African Traditions, Maker Communities and the Politics of Generative Justice

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* Article: Eglash, Ron and Foster, Ellen. “On the Politics of Generative Justice: African Traditions and Maker Communities.”


Presented at “What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa? MIT, November 13-15, 2014.


"Many African societies had indigenous traditions in which economic, ecological and creative capital was generated and circulated in a bottom-up fashion, offering a more egalitarian and sustainable approach than either the capitalist or socialist traditions of today. Analogous systems of “generative justice”are now appearing globally, particularly in the form of Maker communities. In a typical “maker space” in the US, lay citizens bring together open source technologies such as Arduino microcontrollers with 3D printers, laser cutters and other innovations in fabrication capabilities for the purposes ranging from community development to entrepreneurship. On the African continent, similar endeavors are taking place across a very different technosocial landscape. This paper describes some of the traditional African forms of generative justice, and shows how that concept can be extended to contemporary technological development in maker spaces, open source software, urban agriculture and other forms. We then survey maker spaces in Africa, and show that they benefit from these older traditions in new forms (for example how e-waste has become a bottom-up material supply stream for African maker communities). The generative justice concept of human and non-human value circulation, rather than extraction, is essential in understanding how these contemporary maker communities are related to older African traditions of gift economies, and futures in which cultural and ecological survival can be mutually self-sustaining."


Makerspaces in Africa

Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster:

"Fixer practices are also quite prevalent in African countries--not as a political rebellion against planned obsolescence, but rather due to economic necessity: the expense of new devices, the paucity of products or even replacement parts, and as a means of employment. This puts hacker and maker practices in some African countries at an interesting juncture, as “making do” craft skills and economic necessity intersects with the democratizing politics of questioning top-down technosocial practices and informing innovation. The “fixer” side of maker/hacker cultures are geared toward regenerating value in objects on a local scale. This side is very prevalent in two of the African sites we visited in Ghana, the Creativity Group in Kumasi and the QAMP group in Accra, as will be discussed shortly. Similar to the findings of Foster’s work on US hacker and makerspaces, these groups and others in Africa have complex ecologies, politics and cultures.

For the purposes of this essay, we will focus on the African counterparts to makerspaces, which have been accelerating in popularity and prevalence across many different countries and groups. While they align themselves under the general ethos of bricolage, skill-sharing and creative collaboration among many different interests, they are also locally and culturally situated. From preliminary research conducted in Ghana, and our communications with other groups/places/spaces, it is clear that the fixer mentality is far more deeply entwined with the fabrication and making mentality in the African continent than in the US or Europe.

This became immediately evident in our conversation with DK Asare-Osseo of the QAMP project in Accra; he remarked that as soon as he first heard of makerspaces he immediately recognized the African scrap-yards populated by fabricators and fixers as their predecessors; he too noted a deeply entrenched cultural value around repair and making do with what is at hand. Contemporary cultural connections are also continually remade; for example in reply to a question about ablution in relation to toxic waste exposure, DK noted that many of the poor working in Accra now come from Islamic roots, and hence had a strong presence in the scrap yards.

Another example of generative traditions that blur both the fixing/making and traditional/contemporary lines would be the famous wire toys that can be found throughout the African continent. Davison and Skotnes (1986) note that analogous toys made from natural materials could be found prior to colonialism: for example in southern africa, bovine clay figurines were toys in traditional cattle herding cultures areas where wire cars are found today. As locals shifted from pastoral to industrial economies, both the object of reference (from cows to cars) and materials utilized in labor (wire for shipping, fixing and other applications) shifted along with it. Peffer (2009) examines the prevalence of wire toy copies of the police trucks used in the brutality of Apartheid surveillance and enforcement; in the context of DIY protest artifacts these children made these copies as a means to explore and in some cases gain a sense of mastery over their oppressors. Today African wire toys can be found in many African nations; they have become so iconic that in some places their manufacture is largely for the tourist market. At the same time they have become a part of international Maker lore, appearing in Make magazine, Afrigadget and other popular forums (e.g. Brucker-Cohen 2009).

Cultural connections have also been noted in Senegal’s Colobane market, where “making do” (se débrouiller) with repairs and salvaged materials can signify a collective ethos with spiritual resonance. Grabski (2014) quotes Colobane resident Aminata Diop: “”You know God has given the Senegalese people something, whatever we can see we can fix. Whatever we see broken we can make it work again.”” Schaller de la Cova (2013) notes that many Senegalese now use the term Góorgóorlus, the Wolof name of a family in a comic who is constantly making-do, as an indigenous translation for “recycling, repairing, mending, reusing, scrimping, and stretching... The world of góorgóorlus is one in which cracked plastic lawn chairs and calabash gourds are sewn together, not thrown away, where shoes are polished nightly because the dirt and the sand of neighborhood streets quickly dirties even the most shiny, rich leather with a coat of brown, white, or red dust” (pg 224). The term plays on the noun góor--man/male in Wolof--and Schaller de la Cova suggests that the connection is implying the duties of a family provider to improvise in the face of challenges.

While the corner repair stores of the US declined to almost non-existence, such that the Fixers movement seems to be only possible as an offshoot of makerspaces, or at least a new flexibility made possible with contemporary electronics, this relationship may be reversed in Africa. Ghana in particular has a rich informal economy of street vendors who will sell new wares, but also fix cell-phones, printers, and other electronics with complex circuitry. They learn their highly refined skills through attachments (or internships), and then aspire or move on to owning and running their own shops. In this vein, many self-described hacker or maker groups of Africa are geared toward preservation practices and the creative reuse of waste. They are simultaneously pulling the warp of innovation geared toward the future while also weaving in the weft of repair practices already deeply entrenched in their cultures.

This melding of a global Maker movement with localized skills, knowledge and mindsets opens rich possibilities. Repair cultures uphold an ethos of stabilizing feedback that works to keep waste at bay. Meanwhile, the positive loop of innovation, open source technology development and the establishment of makerspaces in which to gather and share ideas disrupts and creates new ways to think about and reinterpret the possibilities of repair and waste. The snake bites its tail; fractal complexities grow as one-to-one skill-sharing builds up to small working groups, networked together as a makerspace or tech-hub, and ultimately perhaps a community of makerspaces that share materials, practices and projects." ([1])


"In the 1950s and 1960s leaders such as Nyerere in Tanzania and Senghor in Senegal attempted to map African traditions into a Marxist-inspired framework, and to implement this system in their developing nations. This African socialism failed, not because of corrupt individuals, but because it was the wrong mapping in the first place.

As Mbah S. and Igariwey (2010) note in regards to the Ujamaa movement in Tanzania:

- Whatever the peasants produced was sold to the authorities, and the government controlled the prices. In this way, the state squeezed the peasants for as much surplus as possible. It would have been simply unthinkable to imagine that Ujamaa, in its original, undiluted form, would have succeeded as part of a state system. To that extent, its failure was logical and inevitable.

Squeezing the peasants for surplus is a common feature of both capitalism and socialism; all systems that put a premium on value extraction will put their value generators--whether human or non-human--at risk of failure to return that value.

We can think of the spectrum of political economy as a horizontal line, with a pure free market at the far right, and pure communism at the far left. Generative justice, in contrast, is orthogonal to that spectrum; a Y-axis to the horizontal range of ideologies. For example, in the case of communism, both labor and Nature are (rightly) considered true generators of value. But the value generated by labor and nature has to be extracted, just as they did in capitalist societies. The only difference from capitalism was that the extracted value would be “returned” to them by the state (figure 6). This return of value has failed miserably in most attempts. Extracting nutrients from soil and attempting to return them in “alienated” forms of chemical fertilizers and pesticides creates environmental damage. Extracting labor value and attempting to return it in the form of “the people’s factory” is no less alienating than when capitalism extracts labor value. The USSR, for example, was notorious for widespread poverty, environmental degradation, paranoid militarism and the destruction of civil rights. Neither communism nor capitalism have a good record in the attempt to return extracted value to labor and nature. Rather than rely on extracting value and returning it in alienated forms via distributive justice, it is our contention that social equality and environmental balance can best flourish when structured by generative justice, which seeks to avoid value extraction in the first place.

It is obvious why capitalism would want this extraction: because its model of the free market requires that workers sell the only thing they have, their labor power, and that the “forces of production” (Nobel 1984) thus compete to see who can extract from nature and labor with as little return as possible. But why have socialists--surely not a group bound by conservative assumptions--tended to be blind to this issue? One reason might be the misleading colonial portrait we discussed above, in which indigenous societies in Africa and elsewhere were portrayed as trapped in negative feedback, remaining eternally fixed at barely above the subsistence level. Marx (1973 pp. 409-410) for example explicitly stated that the unalienated labor of indigenous cultures, while admirable for its egalitarian relations, could not rise beyond “nature’s paltriness” (Natur-bedurftigkeit). Only in extracting value and redistributing it in a top-down, alienated form from the state could we rise above “mere local developments of humanity."

As we have seen, these contentions are factually incorrect. Bottom-up processes are not doomed to paltry existence, barely above the subsistence level; they can be profoundly productive and innovative. African traditions of generative justice--placing emphasis on the rights of those who generate value to enjoy its benefits in unalienated forms, control its conditions of production, and nurture its circulation--are a better model for the original indigenous traditions, and for their new technological hybrids. The makerspace movement in Africa is not a silver bullet for all ills, but it is just one form in which generative justice traditions can find new footholds towards egalitarian and sustainable futures."