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Caroline Knowles, Goldsmiths

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths. She is interested in migration, globalisation, and cities. As part of a Leverhulme Fellowship, ‘From Oil to Garbage: Navigating the Flip-flop Trail’, she has been following the territory across which a pair of flip-flops travel during their lifetime. This blog post describes one research day on the project.

You can find out more about the project at

Caroline Knowles is speaking at our ‘Innovative Methods for Researching Societal Inequalities’ event in November 2017.


This is my last research day on this project, half a day in fact, just pinning down loose ends. The end of a trail that began in Kuwaiti oil fields and ended on a garbage heap in Addis Ababa via Korean petrochemical plants and Chinese factories (see the map I wake early at the guesthouse in Addis Ababa and struggle down to breakfast. The lounge is busier than usual with what appears to be, from their conversations with each other and skypes home where it is still evening, a party of American Christians doing their bit in local medical services. They add to the usual chaos of Ethiopian babies and toddlers being adopted by couples from Spain and Italy, all convinced that they have rescued their baby from a life of abjection. Maybe they have. I have no way of knowing. I am impressed by their conviction but anxious about their birth mothers. My fellow guesthouse residents are sociologically interesting and deeply troubling. I wince when I overhear their skyped conversation references to ‘Africa’ as though it is all one place and the details don’t matter. But this must be so from where they, these modern day missionaries, are standing.

I grow impatient waiting among the chaos of the lounge for my research assistant – a young professor at Addis Ababa University – to arrive. He arrives in a blare of taxi horns and we depart for the landfill site, called Koshe on the south east edge of the city. We try to get the same driver for each trip. No one likes going there, including the assistant: it’s a bit of the city we’d all rather forget about. But I am a compulsive completer and this is the end of the trail and my project, which involves piecing it together. The taxi driver pulls off the Chinese built dual carriageway where he usually waits. We have to cross the road via the bridge as the landfill is on the opposite side of the road. This is, as always, the day’s first challenge. A small group of young men use the bridge as a lookout from which to observe the vast garbage heap, which stretches away into the distance. Its visible activities consists of deliveries by municipal garbage trucks and a ragged band of 200 or so ‘Scratchers’ as they call themselves, who work the garbage for things they can use or sell including waste plastic to recycling plants whose agents hover nearby. Its invisible activities are more troubling and inaccessible: stories suggest mafias and violence.

Of course encounters with extreme forms of social inequality are disturbing. The wealth of my world comes face to face with the poverty of the lookout boys on the bridge. I image they are as aware of those differences as I am, and without revealing the logics of their calculations they decide not to trouble us, and we stumble onto the edge of the site and check in with the supervisor. This is my deal with the municipal office in charge of Addis’ garbage. I’m not allowed on the site unsupervised. ‘It’s dangerous’. Mafias control the scratchers’ access and outlaws hide there in this ungovernable part of the city, things which clearly make the authorities nervous. We scramble across the garbage, which is soft and I sink into it, finding it hard as always to walk on especially while trying to keep up with the supervisor. The main activities of the landfill are quite a way off the road. Trucks are discharging their loads and a line forms on either side of them as Scratchers position themselves to grab the most valuable items in the heap’s hierarchies of value as the trucks discharge the trash-treasure. I have to wait until the scramble dies down before I can ask to speak to some of the young women Scratchers who had begun telling me their stories. I wait. They glare at me. Some refuse to speak. Others are persuaded to. I listen and pay them for the their time. Today I have to move off to the edge of the site and speak to the people who run the NGO which attempts to regulate the Scratching workforce, share jobs between teams of (mainly) women and sell directly to recycling factories thus raising wages as they cut out the middle men collectors. I get a couple of really good interviews and some more scrappy ones filling in details I had missed earlier. The young professor is eager to go so we walk back over the bridge to the taxi, which is paid to wait for us.

Because it is our last day the young professor wants to stop at a mall and get some coffee to celebrate. The three of us leave the taxi and sit for a while nursing coffees and pastries. Ethiopian coffee is the best I’ve ever tasted. Roasted in front of you, ground and immersed in boiling water: strong and aromatic. I set to work on my hands with antibacterial wipes so that I can eat the pastries, and we usually smear oil of Olbas on our noses against the landfills’ unspeakable smells. I have well developed anxieties about disease, dust and other unimaginable health hazards. In the celebratory air and, to be honest, relief of a job done the taxi drops me back at the guesthouse. I have an hour to clean up, change and set off again to meet my friend Jane who is in Addis because she is helping the University set up an MA course in theatre. A happy coincidence, we spent our late afternoons walking the city and keeping each other company over sun downers and dinners, while discussing the rapidly changing landscape of the city. My stay in Addis had been extended by my own university’s refusal to give me permission to travel to Somalia and the Red Sea landings of the flip-flop and I was annoyed to have missed out this one bit of the trail.

Back at the guesthouse the babies and the missionaries are dispersed about their various tasks and the lounge is silent. I head up to my room and check there is no one about in the corridor. I can’t bring myself to enter my room without removing the outer garments I imagine to be full of bacteria and garbage fragments and which are anyway stiff with dirt. I leave them outside my door while I dash in and shower, only later bundling them up into bags and taking them to the reception for washing. The receptionist knows where I have been as I asked about disinfectant and suspects I am crazy.

I head off again on foot to meet Jane at the University for our big weekend luxury break at a newly opened spa. I couldn’t believe it when I read in the UK Sunday papers that luxury spas were opening in Addis. I had to check it out, and Jane wasn’t hard to convince. It was some distance out of the city and we had earlier disagreed on how to get there. I was in favour of a taxi but Jane thought that was a step too far. Instead one of her colleagues had drawn up a transport route for us involving a succession of public minivans. You needed local knowledge of where to change. In the end Jane’s colleague wasn’t convinced we could do it unaided and ended up accompanying us over part of the route. When we got to the spa we were the only guests without a driver and a well-developed sense of elegance.

The spa was as fantastic as its publicity promised. Vast and sturdy round thatched huts that mimicked village settlements were furnished with large beds, sofas, writing desks and the biggest most exquisitely tiled bathroom I have ever seen. Outside were lush gardens and sun loungers, set around ponds: ‘Africa for beginners’ as the snub among old hands goes. Massage and treatment rooms were dotted about. Most interesting of all were the other guests. What kinds of Ethiopians came here? Most live on $2 a day! But Addis is the HQ of the African Union and some seriously well paid and privileged people now live in Addis, along with those sections of the local business elite who are becoming wealthy from Ethiopia’s impressive levels of economic growth. I’d noticed a gated community of luxury detached houses being built right next to the Koshe landfill of all places, anticipating municipal plans to close it and turn it into an affluent suburb. Of course all of these things are connected – wealth and poverty – and I’m fully implicated in the inequalities I am researching.

That evening over a glass of wine on a sofa I show Jane the photos I have taken at Koshe. She knows Addis well, but not this part of it. She is as shocked and disturbed as I am at the sight of people dressed in the same murky hues as the heap trying to find a way of life among the dirt. The dust from the landfill doesn’t quite wash off. I am not sure it ever will. A reminder perhaps that the privileges some of us enjoy co-exist with the abject poverty and survival strategies of others, resilient citizens who somehow manage to live in such difficult circumstances.

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