Published in  
January 16, 2018

The Surprising Nobility of Shit

A serious response to President Donald Trump’s ‘shithole’ remarks about African immigrants [Warning: There are some big words here. Not the best words like yours, but big words nonetheless]

Dear President Trump,

I am Nigerian, from Nigeria, a shithole non-Norwegian type country in West Africa – widely considered the largest black nation on earth. This makes my country the biggest shithole on the planet, if your pronouncements still carry the moral weight of your once revered Office. Whether you truly understand the business of Empire or not, your recent remarks about African immigrants were received very solemnly around the world, as well as in Nigeria. Where we had once held our pride aloft as the largest collective of black bodies, we must now insert our dismay. But not just dismay – alarm! For if Nigeria is the biggest shithole in the world, and is projected to surpass the US as the world’s third most populous country by 2050, then we are talking about a shitstorm of epic proportions. Shit spills into and through things, you know. Borders and walls too. Nothing is really impervious to its radioactive charms.

But there’s more than alarm and dismay. There’s also gratitude. I think you will understand why we feel grateful for, as well as a bit baffled by, your “shithole” comments as you read further (please do read further – there’s even more complimentary stuff down the line).

Now I do not speak for ‘Africans’ or even ‘Nigerians’. Such representational dynamics are controversial today. But if it’s easier for you to imagine non-Norwegians as a chunky block of homogeneous cookie cutter bodies that look the same and do uninteresting things, then – okay – I speak for all of them. And this letter is from all of us.

A few days ago, we first learned of your comments: that you had referred to some African nations as well as Haiti as “shitholes” (or was it “shithouses”? Whatever). We took this very seriously. Mind you, we were not shocked: we hear this kind of talk all the time. But we took it seriously all the same. So we called the elders and the wisdom keepers away from their mud huts, lowered our bodies from the branches we live on (using our hairy tails, of course), and then we sat under Moon. Under this lunar illumination, we opened the sacred books to recall the names we had been given over time by our white brothers.

Ah! There was ‘Dark Continent’ by a nineteenth century European explorer named ‘Henry M. Stanley’. With this name, Europe denied ‘Africans’ of their agency, pathologized our cultures and wayfinding knowledges, and rendered us mute in the telling of our stories. We smiled even more as our fingers ran down the list of names we’d been named, stopping occasionally to remark on the more amusing ones.

Then there was the one used by one of your fellow presidents, Harry Truman, during his inaugural address on January 20, 1949. This one stung a bit more than the others that came before – because it stuck. Speaking about his ‘Point Four’ assistance project to help save us from our primitive savagery, Truman effectively coined the term “developing countries” – implying that the United States was ‘developed’ and that this ‘development’ – this plundering of our communal bonds and abandonment of our own wisdoms – was the only proper focus of collective rational action. In naming us so, Truman reduced our cosmologies and histories to the imperatives and dynamics of growth and progress. Many of us still think we need to catch up with the ‘West’, to become like you. Like – you know – “Norway.”

And now, even though our books were full, we found a way to record this name you have given us. At the bottom of the leaf, we scratched the word. The Declarationem Officialis: ‘Shithole’ (or ‘Shithouse’).

However, we are all confused by this new description. Could you be a bit clearer about what you mean? We never did have this problem with previous appellations. For instance, we are very sure of what is meant when many of us are called ‘apes’ (not that we do not feel grateful to be appointed to the sides of those noble creatures – we are). By ‘shithole’, do you mean the orifice in the body that excretes the stuff, or are you speaking of the place – perhaps, like a hole, made in the ground – that receives the excreta?

We checked the etymology of the word, but that didn’t really help us much. So in anticipation of your obliging clarifications, we want to say a few things (mostly about shit), on the off chance that your usage of the word ‘shithole’ was pejorative – as we suspect it was.

But first, give no attention to those of us asking for apologies – or the others who are rushing to defend us by saying we have fine bridges and tall towers and haughty highways and gilded neighbourhoods that are just as good as American ones. Some of us even say that the name you have christened us should energize us to become more ‘excellent’ – and by this they mean that we should pour our energies into doing what America did (and still does) to become the Empire of oil, suburban sprawl, McDonald’s and mercantilist goodness that it is today.

Pay them no mind.

What our little collection of huts would like you to know is that while most of us live under precarious circumstances, with mountains of toxic waste serving as playgrounds for our children, the ‘West’ is by no means neatly removed from its complicity in creating the conditions for this necropolis to emerge.

Did you know that European nations and the US export their industrial waste to Africa? You do this because recycling is expensive – especially when you are generating 50 million tonnes of electronic waste every year. You send your waste down to us through leaders that have been thoroughly schooled in the politics of development, and have learned to think of good living only in terms of how they can enrich themselves. In other words, if Africa is a shithole, there’s more than a generous contribution of your own shit in the mix.

Further still, the story of our backwardness is highly under-reported and understated: yes, we are very VERY ‘backward’. At least I would hope that we are more backward than is often depicted in the tourist ads our governments place on your television stations in order to attract foreigners and dollars. The point some of us are making is this: who wouldn’t want to take the backward position in a race for the edge of the cliff? Who would want to be punctual to the apocalypse?

Let me spell this point out carefully, because it is easy to misconstrue.

When you are unable to see time in its diffracted splendour, in all its thick and organic matterings and unusual activities, in all its entanglements with place and bodies and incorporeal forms, you would suppose that time is simply what the clock measures – and that ‘development’ is the only way to imagine how to navigate the humbling complexity and weirdness of things. You would think that there’s nothing more to time. That the past is really done with, that the present is here, and that the bright future is just up ahead. You might even trust that humans are the sole agencies in the world, with the power to rein in nature, to commandeer her operations and bend her to one’s will. To grab her by the woodsy.

We do not think this way – well, not all of us, but those of us who are revisiting our indigenous traditions, embarking on decolonial quests, and unlearning the givenness of modern power want to attune ourselves to these interesting realities. You see, the problem is that thinking in the way highlighted above (or thinking in – big word alert! – ‘anthropocentric’ ways) generates all kinds of trouble. For one, we are now slowly learning that nature is more mind-like than we previously imagined, and that we humans are not as independent, disembodied or sovereign as we would like to be. The ‘old’ fantasy of humans colonizing the landscape without consequence or push-back from the environment (an ideal that is conceptually indebted to the idea that the environment is ‘outside’, instead of the very material fabric with which our own insides are stitched) – neatly demarcated and domesticated into clean lawns or wilds awaiting culture – must now meet the insurgency of climate change, of toxic futures, of renegade chimeric forms disturbing the tranquillity of modern categories.

This is an especially noteworthy point to make because of your present vocation of relieving your government of laws put in place by your predecessor to safeguard the environment. As you deregulate the economy – seeking to convert anything that moves and scurries and thrives into NASDAQ numbers and green arrows pointed north, and as you reward the rich with tax breaks that allow them to add more money to their pockets, you might be quickening the demise of your civilization. The ruins of our home are a prophecy – an ironical ‘completion’ of Euro-American longings to ‘arrive’. In fact, we would argue that the West is the one that needs to catch up. For the sakes of all you pretend to preside over.    

So yes, many of us in shithole countries like Nigeria (and the country where I now live, India) would hope we get so backward that we drop out of the race altogether. You might say that ‘nature’ is speaking up, saying “Time’s Up!” And you might say that we are beginning to listen.  

Needless to say, the myth of backwardness is invented (wait, are you still reading any of this? Oh right, our contractual obligation to insert laudatory praise to your name somewhere in the body of our letter: Trump! Trump! Trump! USA! USA! USA!)…Where were we? Right. I was saying that the myth of backwardness is invented by a culture that is losing its own sensuousness, and thinks of time and history in terms of linear progression along a single path of emergence. Even if we were to grant that development comes with its own pleasures and luxuries, or if we were to allow that progressive commodification and deregulated industrialization are the only way we can thrive on earth, shithole countries like ours are ‘backward’ or ‘late’ not because we are not running or working as hard as we can, but because the colonial clock you have hung on the wall in our rooms marks (makes) time for your purposes. Not ours.

Here’s something else we need to stress: we shithole people are very skilled at many things. I am not speaking of the fact that Nigerian immigrants “have the highest levels of education in [America], surpassing whites and Asians”[1]. No, not these ones. Of course, your culture likes to celebrate degrees and certificates, and we certainly love to amass those accolades to ourselves. Instead, I speak of the ones that don’t make it to the front-pages – the shithole immigrants that don’t speak any English, the ones whose limp bodies were dragged from cold and wet boats because their homes could no longer contain their aspirations or ideas of wellbeing. The invisible ones. You may barely notice us holding the door open for you, serving you caviar and asking if that’d be all you’ll be having, washing your dishes, nursing your children or driving you to and fro. You may not realize that we helped build your rational shitless order – and that our backs have long been bent under the fury of your whip. You may not know how we are sustaining your Empire. But that won’t be your fault either: we blame your schooling – the selfsame education that tied you to chairs and desks, and taught you only to look straight ahead, never to the sides (for that would be cheating). Never to the luscious and enchanting paths that beckon on the sides of your highway – urging you to notice other places of power-with-the-world and affinity-with-one’s-shit.

And that point brings us closer to the real source of our bafflement with your remarks: your implied aversion to shit. Why this? Shitting is not all bad. It is not negative. There are associated pleasures with taking a dump, as you might know. Yes, shit might come across as repulsive and hideous and monstrous, and its lack of corporeal uniformity might not only be intuitively terrifying to you, but might work as some kind of Rorschach inkblot process – giving you the unbidden opportunity to project your inner tensions on its rough surfaces. But I can assure you that if you really looked into it, there’s a lot more to it than germs and microbes and absent fathers. There are rich dimensions and hidden layers to the pile. So allow me to briefly articulate a faecal feminism (or, in the words of Dana Phillips, an excremental ecocriticism) that speaks to the cultural constipations and rectal rectitude of your ‘forward’ lands. If there’s any justice in the world, we would all learn to cultivate intimacy with our waste, learning to be humbled by the things that resist purpose or direction. But we can only do this if we allow shit to tell its own stories.

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Shit is ubiquitous

Many of us have long suspected that the ‘West’s’ aversion to its own shit – probably embodied by the invention of the flush toilet – points to an ideology of escape from decay. There’s some kind of Marxist plot afoot in the denial of the body’s own energetic productions. Perhaps a Victorian effort to reassign the messiness of the body to some lower stratum, beneath the mind and its obvious royalty. And so, the effort is to send our shit away, throw it outside, and sterilize the inside. Africa has long been an outpost for this ecology of denial – designated as the West’s ‘Away-land’. But the thing is shit always comes back to you. We are all exposed. Even in an effort to rid ourselves of shit, to clean ourselves of the outside, we bring the outside in.

The point here is that there is no ‘Away-land’. There has never been. My daughter said to me, “Dada, where does kaka go?” By ‘kaka’ she meant shit. I could not really answer the question. I hadn’t given much thought to this. I wonder if you have – if your overabundant ingenuity led you to use “shithole” to draw your country’s attention to this very important question. In Nigeria, our sewage treatment is not as sophisticated as yours (perhaps this really legitimizes your remarks). But sophistication is not the same thing as resolution. It’s interesting: flushing away shit might be reassuring, but it doesn’t really go ‘away’. The usual story you are told about poop is that it goes down the pipes to the sewage treatment plants, where it is screened and sorted out in terminals (very much like what the TSA does when shit immigrants come through), and then fed to aerobic bacteria who happily feast on the goo. What’s left is water, which is then brought back into the system – perhaps used to nurture crops, which in turn grow and are eaten. Thus beginning the cycle of poop over again.

The frightening part is that this is too pristine and totalizing a story to be told about shit. Shit is not a “good object”, and it refuses to be “treated” or located. It’s not just that the occasional sewage mishap could flood neighbourhoods with millions of gallons of gooey poop, or that critical human errors often pollute rivers with faecal matter, but that the process of treating shit already ropes one back into a network of fragility one desperately tries to evade. Sooner or later, shit finds its way into water supply systems. Additionally, as Phillips notes[2] in her observations about the ubiquity of shit, “a disturbing amount of it, in truth – does not find its way into a toilet at all, and goes nowhere. A lot of shit lands not in a toilet, but along a woodland path, behind a garden wall or hedgerow, along the margins of a railway, or in the muck heap where the family bucket gets dumped in the predawn hours…”

Mr President, it turns out shit will not be told what to do. Just another thing you can add to the list of ‘real’ substances that resist our efforts to grab them, and insist on being heard. “We all answer to a lower power.”[3]

Shit is alive

The chunky confluence of “diet, metabolism and environment”[4] we call shit is not inert, dead or mute. Shit is alive, animated, electrifying, generative and disruptive. Shit does things. Shit does shit. We are reminded that a “gram of faeces can contain 10 million viruses, 1 million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts, and 100 worm eggs…[and so] our shit…provides a home for an impressive number of creatures…” This belies the account that shit does nothing. Given its sternness, its ubiquity and intractability, shit both produces us and eats away at our boundaries. Summarily, it is not to be discountenanced, and it doesn’t need to fit into our frames of utility to be real or consequential. Shit matters.    

Shit is sacred

In India, cow-shit has more aesthetic purposes than human shit. More sacred uses. I have watched a cow splatter its glory into waiting human hands, and watched those hands – now hidden in the thick matter – rub the excrement on walls. This is a form of prayer, in case you are wondering what I am talking about. The cow dung is spiritually significant: mixed with ghee, it is said to purify the home with its anti-pollutant properties. This is the beautiful irony we live with – one which you are unable to notice: shit purifies.

Of course, human waste is a bit trickier to employ in those senses, but perhaps the aesthetic call of shit is to notice how fragile our own claims to lasting presence really are. How the world is composed by things other than can be employed or deployed for our own ends. This teaches us an erotic sensuality to life that rebuffs advancement and resists intelligibility – often inviting us to slow down.

In calling us shitholes, you probably meant to belittle us – to say we haven’t arrived. But shit teaches us that no one has. No one will. We are all somewhere in the middle together. All of us: Norwegians and shitholes. There’s no escape.    

The future is brown

And this point is the vital point to make – what we’ve been leading up to all this while. (Oh yeah, sorry: Trump! Trump! Trump!). Part of your modus operandi has been to rule sure lines of demarcation between here and there, these ones and those ones, shitholes and Norwegians. We are not so sure you can do that without running into trouble – the kind that a repellent, chunky piece of shit constitutes.  

In writing this letter to you, our aim has been not to redeem shit from its stinkiness (shit will not be redeemed), or to rehabilitate and recycle it for use within a logical system. We do not seek to render shit usable, thus denying it of its recalcitrance. We want to take it literally – to listen to its stories. The eternal optimism/positivity and humanism upon which the West is founded leaves little room for the loss of hope and the discipline of uncertainty. Even the movement for zero-emission ‘green’ technologies presumes a bright future we can all trust in – if only we galvanized the right kind of expertise. But the future isn’t green, it is brown. It is toxic – we might well find toxic pleasures entangled in the networks that will yet produce us, but there is no foundation upon which to build or secure the future we want. In short, shit is – at this time at least – the most stunning critique of the North, the most stentorian dismissal of its confidence, the most corporeal rebuttal of the Enlightenment, as well as the ironic redemption of the Global North in its constitutional inability to address its impasses.

But we promised you compliments – and compliments we shall give! You are certainly a genius – the most stable kind, sir! There is a theory among us that you are the compost heap’s most eminent agent of disintegration. The diarrhoeaic catalyst that has emerged to speed up the excretion of what no longer serves. Perhaps your shithole comments are in keeping with these roles. Whatever the case, we thank you for calling us shitholes; it is our hope that we can use this to call our brothers to the nobility of the worlds we left behind, to a stunning politics of the otherwise, to a different story of our people.  



[2] Dana Philips, ‘Excremental Ecocriticism and the Global Sanitation Crisis’, in Material Ecocriticism (2014)

[3] Dave Praeger, ‘Poop Culture’

[4] Dana Philips