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Accepted Paper:

Labour in limbo: Waiting and absurdity among railway workers in Mali  
Charline Kopf (University of Oslo)

Paper short abstract:

This paper is based on fieldwork at railway stations in Mali where despite the absence of trains, the workers kept coming. To clarify the difference between the absurd, the illogical and the nonsensical, I examine the workers’ continuing routines and the state’s promises to renovate the railway.

Paper long abstract:

In 2021, it had been three years since the railway workers in Mali had seen the last train pass. They had been left in a legal void, or as a worker put it: ‘We find ourselves in an artistic blur’, a vague state of limbo characterised by unpredictability. ‘We don’t know who we are working for, who is sometimes paying our salaries, who we belong to’, another colleague added describing the railway’s privatisation and failed renationalisation. ‘It would be almost comical, if it weren’t so tragic’, they claimed. Nonetheless, most of the workers continued to arrive at their workplace every morning to tend to their routine activities and wait.

This paper looks at the work routines and situations labelled by my informants as meaningless, absurd and tragicomical. I show how the workers deemed the state’s promises of railway renovation illogical and contradictory: The Transport Ministry's attempts to maintain the railways, cutting the overgrown weeds between the tracks and making inventories of stations, did not tackle the main reasons for the railway’s demise. I argue that the production of the absurd is linked to a para-state situation where the government is perceived as absent and its actions ineffective. I demonstrate how my interlocutors nonetheless endured these paradoxical moments by waiting and engaging in practices that they also considered devoid of meaning. Analysing the workers’ responses, ranging from jokes, cynicism to protest, I draw on my empirical material to clarify the differences between absurd, illogical and nonsensical.

Panel P063a
States of the absurd I
  Session 1 Tuesday 26 July, 2022, -