Material economies - critical reflections - recycling in [popular] Africa
I traversed vertically through Africa to six cities: Cairo; Addis Ababa; Kampala; Kigali; Lusaka; and Johannesburg. My improvised itinerary allowed me to move fluently in each place; sometimes accelerated in the face of growing public protests (Cairo), or adjusted because of overly strict control on documentation and taking photographs (Khartoum).
Whilst the scale of the continent may have anchored my project, diversions on the ground and local experiences were all the more productive. I tried not to carry pre-emptive ideas, relying mostly on encounters with the cities’ residents that not only offered me an angled perspective but also an intimate understanding of their surroundings.
I travelled by following the life of a recycled material in each city, taking differing turns and directing me to different locations. These materials were all specific to their location and important to informal livelihoods. The city market and taxi park were seemingly at the centre of most operations. Mobile economies flourished, whether cellular money transfers or emerging vendors on the frontline in Tahrir Square.
The found material in Cairo, precious copper element on circuit boards in obsolete smartphones, is accumulated and resold. In Addis Ababa, a construction-site fence, originally a government directive to enclose all building sites, is re-appropriated as a popular roof material. In Kampala, a vendor’s selling tray is refashioned out of old cardboard packaging boxes. In Kigali, where plastic carrier bags are outlawed, paper envelopes are made from throwaway cement bags. In Lusaka, a hybrid wheelbarrow assembled from an old car wheel and welded-on oil drum is an inexpensive luggage service. In Johannesburg, an ironing-board frame is used as a vending stand and later attached to a makeshift cart for steering.
During this research, I found working in unfamiliar environments challenging, yet I was persistent in my employment of accessible field methods: interviews with local people, hand drawings, street photography and distribution of disposable cameras to residents. The residents’ photographs showed their daily journeys in the city, and offered a foothold for me to locate materials. I gauged a sense of strength amongst the people with whom I communicated, despite their apparent disappointments and difficulties. My attention was held by examples of extraordinary sophistication at micro and nano scales.
The physical landscape of these six cities seemed only to provide a setting for the experience of everyday life. I witnessed in these cities the habitat of dealing with difficult things: a capacity to survive based on a saturated life. Hazardous traffic, political demonstrations and fast-talking street hustlers obliged me to diversify my negotiation skills. I learnt about the resilience of urban residency in Africa, and with it, the possibility.
This research has allowed me to present publicly at universities, forums and at the RIBA. Currently I am canvassing support for exhibiting and publishing the research, together with contributions to various journals and symposiums. I am determined that this project can continue to flourish and grow in stature.
On his return to the UK, Thomas gave a lecture on his experiences at Foster + Partners’ London studio; an event attended by guests from the British Council, Architecture Foundation, Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and HOK. He has returned to ECA on numerous occasions, including to deliver a lecture for EUSAS and a seminar for the MSc in Urban Strategies programme.
A film Thomas made with collaborators in Uganda was shortlisted for the Cinecity Architectural Film Project 2014. In June 2015, he was announced as one of the RIBA's 12 new Role Models, with Director of the Master of Architecture programme at ECA, Liam Ross, as his own role model.