Abubakar Akintola couldn’t believe his eyes as he opened the COSCO shipping container that had just arrived to the Apapa container terminal. Akintola had seen the strangest imports arrive at Nigeria’s main commercial port during his 30 years as a customs official. But he couldn’t figure out what these small, plastic objects were. His incipient Mandarin – picked up from the Chinese businessmen who had been arriving in Lagos over the past years – was not good enough to read the two characters, [which I was not able to type here] he found on the boxes containing the blue things.
These characters had been stamped two months earlier at the Langyu Plastic Co. Ltd factory, a 15-year-old operation specializing in outdoor furniture and garden utensils. Located in the LongGang District of Shenzhen, it is one of the hundreds of rubber and plastic products manufacturers that make the 1993-founded district the Plastic Capital of the World. Like many of its neighbors, the owners of Langyu pride themselves on providing fast, efficient and cost-effective services in injection and extrusion blow-molding. In other words, they make plastic goods cheap and fast.
Ng Xiao Seong, Langyu’s expedition officer, spent the better part of his 10-hour work day stamping the boxes of over 250,000 production mistakes with “rejected, denied or refused”. The boxes were then sent to a place far away. Following the common practice in Shenzhen, Langyu usually ships its faulty products to Apapa. Under a recent trade agreement between this Chinese Special Administrative Region and the African republic – which allows for subsidized tariffs and lax customs – it was both easier and cheaper to dump fake, faulty and sometimes dangerous goods in Nigeria than to legally dispose of them in China. Most of them end up at Idumota market in Lagos, where they join brittle plastic BIC razors, obsolete European mobile phone chargers and all sorts of pirated material. All the world’s junk seems to be found in West Africa’s main market and distribution center, where everyday it is repurposed, reinvented and resold.
The truth was Langyu’s owners also could not admit such a serious mishap to their clients. Due to a file handling error by one of its youngest CAD operators, Yu Yao (who was later fired and returned to her remote village of Northwestern China), a “bunny” squirt gun for Argentine children was digitally merged with a Malaysian squat-toilet cleaning device. Wishing to finish all orders before Chinese New Year, Langyu did not send the models to their respective clients, not even photographs of the orders. Instead, Yu was told to send the thing straight into production. Such a strategy usually works, but this time it all went wrong. After she exported the file and moulds were made, a quarter of a million items were churned out in less than a day of unsupervised work. The result: odd, flat pieces of blue plastic with an echo of a rabbit’s ear, a bottle-like nozzle on top and a useless pedal on one of its sides. Useless, unsellable junk.
Holding one of these things, Akintola shook his head as he saw a Idumota-bound truck being loaded with the rest of the merchandise. He smiled, and thought to himself: Someone will make something out of this.
Andrea Codrington‘s first assignment for her half of the Criticism Lab course read: “Write a 500-word creative response to the “thing” photo provided in class. This could be in the guise of short story, scientific treatise/hypothesis, design review of supposed use of object. Whichever direction you choose, pay careful attention to the shape, color, formal aspects of the object in a lively, fluid manner.” We all came up with sometimes insane, sometimes profound stories for this object. And I won’t tell you what it is.