Heroicizing and Exoticizing the Trade in Small Household Appliances

I was having a little Facebook chat with an old chum from Peace Corps (Cameroon 1984-86) early this morning, and she shared with me a Washington Post article about John Beale, who reported to Gina McCarthy (now head of EPA, and a former upstairs-dweller at EOEA when I worked at Massachusetts DEP's Recycling program in the 1990s).  I'm told that Beale's original development work was legit, but the slippery slope of junkets turned into a kind of riptide.  (If you don't have time for pontification, enjoy this amusing Vimeo parody "License to Chill")

It's about Fufu
Beale often went to Africa.  At the beginning he claimed it was for an international-EPA-outreach on "stoves" for more efficient cooking of fu-fu.   Within the EPA, the story goes, it became widely accepted that  he was actually working for the CIA, and his EPA post was "cover" for cloak and dagger work.

No.  According to his deposition, he was just playing hooky.   His cover story about "cook stoves" (which were nothing we hadn't seen in the 1980s, not much of a cover story for people who lived in Africa) was all he had come up with, and when the internal EPA gossip gave him "CIA" cover, it just made his travel appear more exotic.  We like to be exotic.

I had shared a link with Judi about a "fu-fu pounding machine" covered by an African blogger this week. It reminded me of how many hours of work teenage African girls and their mothers spend pounding nyams and gari into this delicious cookie-dough-like staple.  Fufu is dipped into all kinds of green, brown and orange colored spice gravies.   I wondered to Judi whether appliances like these might play something of the role washing machines and dishwashers are said to have played in the saga of American women's liberation.

Freedom from labor is freedom to read.  In the Mary Poppins movie, the mother is freed to promote "vote for women suffrage" by the housekeepers and hired help.  Democratic participation has always been for people with time on their hands.   Laundromats (which I've sung the praises of before) freed people - mostly women - to have more time after school to study, and to participate in other earning activity.

When Amartya Sen wrote of "100 Million Missing Women" it turned "environmental justice" on its side.  When women's hours are missing from the economy, land values stagnate, wars ensue, social development is stymied, and cultures tend to be, in a word, "more primitive".  With eventual acceptance of the washing machine, we release women to do more productive things.  Like write books, in the case of Rachel Carlson, author or Silent Spring.  (The tangential irony is that women were freed by technology, the downsides of which she aptly described.  Manufacturing of devices created waste and toxics, which tend to wind up in places where land values are lower... This isn't a rant, as I'm a fan of Carson, it's more of a yin yang thing.)

Here's film of the "fufu pounding machine" with traditional (women labor) pounding to the right.  In Africa, hand laundry is pounded in similar way, and as the video demonstrates, automated fufu pounding is a lot like a washer-dryer.  The first ones were probably made with spare WEEE parts (see bottom).

More professional videos (including consumer on the streets interviews) raise fears of change among African men, fear of the unnatural, association with disease, and other modern "modernization juju").  African Men demand  "certification" and call for the machines being "certified".   An opening for fufu Stewards?  What I can hear in the back of my mind is echos of similar "fear of tech", like the effects of train motion on womens uteruses, the hyperbole over direct current electricity, and "ghoulish" practices of computer monitor refurbishing (as described by Puckett and co.).

John Beale as Mr. Bean
There's this bizarre role in society for a subset of people to earn gainful employment by raising public doubts about new gadgets and gizmos.  In the beginning, the tech is hyped and marketed to the rich.  As the poor begin to find it affordable, some priestatollah steps in, wringing his hands, and riffing on some chorus of "won't someone please think of the children?"  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that protest doesn't create progress.  I'm just questioning the certifications of the early certifyers.  The technology may be bad, like cigarettes with filters.  It may be good, like used cell phones.  It may be in between, like DDT when it's time to kill off malaria.  Or it may depend on how it is used, like guns, printing presses, computer displays, cell phones, and spare time (and earning potential) for young women.

Very boring and obvious things, like running laundry facilities, or selling yam-pounding-appliances, or repairing TVs, actually create the value which brings people out of poverty.  The massive growth of the emerging markets has virtually nothing to do with discovery of oil or gold or diamonds, and virtually nothing to do with AID.   It's about small boring appliances, some of which act as printing presses and create massive green revolutionary thought capable of doing what cheap printing press did for revolutionary France or USA's colonies.

So much more exotic than pizza dough?
Without further ado, here's the clip from my conversation with Judi, about how John Beales and Jim Pucketts and others (myself at times included) earn a kind of "Heart of Darkness" credo, a "Cross and the Switchblade" (1962 David Wilkerson), which first brought inner city heroin use to the limelight, and at the same time exoticized it in a way that made us close one eye for decades to its use in rural Vermont, and which makes Philip Seymor Hoffman seem like just another city dweller to some of us.   Addiction is without class, without race, blind to faith and willing to figure out the money part later.

Sometimes, environmentalism accidentally finds itself in Beale's role.  Amateurs and non-engineers become experts about ordinary stuff.  We take laymens understanding of technology, and common simplifications of the "third world", and mix them.  We leverage other peoples ignorance and guilt to wrap ourselves in exotic glory.  It is the real legacy of the word "colonialism".  Colonialism is both a story of backwards and primitive places, and it's a story of wrongs and injustices to be set right.

I think the word "colonialism" is over-over-used to the point where it's main use is to deflect blame and provide excuses to the Paul Biyas. With that said, the place where I see real vestiges is in the mindset of OECD nationals who cling to the image of the colonies. I have seen scores of people doing quite bland and ordinary trade which gets heroicized and excoticized here at home. I'd file this there. If he was playing hooky at EPA in the Bahamas or South Beach, songs of cookstoves and CIA trysts would not have gotten him far. I don't know many women fans of South Park but it's about come to the point where they may be the only ones who can make sense of the way real problems (like the hours women are pulled into washing labor or yam pounding) and at the same time expose the smugness and self-serving exoticist trap of people who inform us about it. About recycling, my passion, I've said for decades that to the degree we are succesful, it will be like laundromats and gas stations and the most boring and obvious thing our great grandchildren could hear about. Home appliance sales to emerging market cities (including used and repaired CRT monitors, TVs and laptops) is really just ferry boat work in a short Hesse novel.
(Photo above is one I took through a crack in the door at my friend Yadji's village of Yenwa 1986.  Yadji was allowed to go to school, the girls mothers were not, as there was too much field work to do)

That's enough of a ramble.  I have thousands of these blogs to edit and repost, but its the ones that my friends liked to read in letters that keep the blog going for a few dozen other friends out there who get it.   I like Kyle at IFIXIT, I like Timothy at WCE, and Jim at TechSoup.  But what all of us are doing, myself and Fair Trade Recycling included, is heroicizing the trade in small appliances.  And the fu-fu pounding machine below (from wikipedia) looks an awful lot like a repurposed copy machine to me.  And those are the hottest items on the purchase orders from Ghana, b

Automated fu-fu pounding machine from Wikipedia

Sometimes blogospheres allow us to share excerpts of our personal letters with a wider audience.  My writing stems from keeping journals (starting in high school, of mostly a religious discovery nature) and from writing long letters, expecially when I lived in Cameroon and there was nothing but BBC radio a few hours per day.  I wrote some mammoth letters to old friends and people in my family back then, with lots of doodles.  But there's no copy of that writing.

My chum Judi lived in Ngaoundere, two and a half hours train ride from my post in Ngaoundal... which was the closest bank and closest post office.  So once I met her, I'd see her about once a month, up to post my letters and get my Peace Corps stipend and cash it at the bank.  Judi has retired from government sector work, but she encourages me often when I make a Facebook post that's a little bit indirect and elliptical for many of my acquaintances. 

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