“There are no magic bullet solutions”: Tackling garbage collection in Poli Division, Tanzania

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The common practice of burning garbage rather than taking it to a dump

As I was getting on the plane with Mary Poliwka and my twin toddlers to head back to Tanzania, it occurred to me that I have been coming to the country on and off for nine years. A lot changes in nine years. A lot of things in Tanzania have gotten easier, as I am reminded of daily as Mary and I move around, have access to decent wireless connections, supermarkets even in the suburbs of Arusha Town, and a reliable car. There are far more vehicles on the road than in 2008 when I lived here for a year. There are far more banks outside the main city, complete with ATMs that mean that I don’t have to travel long distances to get cash. That kind of long term perspective doesn’t make you rely on those things more, but instead makes you thankful for the fact that they’re there, making your daily life easier. When those services are unavailable (the power goes out and there are no ATMs, no emails, no watching bad pirated movies on youtube…), you compensate. You work around. You’re used to it. You’ve been doing it for years.

That’s what makes Mary doing the blog make so much more sense. Things are new and fresh for her. And they’ll be new and fresh for the students who will come here next year for the supervised research program that we’re building here. It’s been so neat to follow her reflections, because they remind me of how normal I find things now, and that in some way they’re ‘normal’ to me but not necessarily to others. They’re only normal because I’ve had those experiences.

So today I decided I’d write a blog post of my own about something that was entirely new to me. I don’t get to have those experiences here very often. So I finally had something to write about. And that thing is: garbage.

Just before we left for Dar es Salaam on July 7th, I attended a meeting of local political leaders on health. In it, the topic that drew the most attention was garbage. In this district they’re initiating a new garbage collection service, going from division to division (districts are like counties, divisions and wards fall under the counties, and at the very base level politically are the villages themselves). As part of the initiation of the services, they’re also initiating “garbage days” where all villagers every Friday will be asked to go around and collect any garbage they find on the street. Mary and I just happened to stumble into the first garbage day that was being held in the district. And it was truly fascinating. Who knew garbage could be so intriguing? Okay, well maybe archaeologists like garbage—it tells us a lot about cultures of the past; environmentalists for obvious reasons. But for most of the people I know, we take our garbage and recycling out to the curb and never think about it again, unless the people who collect it happen to go on strike or the weather prohibits collection.

Being invited to participate in the first garbage day was totally serendipitous. I was at another meeting with a division leader and the health team of the wards in the district, and they were talking about when they would get started. The political leaders were going to go around the ward, collecting garbage in hopes that their example would stimulate others to participate also. I offered two additional sets of hands to help them out.

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Locals gathering trash from the roadside

We arrived in the morning and the team leaders got out the door quickly. They donned latex gloves, provided by the local government office for the environment for just this purpose. They walked very briskly towards the road leading to the main market, where there is always a lot of garbage laying about. Some of us were putting garbage we found into small black plastic shopping bags, and they filled quickly. By the time we got to the entrance of the market, we’d filled about four bags and nearly an entire plastic burlap-like sack. The team was far ahead of us by now, with Mary and I and three other Tanzanians lingering trying to collect as many small bits of garbage as we could. We could tell the other team members had been through the area already…there were burning piles of rubbish and children and women were sweeping garbage off the dusty terrain and into the piles. We emptied our plastic bags into the burning piles (plastic bags cost you about five cents per bag, and we didn’t want to add to the waste already out there by disposing of them after just one use). We moved slowly, until I got a call from the division leader. “Where are you professor?” he asked in Kiswahili, sounding a bit put off. “We’re collecting garbage by the market” I responded. “No, no, no! Get up here, we’re up the road. Chop chop. Make it quick.” Clearly there was some other agenda that I wasn’t aware of initially. So the five of us walked quickly up the hill to the entrance of the next village, and found the division leader with a large group at an open area of village. Everyone was milling about, small garbage piles were burning on the side of the dirt road, and it was clear people were waiting for something other than us. Turned out, it was the district environment and sanitation officer, and a team from the local radio station. This was clearly a bigger affair than I’d anticipated.

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The new garbage truck

Once the local government representatives arrived, people gathered around. The crowd was mostly women and children, although there were several men who were in some way officially involved with the effort there also. The district environment and sanitation officer was invited to speak, and in a loud, slow, eloquent voice, he explained to everyone around what was happening. The district is starting to collect garbage beginning today. Everyone in the village is expected to own a dust bin, and to bring all of their garbage out each Friday and Monday for collection by a big truck that will come by. This was especially for ‘hard garbage’—i.e. the things, like glass and batteries, that don’t burn easily or are unsafe to burn. Everyone was expected to participate. And everyone would pay 1,000 Tanzanian shillings (approximately $0.62) per month for the service. Small shops will pay 5,000, hair salons 15,000, and the list went on from small businesses all the way to large plantations and industrial areas. The man explained the fines to people for being caught “throwing garbage carelessly”.

Tongues started clicking and waving. It was clear that people were confused, and others were upset. Ever the anthropologist, I turned my attention to the audience instead of the speaker as I watched people’s reactions. “1000 shillings is too much!” some women were yelling back. They clicked their tongues in disapproval. Others were confused about how the fees would work. Some homesteads or plots had several houses on them (older children are often allocated a part of their parent’s land, so on larger plots one might even have up to 15 households. Determining where one household ends and the other begins is often very difficult, particularly among families that have been in the district for generations). “Each household pays 1,000 Shillings. We define households as a mother, a father, and their immediate children” they were told in clarification. More voices mumbling in disapproval.

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Division gathering

A man asked, “what about if the truck can’t get to your house?” Roads here are often impassable during and just after rainy seasons (there are two rainy seasons a year), even for the heaviest of industrial trucks. The Officer responded, “Please, we ask if you live far from the road or the road is not passable that you bring your garbage to an area where the vehicle can reach.”

There were more speeches by local leaders talking about all of the illnesses that can come about due to contamination with garbage: cholera, typhoid, all manner of bacteria and parasites. The division leader waved me over, and unbeknownst to me I was supposed to address everyone also. It was a bit rough to try to come up with something to tell them. We were just there to help out, not in any official capacity—just to collect garbage like everyone else. Once I came over and he informed me that I was to make a quick speech, I looked at everyone and thought quickly about what I would say. And I remembered the way my parents, who visited us in Tanzania in 2008, talked about the garbage burning system here. I had my material. When the radio microphone came my way, I hoped I wouldn’t butcher the Kiswahili language because of being put on the spot, and I tried to emulate the speech form of the environmental officer by speaking slowly, loudly and clearly. I introduced myself and Mary, said that we were there to help out with the good efforts of the district, and mentioned that when my parents were young in Canada, we also burned our garbage. We had no collection, we polluted the environment. We contaminated our water sources and the garbage created unsafe environments for the children. We also initiated garbage collection services, and many of those problems went away. I also mentioned how when I was a child (true story) we were taught in school about recycling, buying products that were packaged in environmentally sustainable ways, and how to teach our parents about the importance of not littering. Today I told them, we have dust bins all through public spaces. The city collects it. Our communities are clean, and our health is better.

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Villager wondering where to start picking up trash.

But it occurred to me: how long did it take for our grandparents or great grandparents or parents to change the habits that they had gained over their lifetimes? For us, it’s just logical that we would hold onto the plastic our candy is wrapped in until we find a garbage can to deposit it in. But that happened over years and major initiatives to the point that it’s our second nature. We don’t question it. But I can only imagine the faces of my parents and grandparents when the children told them “don’t litter” and picked up their wrappers after them. I remember doing it myself. I remember taking my mother to the grocery store and telling her exactly what she could and couldn’t buy. That was the 1980s. Recycling was just getting started. Today it’s completely taken for granted, to the fact that it drives Mary totally crazy that the plastic water bottles aren’t recycled here (but glass bottles are…millions of times over, they are rinsed and reused as is rather than melted down to make more glass. We used to have a similar system in the US and Canada…but not anymore. I can only think that an industrial washing and sterilizing has to use less energy and have a lower carbon footprint than melting the glass down again and recycling to make bottles that look shiny to meet our own aesthetic preference for things that are new).

The crux of the day occurred after an argument between the division leader and the leader of the ward. They disagreed on which direction to go to continue with garbage collection. The division leader wanted to go north up the main road. The ward leader shouted back, “No! You want to see a garbage problem, bring everyone east to the river and you’ll see. It’s criminal.” The teams split up, I had no idea which political leader to follow, and finally we got shooed towards the river team. What we saw when we got there was one of the most astonishing sights I’ve seen in Tanzania.

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Wall states “50,000/- fine for anyone dumping here! Don’t dump trash carelessly!”

The river in this district is the source of all of the water. For drinking. For bathing. For cooking. For cleaning. It’s a beautiful, clean looking river that I’ve been able to see from a variety of areas in the district. It’s fed from a spring the runs underneath the mountains in this region: Mount Meru and Mount Kilimanjaro. This region is very lucky to have access to such water supplies year-round, although there are difficulties with access for some villages that don’t have a well or pump to bring the water from the river up to their villages. That’s a hardship for a different blog post. Or perhaps for the team of Northwestern students next year to investigate for themselves.

As we walked through a gate and a small maize farm that itself was full of litter, we emerged at a cliff overlooking the river, about 100 feet up. There were beautiful trees and plants all around. And directly in front of us was one of the largest informal dumps I had ever seen. Households nearby had been throwing their garbage for quite some time down the cliff. Right through the middle of the dump was a trail leading to the river. The other side of the river and its accompanying trail was immaculate by comparison. A walk down the trail and alongside the river for another 300 feet we found yet another dump site. The political leaders were irate. One grabbed some chalk and wrote on the gate entrance in Kiswahili “50,000/- fine for anyone dumping here! Don’t dump trash carelessly!” A small group of them then started banging on the gates of the compounds right near the dump in hopes of pulling some of the household members out and making them help clean up their own dump site. Of course, no one was home, or at least no one answered except one woman who was about 8 months pregnant with her small 2 year old daughter. I could hardly see her balancing on the cliff side picking up trash.

The entire team started collecting the garbage, climbing up the cliff side once their bags were full to dump it on the road above. There must have been around 20 of us, male and female, adolescents and even some folks in their 50s or 60s. Everyone had gloves on. The political leaders and citizens alike picked up bag after bag, wrapper after wrapper, filled bags and larger sacks, dispensed of their loads and headed back down. We were at it for probably around 3 hours. We barely made a dent before the political leaders finally said we had to move to the next village so that the word could continue to be spread about the garbage collection services being initiated. Mary and I had to leave the team and head back to the hospital for a meeting with the administrators. But as we left, I wondered what this site would look like next year when we came back. The following Friday we saw the team headed back into the wards to continue their quest to inspire the populace that the solution to the problem starts with them.

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The amount of trash picked up in a few hours- just a dent in the area.

What changes will a year bring? What about five years? We often see progress as being slow. But when I look at the astronomical changes that have occurred in this part of the world in the last nine years, I don’t see slow progress, but I certainly see uneven progress. Some things move fast. Some things get innovated to completely change the way people live their lives here (cell phones are a case in point—they use cell phones in ways completely unheard of in the US, and the system for cell phone usage here makes infinitely more sense to me than at home). Other things remain largely unchanged. People are nonetheless active in their own trajectory towards the life that they hope to have for themselves and their families. But their needs are uneven and different from household to household, community to community, country to country.

But there are people working hard and living a fact that many of us back home forget or take for granted unless some disaster strikes: we need each other to stay healthy. We rely on each other. We get to see that when bombs strike down runners, when planes run into buildings, when waters flood neighborhoods or when tornadoes strike down schools. People step up. They always do. And at home people can also do so in daily ways, but it’s not necessarily an overarching way of life for us. But as I watch people here constantly going out of their way to do for others, there’s an uncertainty about life that governs how people interact with each other. They never assume they’re in control. Bad things can just happen. They can happen to you, to your friends, to your neighbors. You have no ability to control everything. And no one lives a day here thinking that they do. People know they may need help at any moment. So they help each other at any moment, in hopes that help will come when they need it. I’m hoping that’s a recipe for a quick change of habits when it comes to littering in this area. Garbage is one thing they can actually control. It will be interesting to see where things lie next year, and to trace this issue from year to year.

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