers). Crucially, walking exposes the ethnographer to physical obstacles, ingenuity, valorization processes and violence of post-modern consumerism that waste collectors experience during their endeavours. Walking also enhances understanding of class polarisation, inequality in the distribution of built infrastructures, and colonial histories that persevere.


  1. E-waste
  2. gathering
  3. polarization
  4. urbanization
  5. Dar es Salaam


Through the act of walking, new connections are made and remade, physically and conceptually, over time and through space. Public concerns and private fantasies, past events and future imaginings, are brought into the here and now, into a relationship that is both sequential and simultaneous. Walking is a way of at once discovering and transforming the city; it is an activity that takes place through the heart and mind as much as through the feet.
(Rendell, 2006, p. 190)
Mahakama Ya Friji (the refrigerator court) is an informal electronic waste (e-waste) recycling workshop. The workshop is in the Kinondoni area in the mid of Dar es Salaam. Like many such workshops in the city where e-waste is gathered—what I refer to in this article as e-gathering—other economic activities also assemble around them. The workshop has an assembly of charcoal cooking stove crafters who salvage materials to craft charcoal stoves. Street traders like food vendors, kiosks, liquor stores and mobile services owners have their makeshift shops in the workshop vicinity.
Less than 40 % of the total waste produced in Dar es Salaam, a city with more than four million inhabitants, finds its way to disposal centres through formal arrangements (Kaseva & Mbuligwe, 2005; Palfreman, 2015). The incapability of the city council to collect waste has led to the mushrooming of informal salvage of value remains in castoffs. Though places like Mahakama Ya Friji workshop are in many cases segregated, placed out of sight as ‘other’ places, they form networks of waste metabolism and involve or gather vibrant socio-political, economic, material and biological lives.
The name Mahakama Ya Friji reflects the activities at this place. Scrap materials, including defunct electronic devices collected by e-gatherers around the city, are brought here. Upon arriving at the workshop, they are salvaged. Repairers find parts that can still be used to repair 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 on 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’s skyscrapers and other infrastructure (Ntapanta, 2021).
However, at the same time the workshop reveals inequality, violence (physical and symbolic) and class relations in the city. Inequalities between neighbourhoods in terms of lack of built infrastructures like roads, sewage and waste collections are observed through the class of neighbourhood occupants. Through the workshop, violence towards informal waste gatherers is experienced first-hand, as I will show later in this article.
In this article, I highlight my walking trips as an apprentice with my walimu1 Salum and Rama kuokota skrap (e-gathering) in Dar es Salaam cityscapes. I explore: Where do they go to collect? How do they do it? Moreover, what are their quotidian experiences? These questions guide this article to explore sharp differences, experiences and lifeworlds in Dar es Salaam cityscapes. To walk is to become knowledgeable about landscapes, the city, and its disappointments (Ingold, 2010).
While most literature on walking focuses on bodily experiences, leisure, sensing, the experience of the environment, health, and other issues (Herrmann-Lunecke et al., 2020; Ingold, 2010; Loukaitou-Sideris, 2020; Matos Wunderlich, 2008; Poteko & Doupona, 2022; Vergunst, 2010), rarely does anthropological literature explore walking as a form of labour, and if it does, always from the marginal empirical standpoint (Rendell, 2006). Therefore, to answer the above questions, as an ethnographer, I pay attention to the moving experience through walking in different neighbourhoods, the city history, objects collected, and relations to the city and its infrastructures. Walking, as a method to understand the city and labour of my walimu, not only aided me in collecting data but also placed me at the centre of gathering ethnographic material.
Participating in e-gathering exposed me to how e-waste is acquired and valorized. It enabled me to connect different parts of the city and its history, which enhanced my knowledge about the city, its materiality, and its polarization. The heat, soil, dust, and puddles, the urban vegetation and concrete, the dappling of sunbeams under neem and flamboyant trees, the smells of food and rotten garbage, perfumes and sweat, the tranquillity and noise, words and gestures, are all equally important in the process of understanding e-gathering. To understand the interconnectedness between the city in the global south with waste and waste valorization, the ethnographer has to be exposed to the city’s history, the environment, infrastructures and assemblages through walking in the cityscapes.

E-waste polarization

Just as industrial workplaces generate global garbage flows, waste streams become workplaces, like Mahakama Ya Friji (Doherty & Brown, 2019). Put differently, they are places for the recovery and reintegration of waste materials into new circles of value. However, during the process of integrating waste back into value circles, a class of humans dealing with waste arise and are thus placed at a low level in the urban class hierarchy. The waste labour class is also symbolically or socio-culturally associated with the waste material itself.
Since the Industrial Revolution the planet has accumulated 30 trillion tons of waste objects (Zalasiewicz et al., 2017). The Industrial Revolution increased the production of material goods; the infrastructure revolution that followed the Industrial Revolution accelerated the transportation of goods, and the digital revolution has simplified consumption. These revolutions did not affect every part of the planet equally. Their afterlives affect all parts of the planet, albeit not in equal measure: In many cases, communities/places that were/are not positively affected by the revolutions pay heavy prices in waste, pollution, and adverse impacts of global warming.
Considering electronic waste alone, in 2019, the world produced 53.6 million metric tonnes (Mt) of e-waste, a 21 % increase in five years. Asia led, producing 24 million Mt, followed by the Americas at 13.1 million Mt, Europe at 12 million Mt, Africa at 2 million Mt, and Oceania at 0.7 million Mt. However, only 17.4 % of the total produced amount, around 9.3 million Mt, was correctly collected and recycled. Europe led, recycling 42% of e-waste, followed by Asia at 11.7 %, the Americas at 9.4 %, Oceania at 8.8 %, and Africa at 0.9 % (Forti et al., 2020). Seven to twenty percent of the amount produced in 2019 is estimated to have been exported for second-hand use to developing regions. And 82.6 %, equivalent to 44.3 million Mt was not documented where it ended up.
Figure 1 Statistics on the amount of e-waste processed formally and informally across the globe (Source: Forti et al., 2020)
The documentary The Garbage Smugglers, aired in 2019 by the Norwegian broadcaster NRK, shows how electronics are stolen from the return centres that collect electronics to be sent to recycling factories (NRK, 2020). Electronics considered waste in Norway are transported illegally to West Africa. The documentary to some extent explains why the fate of 82.6 % of e-waste remains undocumented. The explanation may be that some or perhaps the majority was illegally exported to the Global South.
In most countries in the Global South, low purchasing power, the desire for a modern lifestyle, lack of appropriate policies and regulations, and ineffective regulatory authorities allow defunct electronic items to be dumped, donated, or resold. The origins of e-waste arriving in the Global South are often traceable. For example, several computers found in the Agbogbloshie district in Ghana featured labels from firms like Jyske Bank (Denmark), Exxon, and US government departments (Dannoritzer, 2010). A survey performed at one dumpsite in Nigeria found that many computer cases had tags from companies and government institutions, mainly from the UK, the US, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, and Italy (Ewastemonitor, 2019).
The process of sending e-waste, either legal or illegal, to the Global South can be viewed as a cleansing or purifying ritual of the relatively few, mainly western societies with the economic muscle to continuously upgrade their devices, the rampant spread of conspicuous consumption and the deterioration of moral values such as the repairing and refurbishing of objects (Bauman, 2013; Douglas, 2003). Sending e-waste out of sight has resulted in the creation of labour and value-extraction assemblages on the one hand, and wastelands, wasted lives or disposable labour on the other.
However, this process of purification is not only determined by north-south relations. In the Global South as well, the same cleansing is observed between cities and neighbourhoods. Big cities dump their waste in small neighbouring towns, and the most opulent parts of southern cities dump their waste into underprivileged communities where others make a livelihood from it. As the Global South becomes a dumping site for developed countries’ waste, disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Global South cities find themselves as that waste’s final destination. With the lack of mechanisms and infrastructures to handle the increased volumes of waste produced in the rapidly growing cities in the south, the informal waste sector has blossomed and stepped up to fill the gap.

Walking as knowing and labouring

Informal waste labour in urban centres of the Global South is exploited for two purposes: first, capital accumulation (Doherty, 2021), specifically the extraction of raw materials for the global market; and second, as disposable bodies to handle the toxic waste generated by mass consumerism. Although those who migrate to cities and work in waste might not be fully integrated with the capitalist system, such as by not being able to find a salaried job, they come with non-capitalist relations like gender, ethnicity, lineage, race, local knowledge, and tools that are needed by capital for wealth accumulation. Anna Tsing conceptualized this kind of wealth extraction, both outside and inside capital relations, as “salvage accumulation” (Tsing, 2015a).
Salvage accumulation is a condition by which capital concentrates wealth from conditions and processes outside the capitalist system. It is “taking advantage of value produced without capitalist control” (Tsing, 2015b, p. 63). Salvage accumulation refers to a distinctly late-capitalist, twenty-first-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.
The notion of ‘peri capitalist’ spaces, used by Tsing (Tsing, 2015a) to describe places where salvage accumulation occurs, aptly describes the nature of places like the 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 while using their ethnic affiliation to navigate cities and produce a livelihood for themselves and those left in rural areas. They are disposable labour 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 romanticizing this modality of capitalism: “salvage accumulation is archaic… savage and salvage are often twins. In the global south city, salvage mostly turns savage, translating violence and pollution into profit” (Tsing, 2015b, p. 64), as I will explore in the last part of this article.
Ethnography offers perfect tools to understand these complex e-waste encounters in Global South cities. As complex as Global South cities are (Pieterse & Simone, 2013; Simone, 2020), the ethnographer must spend extensive time working with urbanites in order to grasp e-waste entanglements. Staying with the e-waste problem means following e-waste from gathering to salvaging activities. To gather e-waste in Dar es Salaam means walking with gatherers through the cityscapes as they salvage value from the ruins and engage in purifying rituals for the wealthy while becoming “dirty” themselves.
Tim Ingold notes that walking is “itself a process of thinking and knowing” (Ingold, 2010). Walking with gatherers during our trips gave me a new perspective of Dar es Salaam, the city I had lived in and occasionally claimed as my home. Each step we took, each tree shadow and street corner we passed, not only made me feel the city but also enabled me to become knowledgeable about it, about waste entanglements and lifeworlds they enhance and limit (De Certeau & Mayol, 1998). Walking is the primary labour tool for the gatherers, it is integrated into value extraction from castoffs. Walking with my walimu allowed my sensory organs to experience the city and its complexity and provided a different way of knowing the city and experiencing the labour of most city dwellers (Matos Wunderlich, 2008). My understanding of the city and e-waste economies was enhanced through walking. I understood the interlocking entanglement of the city, its people, infrastructures, and the history of Dar es Salaam.

Gathering the cityscapes

It is morning in Dar es Salaam, the red sun rays emerge from the Indian Ocean, and the heat rises. I am hurrying to the Mahakama Ya Friji workshop to meet Salum, who is having breakfast, a bowl of beans with doughnuts and a cup of tea. Salum stops eating and stares at me for a couple of seconds before asking, “Are you sure you want to come with me? It is hard work, and it is rough out there, you know—anything can happen”.
“Look at me,” I reply, showing him my working shorts, a pair of sandals, a t-shirt, a cap, and a bottle of water. He laughs, pointing towards the trolleys parked in the yard and asking me to pick any trolley I like.
I met Salum, nicknamed “the Roadmaster” by other gatherers, for the first time in November 2018, when I was introduced to the workshop. Salum moved to Dar es Salaam in 2017 to join his mother and younger siblings, who had migrated a few years earlier. One of the reasons Salum left his hometown, Kondoa, was to join his family and help his mother pay the school expenses for his siblings. Joining the workshop has some complications. Not because it is waste work, which would mean that anybody can join. The labour itself is organized around trust, so joining requires a level of trust from the members. Members of the workshop know each other very well. Some come from the same region or town, live on the same street, or have crossed paths before. Babu Ali, a scrap dealer, is Salum’s maternal uncle. That is how he got into Mahakama Ya Friji.
We start walking out of the workshop after we both finish our breakfast. Salum decides to begin in the Mwananyamala area, a mix of lower- and middle-income households, instead of his preferred affluent neighbourhoods along the Msasani peninsula. This decision is reached after thoroughly evaluating the day—where other scrap collectors plan to go, the route used in past days, and potential places observed during previous trips. “Huwa sipati sana upande huu. Hata kama nikipata wanaganga sana bei. Lakini tuanzie huku tutaenda Msasani mchana” (“I do not get a lot in this area. If I get anything usually, I must negotiate a lot for the price”). Evaluating the day here means navigating networks and assessing how best to exploit them. In turn, this means the evaluation is factored into the final service.
“We have to start here, and then we will go to the Msasani peninsula in the afternoon,” he explains. We walk for a kilometre along the narrow streets of Mwanayamala, turning left and right every couple of metres, meandering around children playing football. Puff, a football hits our trolley, followed by a scream—“quiii aahhh mamaaa” (crying sound)—from one of the children. We pass a couple of houses down the street before turning into a small empty space. Shak shak, the sound of clothes hand being washed in a plastic basin. Quaaa quaaa, another sound most likely coming from pots being cleaned with steel wool. We keep walking. At a crossing I try to jump a puddle but fall short: chatwaa, my right foot just hits the edge of the puddle and the water splashes up to my knee. While we laugh about my failure, we hear a voice from the radio: ‘Radio One, Radio One, stereo’. A middle-aged man wearing a Muslim hat, locally known as baraghashia, listens to a local radio channel. He gives us a suspicious glance.
We keep walking and decide to switch on a speaker attached to the trolley with a pre-recorded message: “tunananua skrepa na machine mbali mbali zilizokufa, friji, computer, simu nakadharika” (“We are buying scraps, broken machines such as fridges, computers, telephones and the like”). Waste pickers like Salum take to the road every morning, roaming the streets, sometimes with loudspeakers announcing that they will buy broken devices. As they pass by, people bring out their defunct devices. First comes the device’s itathamanishwa (value estimation); based on how much valuable material (metals) are in the particular device, the collector decides on an amount of money to offer, and negotiation will follow. Usually, the collector offers half the amount he is willing to pay. The price then depends on the seller’s ability to negotiate for higher pay.
Meandering through narrow streets, we often have to jump over puddles of mixed sewage and rainwater; back in the days before Mwananyamala was integrated with the city, the valley was full of rice paddies. As gentrification took over the city centre, especially in Kariakoo and Ilala, people living on the margins were pushed to the valley, leading to unplanned housing with nearly no infrastructure. The area lacks rainwater trenches or sewage systems to direct rain and sewage water away from people’s residences.
Figure 2 and 3 Walking routes on different days and areas. Left map-walking in Kijitonyama with Rama. On the right-walking in Msasani peninsular with Salum. Source Sport Track
The gentrification of Dar es Salaam can be traced back to the German colonial land and building ordinances that claimed to arrange structures for future colonial investment in the city. The ordinances outlined racial divisions through different zones for European, Indian, and African building standards. The Land Ordinance, passed in November 1895, was a critical piece of urban legislation, creating guidelines for determining which peri-urban lands were communally owned and which were ownerless. It also determined ways for Europeans to purchase peri-urban land from local Africans, subject to government approval. The ordinance shaped urbanization in the city (Brennan et al., 2007; Iliffe, 1979).
During the nearly three decades of its occupation until 1916, Germany tried to organize the urban space of Dar es Salaam to suit their colonial project, implementing class divisions and racial segregation. After the First World War, a new era under British rule began. Nothing much had changed; the British adopted most of the German laws. The three zones established by the Germans were adopted in 1924.
European inhabitants were overwhelmingly located in Zone I, which included the old German quarter, northeast of the city centre, and embryonic coastal suburbs to the north, around today’s Oyster Bay Peninsula. Zone II was for India’s crowded bazaar, which occupied the residential and business quarter, or today’s Upanga. Zone III, also known as Uswahilini (the African area), hosted the Africans, with Kariakoo and Ilala as the core settlements (Brennan et al., 2007; Iliffe, 1979). With this separation, Zone I was arranged with trees and lavish vegetation facing a sea view. Africans’ entry to Zone I was restricted unless they were employed by the Europeans. The place was well known as Uzunguni (the European area). On the other hand, Acacia Avenue from Kivukoni to the railway station was a shopping area where Indians owned most of the businesses. Their combination of residences and shops made the area known as Uhindini (the Indian area) (Abebe, 2011; Brennan et al., 2007).
After independence, the government initiated the African modernization project. The project was meant to overhaul most of the colonial economic structure and bureaucratic arrangements to fit the idea of African modernization. Independence brought hope that exploitation had come to an end. There was much optimism about prosperity. However, hopes were not achieved by the newly independent government. The African elite class that emerged after colonialism replaced the British in their offices and their residences. The zones that separated Dar es Salaam dwellers by race were now separated by classes.
We have been walking for an hour and have nothing yet. Salum decides that we should go to the demolition site he saw the previous day. Though the site is only a couple of streets away, several turns result in me losing my bearings. After twenty minutes of walking through congested streets, we finally reached the demolition site. Two old houses are being knocked down. The houses have been bought by a wealthy person who wants to build a villa. As it has become more costly to buy land in the city centre, rich people have also started moving to the valley, pushing marginalized households even further from the city. Expulsion and gentrification of disadvantaged populations is experienced in Dar es Salaam in the same manner as it unfolds in many cities under contemporary neo-liberal capitalism (Sassen, 2014).
The tin roofs are brown, and one can see small beams of light shining through many nail holes, indicating that the roof has been repaired multiple times—or that the tin roofs have been reused. The foundations of many houses have sunk into the ground because the area is swampy, also indicating that these survived several floods. I guess houses in this area were built two or three decades ago. We chat with the guys at the site while I share my cigarettes with them. While we smoke, Salum is already surveying for things worth taking. The demolition workers seem delighted by the shared smoke, allowing us to go in to see if we can find anything. We spot several water pipes that are too long to fit in our trolley. We cannot take them with us today. We ask when they will take down the roof so we can collect the old iron sheets. Other scrap materials, not limited to e-waste, are also part of the materials collected. The iron sheets will earn significant money at the scrap market. We exchange phone numbers and they promise to call us when the roof is dismantled.
It is just past midday; my stomach demands food, and I am sweating and dehydrated. The 1.5-litre water bottle we bought in the morning is almost empty, and my legs have started to shake. Salum can see my condition—he suggests we cross Bagamoyo Road, which separates Mwananyamala from the opulent Regent Estate neighbourhood, the area extended from where colonial Zone I ended. The area is famous for hosting politicians and the business community.
Before we cross, an old lady comes out of her house to say she has a broken microwave. She heard the announcement from our speaker. We go into her backyard to look at it. Salum inspects the microwave keenly. I follow his eyes, searching for any sign of valuable metals, especially copper. He offers the lady one thousand shillings (about half a dollar). She gets angry and asks us to leave. As we leave, I ask Salum why he offered that price. He replies, “Nilikwambia watu huku wanafikiria wanaweza pata pesa kwenye kila kitu, microwaves hazina kitu” (“You know people here think they can make money out of this, there is less copper in microwaves”).
E-gathering is a complex endeavour that requires mastery of skills and knowledge to identify, negotiate over, and price goods. When a device is presented to a collector, one must know very quickly what kind and weight of metals are in that device. At that exact moment, he has to negotiate a buying price with the seller while keeping in mind the day’s price at the scrap dealer. All of these meticulous calculations happen in a matter of a few minutes.
We cross over Bagamoyo Road to the Regent Estate, and the scenery changes instantly as we walk towards the Msasani peninsula. Bagamoyo Road separates the affluent neighbourhoods of the north-eastern coast of Dar es Salaam—including the Msasani peninsula, Masaki, Oyster Bay, Mikocheni, Mbezi Beach, and others—from densely populated areas like Kinondoni, Mwananyamala, Sinza, and Mwenge. Here one can see and experience the colonial and post-independence social and economic stratification and the built infrastructure. Tall buildings line both sides of Bagamoyo Road. Salum opts to start on Chato Street. At the beginning of Chato Street stands an abandoned villa that used to be the AAR Hospital, separated by a wall from the Sunrise Primary School, an English-medium private school. Yellow school buses with English alphabets painted on them are parked outside the gate. Inside, children are in the play yard, some on swings, others playing football or other games.
Further down the street is an old colonial villa known as Mfuruki House, followed by house after house of well-planned order. Most villas have one or two storeys, and each house has a wall around it, some with electric fences on top, and a gate facing the street. The roads are paved and have storm drains, with trees planted along the pavements. After the Sunrise School, we turn right onto Urnusio Street, passing the Tanganyika Law Society (TLS) building. TLS is very respectable and is the oldest lawyers’ association in Tanzania.
After TLS comes the Crown Health Centre, a private hospital; on the other side of the road lies Addis in Dar, an Ethiopian restaurant. Across the Migombani Street junction, four hundred metres down the street, stands the magnificent Shoppers Plaza where the Fairy Delight bakery is located. In the bakery, one can get a Danish pastry as delicious as those in the Lagkagehuset Bakery in Copenhagen.
I feel a little better walking in the shade, and it seems easy to walk here compared to the previous neighbourhood, where we had to meander around puddles, stones, and kids playing in the street. I hear birds perched on the trees singing beautifully, and very few people can be seen walking. I guess those we see are gardeners and other people working in the area, maybe owners of these magnificent houses taking a walk. In contrast to the previous neighbourhoods, I do not see many street hawkers pushing trolleys full of merchandise here. In this neighbourhood, newspaper stands, fruit vendors, and kiosks are strategically placed at junctions. I feel somehow intimidated by the voice of our speaker because of the difference in the environment and class that induce a sense of calmness in the area. Most people pass by in cars, beep in front of a gate, and drive in with the gate closing immediately behind them.
After two hours in the Regent Estate, we have two washing machines, a fridge, and a treadmill. We buy the washing machines from security guards in two different compounds. One explains that his boss asked him to find a way of disposing of the device. He knew that gatherers would pass by, and he could make some money, so he has been waiting. After hearing our loudspeaker, though playing at a very low volume, he rushed out to meet us. With the second washing machine, the security guard was given money to sell it to a formal recycling company, but before he made the call, he heard us passing—which means he earned double. The fridge and treadmill are given to us for free. The owner is driving out of his house and sees us pushing our trolley. “Nyie, kuja hapa. Inaokota vitu mbovu?” (“Hello, come here, are you collecting for broken things?”), he asks in Swahili with an Indian accent. He takes us to the garage and shows us the items. We call it a day and walk back to the workshop.
“The city is a conjunction of seemingly endless possibilities of remaking” (Simone, 2004, p. 09). If we wish to understand urban Africa’s constellations and life networks, we must consider the setting of an African city, which on the one hand seems chaotic, containing proximate bodies of individuals in movement, buildings, cars and businesses, transacting, consuming and wasting, deteriorated or absent of infrastructure (broken water pipes, potholes, power cuts, poor waste collection and management) and on the other, a “modern” African city where everything seems to work. However, life is open to working in incredible ways when sifted through (Simone, 2004). The anarchic environment entails “circumvention of domination and the keeping open of many different trajectories of what life could be all at once” (Simone, 2004, p. 18).
Price negotiations depend on the value of objects, and on the seller’s economic muscles and knowledge of that value. We can see Salum’s interaction with the woman with a microwave and the man with an Indian accent. Sales and negotiations are influenced by many factors, including the device itself, the neighbourhood, pre-existing relations, language (especially the use of specific jargon), who is in the household at the time of the sale, and the selling family’s income. In a middle-class neighbourhood, negotiations over price are usually brief, and people sometimes prefer to give things away for free as otherwise they would have to pay a company to collect them. In many cases, it is the opposite in low-income areas.
While Salum prefers to go to the peninsula where he can navigate and collect, Rama, another gatherer, takes the opposite direction. He does not like to go to the peninsula. First, he fears the many police and security guards who constantly harass gatherers. Second, he does not have a good network on the peninsula compared to Salum. Rama prefers to go to mixed-class emerging neighbourhoods like Sinza and Mwenge, and low-income areas like Tandale and Kijotonyama. Even though he has to negotiate more for the price than Salum, he sometimes gets things for free. During our trips, Rama was more comfortable in those neighbourhoods compared with Salum when we were collecting at the peninsula. Rama would let his speaker run throughout the day in those neighbourhoods.
On my trips with Salum to the peninsula, we had to switch our speakers on in certain areas while we could not do so in others, especially in the most affluent neighbourhoods. In these areas, people value their tranquillity. Hence, Salum depends more heavily on the network he has created with security guards, gardeners, and housekeepers than on the loudspeaker. These people would call him when they had things from their bosses. However, even though Salum and others who go to the peninsula gather more than those in other neighbourhoods, they also experience more acts of physical violence. That is why Rama prefers low-income areas where there is more verbal (symbolic) violence and it rarely becomes physical. E-gathering is about knowing the landscape, the city, its patches, and its manifestations: where to start, where to go, at what time, and to collect what. They must also know local networks and evaluate accordingly. As peripatetic value makers (Woodburn, 1982), e-gatherers must know where to go, what resources are to be found there, and what possible dangers they might encounter (Kelly, 2013). E-gatherers must know and interact with neighbourhoods, infrastructures, and the state apparatus in specific ways. They have to know how, where and in what ways they approach and gather in each neighbourhood. The knowledge is influenced by the history and class of the areas.
During colonial times, those with no formal employment, called wahuni (hooligans), were restricted from entering Zone I (the city centre and European residential areas). However, despite tight restrictions on black communities passing into European residential areas, salespeople would periodically hawk their goods from house to house even in the European zone (Brennan et al., 2007). In the same way, the newly independent Tanzania government adopted the same approach as the colonial administration in restricting the passage of people from rural areas into urban centres. The Arusha declaration, which declared Tanzania a socialist country, ideologically praised those who moved or stayed in villages as “wajenga nchi” (country builders) and shamed of those who stayed in towns as “wanyonyaji” (exploiters) and “wavivu” (lazy). Those who did not go back to the village voluntarily were arrested and forced to return. The government searched for “wazururaji” (roamers) (Scott, 2008). Anyone in towns, especially Dar es Salaam, without employment was arrested and forced to return to their village (Brennan, 2006). Such past experiences of informal workers are also occurring today. Probably in new or different forms, however, shaming and violence towards waste gatherers are still there.

E-waste polarization

Waste gathering involves walking around covered in dust and sweat while pushing a trolley full of scrap. Waste gathering is not just at the bottom of the hierarchy. It is also neglected compared to other jobs in the city, like working in a factory, street vending, or office work. Nevertheless, neglect is not a major challenge compared to the loathing and violence from state apparatuses and from those who look down upon gatherers. When e-waste is exported to developing countries, it is not only toxic compounds that are exported but also the violence embedded in e-waste.
My walimu endure acts of violence and stigma associated with their labour, in addition to the exposure to toxic substances embedded in e-waste. My walimu experience harassment and sometimes physical violence from the police, security guards and the public. They are also considered dirty, outcasts, impure, and contaminated in the eyes of society (Douglas, 2003). Names that are used to describe waste workers, strap their dignity as lesser human or superfluous segment of society. Nevertheless, their labour products are essential in local sociocultural activities and the global capitalist system. Their suffering, exposure, and labour that are part and parcel of value production are, however, left unacknowledged. While salvage labour produces the value needed to sustain capitalism and the local communities, both simultaneously turn a blind eye to the violence that accompanies value extraction from e-waste (Tsing, 2015).
On one of my gathering trips with Rama around Magomeni, one of the old neighbourhoods created for African labourers near the end of British colonialism in Tanzania, I experienced such violence first hand. Magomeni is located three kilometres from the city centre, separated from it by the Msimbazi Valley through which the Msimbazi River flows. The idea was to keep Africans away from European and Indian residences while still getting the necessary workforce into the city centre. After independence, the government—through the National Housing Corporation (NHC)—aspired to build a modern neighbourhood, and the area was replanned and affordable housing constructed (Smiley, 2013). The neighbourhood has since decayed, its infrastructures have collapsed, and the houses are in ruin. The NHC went bankrupt, followed by the structural adjustment prescriptions to privatize the houses. Homes were sold to private owners who also failed to manage and maintain the infrastructure, let alone the houses (Skarstein, 2005). Therefore, the homes were sold to private owners who failed to manage and maintain the infrastructure, let alone the houses.
However, recently the area has also attracted wealthy people to invest due to its proximity to the city centre. Modern gated homes and apartment complexes are popping up here and there, while the rest of the houses display remnants of the heyday of early postcolonial development. “Angalieni kunguru wa Zanzibar wanapita” (“Attention, the Zanzibar crows are passing”), I hear a female voice warning. We walk past the house, and still I do not understand. I ask Rama what it means. “Don’t you know the Zanzibar crows?” he asks. Of course I know the Zanzibar crows. “We are like them,” he says curtly. We pad along for some time, then he changes the topic, and we start talking about football.
The presence of “kunguru wa Zanzibar” (Zanzibar crows) in Dar es Salaam does not go unnoticed. “The skies of Dar es Salaam are alive with the beating of millions of wings”; this is the beginning of an article in Quartz magazine about house crows in Dar es Salaam (Teagle, 2018). House crows, known scientifically as Corvus splendens and in Tanzania as kunguru wa Zanzibar, were introduced into Zanzibar in 1857 by Captain Ward, a British colonial administrator (Vincent, 1937).
House crows are known for their aggressive scavenging of human organic waste. They are also famous for their intelligence—they can make tools, solve complex problems, recognize human faces, and hold grudges (Van Dooren, 2019). However, Tanzania’s house crows have an additional trait: they work in packs. In 1917, the colonial government declared house crows a pest. Since then, efforts to eradicate them have failed. Now, house crows dominate the East African coastline. These birds are considered scavengers, like the collectors who live off the waste.
The question arises of why scrap collectors bother to collect in areas like Magomeni, where they do not find that much and they experience stigma? Later, as I spent more time with my walimu, I learned about acts of violence that they regularly encounter in their endeavours. These are not limited to specific neighbourhoods, though they are experienced differently depending on the area. As Rama recounted one day as we were having an after-work drink at one of the liquor stores next to the workshop:
We have work challenges, it happens, like the other day, I went to take body [a car body]. It was okay, but he did not have the car card [official government car registration], but he is a real owner, so, we signed an agreement, I was given papers, and I was told in case you get caught anywhere, show this, and even my number is there to call. So, from there, … It was so late, like 8 p.m., before they call for a car lift to carry it in a Fuso [a car brand], I don’t know…Isuzu, because I had two bodies. When we arrived here [at Mahakama Ya Friji], I think someone I couldn’t know called police officers, and they came. [Imitating a policeman:] “Oya! How is this? Where is the card?” I asked him, “the card?” I showed them its papers. “This is how cars get stolen. You dismantle it there. Where is its card?” This is scrap, not a car. It is scrap, this car was just kept inside, and it doesn’t work. It is just a body. No, I don’t know what, they persisted, persisting was like, bring us… “We are taking it to Oyster Bay.” I don’t know what to do. I told him, now, my brother, if they take it to Oyster Bay, it is gone. Now they want money! I look at them! So, they took three hundred thousand! That was a profit, Enhee! But thank God that that one made like six hundred thousand.
Scenes like these are examples of the daily harassment that collectors face in their labour. Not only Rama but every single gatherer has also been accused of stealing at some point. One morning, Dinho (another collector) was at the workshop earlier than everybody else. Typically, Dinho is late because he stays up late in the evenings after work, drinking while waiting to help Dada Ligu close her bar, which is attached to the workshop. Dada Ligu, as we all call her, lives nearby and owns a bar with a small pork kitchen. The kitchen serves pork in two dishes; one is deep-fried, and the other is roasted pork mixed with vegetables. The two meals are served either with ugali (maize-meal stiff porridge) or plantains. On top is a salad of fresh onions and tomatoes, thinly sliced or chopped and marinated with lemon juice and a sprinkle of habanero peppers. The bar is usually full of customers who come for food, drinks and watching the English football league in the evenings.
We all have a few drinks almost every evening after work, except for Salum, who prefers Coca-Cola. After a long day of walking for gatherers or hammering in the workshop, we meet at Mangi’s kiosk adjacent to Dada Ligu’s bar. Mangi is a common male name for a person who owns a kiosk and originates from Mount Kilimanjaro’s slopes. Not every kiosk owner is from Kilimanjaro. Still, generally, people refer to them as Mangi, the renowned Chaga businesspeople, for their entrepreneurial abilities to sense, select, shape, and synchronize the pursuit of opportunities (Mashenene, 2019). We sit on several benches that Mangi has placed in front of the kiosk, sharing a bottle of Konyagi (local gin), chatting, laughing, and joking before starting to find our ways home, one after another.
We are all used to Dinho arriving late, but not today. Everybody asks why he has arrived so early. “Nimelala Oyster Bay” (I spent the night at Oyster Bay police station), Dinho mumbles. Everybody laughs before asking him what happened. I ask Salum why they are laughing about such a serious matter, as it is not funny to me. He replies:
It is his turn. You know, in our work, we all get arrested now and then. People think we are drug addicts; therefore, we steal for drugs. We even sometimes get beaten or called names, yaa such things are like accidents at work.
A security guard had arrested Dinho in Oyster Bay. He was accused of stealing the scraps he had gathered in the area. Of course, they let him go the following day because there was no evidence to keep him. However, he has lost the money he got from the scrap dealer to buy from owners. In Tanzania, there is a common saying that getting locked up in a police station is free, but you must pay your way out. He is not the first—almost every gatherer has been arrested at least once, accused of stealing. These acts happen more frequently in wealthy areas than in low-income areas, as seen in the first incident. Accusations of stealing are even scarier, considering that extrajudicial killings of thieves still happen in Tanzania (Plyler, 2007; Sherrington, 2007; Ng’walali & Kitinya, 2006). Even though such incidents have not happened to any of my walimu, they still occur on the streets of Dar es Salaam.
On another hot, humid day in May 2019, the masika (rainy season) is ending after rains have poured over the city for almost three months. Salum and I have been on the road for six hours. The sun is burning. We are tired and thirsty. Nevertheless, we are in good spirits. Our trolleys are full of scraps. We decide to take a rest under a tree before proceeding to walk back to the workshop. Three young ladies approach us, asking for a particular office in the neighbourhood. They are wearing formal outfits with brown envelopes in their hands. I can tell they are going for a job interview. Luckily, we passed by the office earlier on our way. We provide directions and lie down under a beautiful flamboyant tree (Delonix regia). An hour later, the ladies appear after we have woken up, ready to start the walk back. I cracked a joke, asking if they got the job. They laugh and ask me how I could tell. We chat for a bit; I tell them about my research. One of them comments, “tulifikiri nyie ni mateja” (“We thought you were junkies”). Now Salum is smiling while staring at my astonished face.
Mteja is a generic Swahili noun for a frequent customer, or in jargon, means a drug addict or a junkie. Kinondoni, where the workshop is situated, was an epicentre of the drugs crisis from the early 2000s to the mid-2010s. It is speculated that the drugs, mainly cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth, were imported from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Tanzania. Kinondoni, where Mahakama Ya Friji is located, was where the addiction epidemic could be witnessed. When the opioid crisis hit Dar es Salaam, there were more waste pickers on the street than one could imagine, many of them allegedly drug addicts. They would pick anything they could make money from, and sometimes steal. The drug crisis increased the crime rate and waste collection was taken over by addicts (Deutsche Welle, 2017).
Thieves, crows, and junkies are some of the names that my walimu must put up with because of their work. The stigma is not only a Tanzanian thing; it is a global phenomenon that scholars have described as a form of waste citizenship, designating some citizens as without value. In India, it surrounds lower castes like the Dalits (Dirks, 1992; Doron & Jeffrey, 2018; Gidwani & Reddy, 2011; Harriss-White, 2020; Roy, 2008), and in China, it applies to the migrant workers who come to big cities from rural areas (Gransow & Daming, 2010). It is the same in Vietnam with waste pickers who migrate from rural areas to Hanoi (Nguyen, 2018). In Japan, it is applied to the Barakumi (Howell, 2016; Neary, 2003; Samel, 2009), and in Brazil, to the catedores (Millar, 2018).
Most societies have groups of people who make their livelihood from waste. The treatment that these groups receive is no different from that received by my walimu. They face the same stigma of being dirty and impure. They are discriminated against and feared for contaminating others, and governments do not include them in policies and planning. Probably the only difference between my walimu and untouchables in other places is that they do not belong to a specific ethnic, caste, or racial group in Tanzania.


Waste gatherers continue to suffer from harassment by the police and other state apparatuses. At the same time, society continues to stigmatize them. However, violence and stigma are experienced differently in the city. In the wealthier neighbourhoods of the Msasani Peninsula, as I explained above, my interlocutors experience arrest and detention by police and security officers. These experiences are different in Magomeni and Kinondoni, where verbal and sometimes physical violence is directed toward waste collectors. Regardless, the reason for these kinds of violence is always the same: waste gatherers are drug addicts, so they either have stolen or are going to steal something.
The narrative is straightforward here: waste collectors, crows and addicts are considered urban tricksters, unwanted, deceitful and dirty, but they are powerful in organizing their endeavours, their imagination in gathering and knowledge of the city and its complexities. Even though waste gatherers contribute to the city waste management and the economy, they are still marginalized as tricksters. Even though everyone gives or sells their waste to them, as soon as they are accused of stealing, people turn against them. It seems that people do not stop to consider that collectors are filling a gap in the city’s infrastructures and addressing the inability of authorities to collect waste and that their work turns waste into value, producing livelihoods and clean municipal waste that otherwise would not have been collected.
Walking with my walimu exposed me to the city—to the organization of built infrastructures which has concentrated in the wealthy areas, the ways e-gatherers interact with such infrastructures, the precautions they take and strategies they employ to escape violence, earn their livelihood and at the same time connect castoffs from global consumption, extract the value, and pump it back into global supply chains.


“Teacher”—I use the Swahili term mwalimu (singular) or walimu (plural) to acknowledge that it was me who was learning from the collectors. They are neither informants nor interlocutors, they are my teachers.


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Published In

Go to Norsk antropologisk tidsskrift
Volume 33Number 3-410 February 2023
Pages: 227243


Published online: 10 February 2023
Issue date: 10 February 2023



Samwel Moses Ntapanta [email protected]
Senior Research Associate
University of Bayreuth
2018–2022  PhD Research Fellow in Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway, Thesis Title: Gathering the African Technosphere: An Ethnography of Informal Electronic Waste Recycling in Tanzania. Member of AnthroTox, a multi-disciplinary research team which aims at bringing together social anthropologists, historians and STS-scholars, environmental toxicologists and chemists, to understand how environmental, social and political-economic processes shape flows and impacts of toxicants across societies and ecosystems, and to contribute to public debate, policy processes and remedial action.

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