Dirt as ‘matter out of place’

Mary Douglas, British anthropologist, pioneered work in understanding symbolism of dirt.  In her book Purity and Danger, Douglas delves into ‘dirt as matter out of place’.  In other words, the labeling of something as dirt (‘matter’) depends on the place or location of the ‘matter’.  Dirt then is relative (or as Douglas averred, absolute dirt is non-existent).  Example:  cow urine and cow dung in India are sacred (clean, not dirty) whereas are considered dirt (unclean) in other places or countries.

Drawing from Douglas conceptualization of dirt and its meaning, Sjaak van der Geest essayed Children and Dirt in Kwahu, Ghana:  A Social-Anthropological Perspective, a discussion of the experience of dirt in the lives of rural children in Kwahu, Ghana.

Of dirt in Kwahu, van der Geest says:  Dirt is a key concept in the Kwahu perception of the human being.  It is something unwanted.  Ideas about dirt and cleanliness pervade the entire culture.  Efi is dirt that comes from outside and attaches to the body, to clothes, to objects, or to a house.  It is a temporary character.  Atantanee is dirt which is more detestable, for dirt coming from inside the body.  As in most languages, terms of dirt assume wider meanings. Dirty=ugly=unattractive=nasty=bad=uncivilised=shameful=not respected. Example:  Efi aka no means someone has defiled himself morally by committing evil or breaking a taboo; Ommu ne ho, literally he does not respect himself. Conversely, cleanliness (ahotee) is the preeminent metaphor to express positive appreciation.  Clean=beautiful=attractive=good=civilised=respectable.  The concern about cleanliness accounts for the reluctance of people to build a toilet in their house.  A toilet, by (Kwahu) definition, is a dirty place so it should be kept outside the house, preferably outside the community.  Thus it became the custom to construct the toilet at the edge of the town.

Toilets, from the perspective of engineers, are simply part of the house and this is true for many house owners depending on as Douglas said their concept of dirt and hygiene.  But in communities such as Kwahu, dirt takes on a very different meaning and this extends to placement of toilets.

Read more of Sjaak van der Geest’ essay here.


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