We love our city in the garbage because it’s the way of the future

We love our city in the garbage because it’s the way of the future 

By CHARLES ONYANGO -OBBO  cobbo@nation.co.ke

Barely two weeks after the Commonwealth summit in Kampala, the expected has happened – uncollected garbage has began to pile up in parts of the city. 

Typically, as happens in most cities that are cleaned up for big international events, very soon, the street children, pickpockets, potholes and broken traffic lights will be the order of the day again.

These reversals happen because the underlying causes of the problems are never solved by temporary clean-ups; the corrupt city official who eats the money instead of fixing roads will still be in his job, and the social breakdown that produces street children will not have been tackled.

THE STATE OF OUR CITIES USED TO infuriate me, until a few years ago when I sent a friend in South Africa an article by an American journalist. It decried the poor state of the roads and mountains of garbage in various African cities he had visited. My South African friend is a man who has seen the world, so I was unprepared for his reply.

Cities, or at least parts of them, by definition are supposed to be dirty, he said. He said he is never surprised in his travels when he ends up in filthy cities. What usually catches him off guard, he said, are meticulously clean ones.

In Africa, if you don’t want a dirty city, he suggested, you should go and live in the village.

If you think about it, he has a point. Some years ago, I travelled around Denmark. I passed through many small but rich towns and some neighbourhoods in the outskirts of Copenhagen, where the grass was growing high and wild in compounds with some very posh houses and flashy cars parked in the yard.

I was surprised, and inquired from my host about the unkempt state of these Danish compounds. In turn, she asked me why I thought that grass in compounds should be cut. It was more environmentally sound, she said, to let the grass grow high as long as you took steps to spray it so that snakes and rodents don’t hide in it.

So, one might ask, since it seems so difficult to get rid of garbage in African cities, what if we moved to a model where we live with the rubbish, as long as the piles are sprayed periodically to prevent diseases from incubating there?

You don’t find garbage in African villages, primarily because the compounds and gardens there are private property. The sidewalks and streets in the city, on the other hand, are not “ours” in the same sense.

The way garbage is “collected” in the villages
is very different from the way it’s done in the city. In the villages, you sweep the rubbish out of the house and the compound into the garden at the back of the house or into the banana plantations. 

There it becomes manure, and the free-range chicken forage through it for food.

Villagers, therefore, are constantly recycling. They don’t bag garbage and throw it a kilometre away in a forest.

SO WHAT WOULD THIS MODEL OF garbage cities look like? For one, cities would not spend money on what, for them, appears to be a logistic nightmare of collecting all the garbage and incinerating it.

Instead, they would only have to sweep it off the roads so that people can still walk and drive around.

There would, of course, still be pristine streets and suburbs. But these would be the equivalent of our villages, where everything from the roads to streetlights, would be the absolute private property of the residents who would be paying big money for it, not using city council subsidies that should go to the poor.

Make no mistake, though. For all this intellectualising, given a choice, I would rather live in the pristine suburb — as would we all.


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