Accepted paper:

Committing Nuisance in Colonial Gold Coast: The Problem of Waste as "Unowned Property"


Sarah Balakrishnan (Harvard University)

Paper short abstract:

In colonial Gold Coast, waste had been "unowned property." Whereas the British state refused to take ownership over waste, so too did African citizens. Thus, waste formed an interstitial category between public and private, moving on its own, spoiling town land and obfuscating segregation lines.

Paper long abstract:

In 19th century Europe, a cornerstone of liberal modernity was the separation of the "public" and "private" domains. Whereas the public was considered the foundation of government, the private sphere was regarded as a complimentary modernizing force, developing society by way of independent businesses, private property, and domestic households. As a result, imperialists brought this division with them into the colony. European law-makers and urban planners reorganized all land and sovereignty according to a public/private divide. With exceptions. In the Gold Coast, British imperialists refused to own waste. Unlike Lagos and Freetown, whose land had been ceded to Britain at colonization, Britain owned none of the Gold Coast towns. How, then, could the government manage sewage? I examine the problem of waste in the Gold Coast through the lens of "unowned property." Being neither private nor public, waste moved seemingly on its own, spoiling town land, breaching segregation divides, and undermining property lines. Sewers, latrines, night-soil collection and fencing all formed post-facto solutions to urban topographies being radically reshaped by "waste lands." Private houses of people "gone to the bush" would be broken into and used as latrines. Building constructions would halt due to overnight deposits of waste. While Gold Coast communities claimed that the government was obligated to manage sanitation, British authorities argued that waste was the private property of individuals, and therefore, their responsibility. The result was an urban landscape held prisoner by its own trash—a problem that has institutionally continued into the postcolonial period.

panel Env04
Spatial theory and African urban studies