The World; Africans Find a Refuge In Cast-Off ’Big Boxes’

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Michael Wines

FROM her place behind the barred window of the Nonto Tuck Shop in Soweto, Constance Jwara sells lollipops and soda, salt and sugar and plates of meat and pap, an African staple made of boiled cornmeal. To her left is a dry cleaner’s. To her right, an older woman sells fruit, vegetables and a sampling of native condiments.

As suburban strip malls go, it’s not unlike that found in many American towns. With one exception: it consists entirely of shipping containers.

Western retail architecture is defined by golden arches and big-box merchandisers. In much of poorer Africa — in much of the developing world — ’’big box’’ means a rusting container of corrugated steel, usually 20 feet long, culled from giant cargo ships for use as a restaurant, a beauty salon, or, as the accompanying photographs suggest, you name it.

Condemning this container sprawl as the ultimate expression of the West’s disposable society would be easy. The container is a spectacularly successful American invention, and the homely ones that litter the African landscape are mostly the leavings of big Western shippers.

But it isn’t that simple. Many Africans who have converted the containers — into schools, community centers and even homes — might disagree. They are the grown-up equivalents of the empty refrigerator box that children play in. Ugly or not, containers can become anything one wants — and cheaply.

Which is why, in a region where all too many people live under trash-bag roofs, they are ubiquitous.

Shipping containers did not exist until 1956, when a North Carolina trucking tycoon named Malcolm McLean loaded 58 of them onto a converted oil tanker in a bid to automate the loading and unloading of cargo, which was then done mostly by hand. Today 90 percent of the world’s cargo moves in containers– and the equivalent of 1.4 million 20-foot containers move in and out of South Africa alone each year.

Thomas Greh, a German filmmaker who has made a documentary about the container industry, says the ebb and flow of world trade is partly responsible for the container gluts in developing regions.

In essence, he says, the First World ships millions of containers of finished goods to Africa, but Africa has far fewer full containers to ship back.

’’Sometimes, the costs are just too high to bring an empty container back to the next harbor,’’ he said in a telephone interview, ’’and the shipping company sells the container instead.’’

That may happen, other experts say, particularly when the containers are far inland and must be trucked to a port. But it is more common for firms to simply sell the containers when their seaworthy lives end, usually after 5 to 10 years.

According to Safmarine, a Cape Town shipping firm, a container that cost $2,000 new will fetch as much as $700 as surplus. Some companies donate old containers to schools and charities; Safmarine, for example, has given away 7,000 since 1991.

The container housing Nonto Tuck Shop (a tuck shop is akin to a convenience store) was in fact given to Soweto’s Nanto primary school in the mid-1990’s by local Coca-Cola officials. The school leases it to an operator for 450 rand a month, about $70, and uses the proceeds to support school activities.

The operator, in turn, pays Ms. Jwara 450 rand a month. She uses that money to support her family — three children, the child of a sick brother and an unemployed husband.

Ms. Jwara was unemployed before landing the job in May. She has a fourth-grade education. ’’I like this job,’’ she says, ’’because it’s the only one that I can do.’’

In parts of Africa right now, that is reason enough. Sometimes, it seems, even a homely steel rectangle can twist itself into a benevolent circle.

Source: New York Times (link opens in a new window)