By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Wolof peoples, Senegal, trunk makers in Dakar. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts, Allen F. Roberts.


Many working-class urban-dwellers participate in the informal sector of the African economy, which includes the works of recycling. As documented by Allen Roberts, an underlying principle to such work is System D, or the ability to be resourceful and to manage even in the most dire of circumstances. System D also means to do things “contrary to their original sense” or “to change the direction of something. Just as the Surrealists found and created new meaning through chance encounters, so do artists of recycled materials use their creative talents to cope with changing circumstances of political economy. Recycling carpenters in Dakar, for example, purchase misprinted sheet metal from a local canning factory to make trunks, briefcases, jewelry boxes, and lunch boxes. Each case capitalizes on the vivid colors and dramatic commercial designs of tins and cans for locally produced tuna fish, tomato sauce, insecticide, and assorted beverages.