Monday, 13 May 2019

A CULTURE OF FILTH

Image: Baastrop
If you follow me on Twitter, you will (probably) notice that every week – and sometimes, almost every day – I talk about people who litter the environment with either their urine, feces or other waste products generated from their daily activities. From my tone, you can always tell that I am constantly angry at the unsightly result of our improper waste disposal and management.

I wasn't always this concerned about the environment. In fact, I used to be a huge part of the problem; okay...maybe ‘huge’ is stressing it too far. What I can admit is that I used to toss trash into the streets, gutters and running water and even burn plastic and other waste materials. Not only was I contributing to the dirt in the streets, I was also polluting the air. It is no surprise that at that time, my bedroom used to look like a tornado was constantly running through it. You wouldn't call me a 'clean girl' for anything. My mother would fuss, and discipline, and it never seemed to work. As I got older, I got better…but not by much.

Then in 2006, something happened to change my entire outlook on waste disposal.

I was fresh out of secondary school and looking forward to a life as an undergraduate. I applied to Ahmadu Bello University for my first and second choice and when it was time for the Post Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, or what we simply called Post UME, I was excited to go for the test, and prove why I should get into the school.

After a really stressful day of getting lost, struggling to find myself in a sea of people, writing the exam and wondering how I was going to get back home, I decided to have a snack; I had not eaten all day. I bought a sausage roll – Gala – and a drink and sat down at the Social Center to eat. When I was done, I picked up my empty bottle and sausage wrap and crossed the road towards Amina Hostel. As soon as I crossed, I looked around and dropped my empty bottle and wrap on the ground.

Just as I did that, my eye connected with a guy who was looking directly at me. I stopped. You know how they say you can shoot darts with your eyes? Well, this guy was shooting grenades! Without one word uttered, I could feel his disapproval, disappointment and anger at my littering.

It was in that moment that I really took in my surroundings. There were waste bin every 100 metres and the school environment was clean and the lawn perfected mowed. In fact, there was one waste bin right in front of me. But I hadn't seen it. I want to blame the stress I had been under but in all honesty, I may not have used it regardless. Remember that I have established that I was the type of person to toss things out into the street, right? Well, my bottle of fizzy drink – and its accompanying sausage wrap – was the aberration to what was a well maintained, really clean environment. It felt like I had insulted the ground – and faculty – of the school.

I was awash with embarrassment. Why did I have to openly disregard this beauty that was so carefully put together? Why did I have to show myself like this?! I imagined what the guy must have been thinking about me. I need to put out a caveat though; I wasn't attracted to the guy. I didn't want to be liked by the guy. It wasn't like I wanted to impress him. But the look which he shot me was rife with silent disapproval and judgement. I felt that he had seen into my soul and concluded that I was destructive to the earth. I imagined him thinking me 'local', 'unsophisticated' and maybe even a 'village girl'. I was ashamed of myself for not being a better a person. And because of the insecurities I had already been feeling in the new...different environment, I wished I could go back in time and undo my act of sacrilege to the hallowed grounds of the university.

To salvage the situation, I acted like I had dropped the trash on purpose. I opened my bag, pretending  to look for something and then, bent down to pick them up and toss them into the trash can. With that, I walked away with my shoulders squared, head held high and lips in a defiant pout. But...not before I stole a glance at the guy and saw the beginnings of a smile on his face.

That day, I made the choice to stop indiscriminately disposing waste. If I cannot dispose my waste in a proper way, I put it in my bag until I can. The ripple effects of that stink look stayed a long time with me and made me want to be a better person; first to myself and then to my community. I started to clean my house more, keep the ‘tornado’ at bay and generally, acted better. As expected, the more concerned I was about my environment, the less tolerant I was of people who littered and worse, peed and pooped in public spaces.

Having mentioned that, I have a confession to make.

Sometime in 2013, a friend and I went out on a date. I remember drinking from a packet juice and taking some water with the snacks I had. When we returned to his house and I was about to set out for mine, he asked if we could extend the night by taking a stroll. I agreed. Before we left however, I asked for some water and I downed the 60cl sachet that he brought. I felt like peeing, but the pressure wasn't much. So, I ignored the call and we went out. We took a stroll through the neighborhood and talked and laughed and generally had fun. By this time, the need to pee had become more pressing. I told him I needed to pee, and he said he had a friend that lived close by. When we got to the friend’s house, he mentioned the toilet and acted like he was the one who needed to go. Basically, he wanted to case the toilet before I went in. When he returned, his expression told me everything I needed to know about his friend’s toilet. I knew I wasn’t going to be peeing there.

After maybe five minutes, we left and again, not before I asked for some water. My date looked at me like I was crazy. I used my eyes to tell him I was thirsty from the walk. He didn’t get me, but he brought the water anyway. Soon, we were on a dark street and I was waddling. When my date saw that I could barely walk, he asked what was wrong. I told him my bladder felt like it was about to burst. He looked around, trying to locate an Okada rider but...did I mention we were in a residential neighborhood where Okadas didn’t go in after 6pm? So yes! There was no hope in sight.

I knew I had to pee in the street.

You should have seen how my date and I debated how I was going to do it. I was worried about breaking my own rules and also about being caught by someone. I was also worried about how I would look to him but that was the least of all my worries. My bladder felt like it was going to burst from the immense pressure and that was all I could focus on. My date knew how much I had spoken about peeing in open, public spaces and I think he just wanted to see how things would turn out.

Turns out, a working bladder was what I needed because when I couldn’t bear it any longer, I quickly bent down, took off my trousers and panties and let the urine make rivulets in the grass. It seemed like forever before my bladder eventually emptied itself and I used the last water I had been holding to rinse off. You didn’t think I asked for the water just to drink, did you?

Anyway, my date laughed at me for what happened; which was quite frankly, expected. He told me to be more lenient with people whom I see peeing in the streets. Beyond that however, he gave me a tip that has worked in my favor since 2013. He said, ‘when you want to go out, pee first. That leaves your belly empty so that this doesn’t ever repeat itself.’ And even though he was saying all this amidst good-natured teasing, I knew it was great advice. So, when I am leaving my house, I pee first. When I visit a person, I pee before I leave their house. When I go to the restaurant or office, I pee before I leave. I don’t want to ever be in that place (again).

As for pooping in public, I have an embarrassing story that happened when I had a bad case of dysmenorrhea-triggered diarrhea on my way from Lagos to Kaduna. I will not go into details because I know I have maxed out my grossness for the day – and maybe the month – but suffice to say, there should be functional toilets in Oyo and Ondo States for people who ply that road. And on my path, I take all the necessary measures to ensure I am never in a position to need to pee or poop in public spaces ever again. And I sure as hell never toss dirt into the streets or gutters anymore.

This brings me back to my indignation at littering. It is quite frankly, really disgusting.

I once saw a man whip out his penis on the streets of Abuja to pee on oncoming vehicles. Granted, he must have been mentally ill or something, but it is actually commonplace to see grown men urinating in public. I remember my censure at a man in a well-tailored suit who urinated on my path to the bus park. He was so well dressed that it was shocking to me. Yes…I know dressing well doesn’t mean anything. But I was shocked regardless. As I said, it is commonplace in many cities in Nigeria. I would be bold enough to say it is worse in Lagos and if you have been, you will understand me.

Generally however, we have a culture of filth. If a person isn’t peeing in public, they are pooping in open spaces. If they aren’t doing that, they are tossing trash into the streets or gutters. This is the rainy season and already, we have many gutters blocked because of the trash heaped inside them. It is not unusual to see people drag out their trash and toss into the gutter when it begins to rain. People even bend over to poop inside the gutters when it rains. The idiotic idea is that the rain water would wash it away. In reality, the water carries the dirt to the place where the gutter is blocked and then spills the trash into the streets. Beyond that, it spreads harmful micro-organisms into the environment. Is it any wonder that many communities are dealing with a resurgence of cholera and dysentery?

Let me take you back a bit. When I was a messy girl, with special focus on the mess I created in my house, my actions affected only me. If I didn’t clean my house, I couldn’t welcome visitors. I cannot remember if I ever fell sick as a result of how my room was, but I am sure that it would have affected only me, and if we are stretching it, my siblings.

But every act of littering affects the next person. Urinating in public means smelly spaces for individuals. Pooping in public is not just disgusting, it is also very unsightly. Plastic trash is making the land less arable or even beautiful. Even bio-degradable trash that is not properly disposed spells doom for the community. We know for a fact that Mosquitoes breed on dirty surfaces and proceed to spread malaria. We know for a fact that the horrible water washed from gutters run into the rivers where many people drink – directly – from. We know for a fact that our communities have become these ugly places made even uglier by rotting waste.

And what do we do about this? For the most part, nothing.

People ignore the waste that is slowly defining our cities and just carry on with their lives. In places like Abuja, the agency tasked with ensuring waste disposal and/or management are more concerned with arresting women hanging out in public than they are with their jobs. The government doesn’t care about waste disposal unless the President is coming into town. There are very few public toilets and where there are, they are usually unsightly and disgusting.

This is why I think we need to penalize indiscriminate disposal of trash and bodily waste. I am not saying this because I like to see people punished. If anything, the opposite is the case. But I have come to realize that people respond better to issues that affect them when they feel threatened. A typical example is that most people in Abuja drive with their seat belts on because they know the consequences of doing otherwise. On the other hand, people in Kaduna drive without their seat belts because they know nothing will happen to them. So if there is a threat hanging over the heads of people, maybe (just maybe), they will begin to do the right thing.

The first step should be to raise a Bill in the House of Assembly to penalize improper trash disposal and open defecation. Then the government should sign the bill into law and involve the National Orientation Agency to ensure the word gets out. As this is happening, more efficient public toilets should be built in places like motor parks, markets, major junctions and other such spaces where many people gather. Then there should be enforcers who make sure people do not break the law. The police isn’t reliable and there are many organizations doing just about the same thing so the government has to figure out how they will enforce it. And then, some people should be punished as an example. For me, an appropriate punishment will be to clean public toilets, wiping down feces from the pavement or cleaning gutters. Trust me, while people like to put out nasty things, they don’t like to clean up another person’s nastiness. This is why I think this would work.

In my opinion, one of the major reasons why we are as backward as we are is because of how filthy we are as a people. This is why if I ever become President – which I know is almost impossible given how Nigeria runs – one of the first things I will do is clean up the country. Maybe, just maybe, if our country is cleaner and we have a breath of cleaner air, our collective sense will begin work towards our improvement as a nation.

I know…idealistic.

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