The End of the Trail by Caroline Knowles

IMG_1549   It’s been a long trail across four different countries and a fifth, Somalia, I couldn’t access on security grounds. Research fatigue! I needed to finish the project and get back to London to work on the book. In only three months I’d covered new parts of the trail in Kuwait and in Korea and I had returned to Ethiopia and it was here I had located the giant landfill site, Koshe, on the southern edge of the city beside a major highway. Feeling queasy I walked towards the end of the bridge that crossed the highway, leaving the taxi and its driver on the other side. The junior academic at Addis Ababa University I’d hired to translate for me was having a major wobble. He had, of course, no experience of rubbish or the people who lived in it. He votes to turn back. I have to insist we go on. We are both wearing Olbas oil to combat the smell.

In order to reach the bridge steps and descent into the rubbish, I must walk past three young men using the vantage point of the bridge for surveillance and information gathering. In an unspoken negotiation I still don’t understand, they take in my camera, and my shoulder bag containing digital recorders and money, and let me pass. This silent confrontation, between the comforts of my world and the difficulties of theirs, further develops the anxieties I must confront again as I work in the rubbish. Descending the steps, I walk to the edge of the site where I am met by the site supervisor and his aides. They want a stamped authorisation of my visit from the relevant municipal department. What looks like a vast area, open to the surrounding countryside, is as closed to me as a Korean petrochemical plant.

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Disheartened, I turn back and head into the city to secure the relevant authorisation. While the taxi driver had waited, he had refused to leave his car. Getting myself into the rubbish is a story of municipal offices cluttered with old computers, fans, desks, officials and permissions. It is about writing a letter in Amharic explaining what I want to do and why, it is about negotiating an official stamp. It is about waiting until the electricity comes back on and we can Xerox my university ID. It is about listening to officials, who are concerned about my personal safety and the security of my possessions. There are phone calls to the landfill site and arrangements are made. Everybody is charming. I’ve come from London to take a look at the rubbish. Why? I am following a piece of plastic around the world. Really! First world problems!

IMG_1531I go back to Koshe – which means dirty in Amharic – and I hand over the necessary papers to the site supervisor, in his makeshift office, at the roadside of the dump. Minutes later, I am scrambling after him, out onto the rubbish heap, navigating around the dogs which I fear, and the areas where it is soft underfoot and I sink up to my knees. My stomach is churning with fear and at the smell. We stop North of the main road, where it is firmer underfoot, in the area where the activity is concentrated. This is the area to which the municipal authorities and the site supervisor direct the trucks to dump their loads. A single white towelling slipper, with the Hilton Hotel logo on it, stands out in the grey-brown mush. This abandoned object seems to speak volumes. I learn a lot by interviewing the rubbish ‘scratchers’ as they work. Their geographies of the city are about the best rubbish – from the hotel, airport and diplomatic sections of the city. They compete to pick up things they can use or eat like old airline food and materials they can sell to recycling factories. There is a struggle over every arriving rubbish truck.

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Their stories show that this both is and isn’t the end of the trail. For one young woman it is a platform for transnational migration as she saves for her visa to become a maid in Dubai. For an older man who lives in the adjacent village the rubbish is a default option: it keeps him going between bouts of more regular employment – a way of life in these parts in the absence of other opportunities. Unlike the plastic bottles ‘Highland’ as the scratchers refer to them by one of the brand names of bottled water, flip-flops have no recycling value. They will lie in the landfill site a 100 years, decomposing. But there are plans to turn the dump into biomass electricity, so in new material forms the flip-flop marches on, along with the aspiring maid bound for the Middle East. This is, without doubt, my most dispiriting assignment on a difficult trail, although I am cheered by and impressed with the agency and resilience shown by the scratchers, who make a decent living in the dirt and scrub up well after work to look just like the other people living in the area. Each evening, as I returned to my guesthouse in the city, I was anxious about the smells and the bacteria that might follow me home. I couldn’t enter my room without first removing the outer clothes and shoes I later bundled for cleaning. I bought bottles of disinfectant and couldn’t do anything until I had showered off the dirt. When I returned to London three weeks later I am convinced I have picked up a disease. Proving the power of auto-suggestion, I get ill and end up in hospital with a virus no one can find a name for. I may not do this kind of research again.

Photographs by Michael Tan

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths based at CUCR. Her research is about circulations of people and objects and, in addition to publishing many books and papers, she is co-author (with Douglas Harper) of Hong Kong: Lives, Landscapes and Journeys published (2009) by University of Chicago Press. Caroline’s latest book ‘Flip-flop. A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads’ is published in May 2014 by Pluto Press.

For further information contact C.knowles@gold.ac.uk

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