Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Load Of Rubbish

(Zack walks into the Junction to observe Moses berating the owner, Philo, and the rest of the Junction patrons, including Max and Nat, looking on.)

Moses: ...and you seriously say you aren't going to do anything about it? That is an abdication of responsibility! You are behaving like a typical power-drunk Nigerian!

Philo (shrugging): If it bothers you so much, I can give you a bucket and shovel and you can deal with it yourself.

Max (grinning): Yeah, Moses! Put your muscles where your mouth is!

Moses (raising his voice louder): It is not my responsibility to deal with the state of your environs, and you know that. Left to me, you should be sued for negligence of duty. Anyway, I will not stay a moment longer in your shameful establishment - I am going elsewhere where the owner cares more about the state of his premises. Good day! (And with a bitter expression on his face, Moses shuffles out of the Junction, leaving Zack staring after him in bewilderment.)

Zack (making his way to the table that Max and Nat are sitting at): What was all that about? I know that Philo can upset most people with his don't-care attitude, and I know that Moses is a perennial complainer, but this evening seemed to bring out the worst in both of them.

(In response, Nat motions Zack to stand up, leads him all the way to the back of the bar, and points out of the window to a huge pile of rubbish.)

Zack (scratching his head): How did that happen?

Nat: Well, from what I can gather, there was a party or some sort of celebration held at the Junction yesterday, and this is the result. Apparently, the party organisers said they'd be happy to clear the rubbish, but as you know, Philo is a man who never lets an opportunity to make money pass him by. So he has asked for the party organisers to wait until those people who scavenge for rubbish have first come round and picked whatever can be recycled.

Zack (outraged): Really? How come nobody else is complaining?

Max (shrugging): What's the big deal? It's his backyard, and the rubbish is only there for a short while - it will be cleared eventually.

Zack (disgusted): And while its there, his patrons - the people who his business depends on - must endure the sight of this dump. He should have put the rubbish in containers away from the public view.

Max (innocently): If you are so heated up about this, why don't you complain about the heaps of rubbish that the government allows to lie around in public?

Zack: Who told you that I haven't complained about the heaps of rubbish on the road? I think it is a terrible thing that the government allows garbage to pile up in public without doing anything about it.

Max (raising his eyes to the ceiling and scratching his head as though pondering a great mystery): Hmm... what a pity that the government ministry responsible for ensuring hygiene and public health isn't doing anything about it. (Turns to Nat) Brother Nathaniel, isn't it terrible that government civil servants employed in the State Ministry of Health seem only to be able to complain about the problem instead of taking action? What a pity that complaints alone are not enough to shift rubbish.

Nat (grinning): As you say, Max, it is a great pity!

Zack (embarrassed on realising he has walked into a trap): OK, that's enough of the indirect attacks! My ministry has launched no less than three campaigns in the last year directed at sensitising the public to the need to maintain a neat environment. Is it our fault that nobody pays any attention?

Max: Perhaps the fault is less in the people and more in the campaigns. Did we not talk about this the last time when I suggested ways of getting people to pay attention to the threat of malaria?

Nat: Anyway, it doesn't matter. Even if people cleaned up their environs, there would still be a problem. Look at the programme that the state government launched recently - 'Operation War On Rubbish' - where residents have to clean their neighbourhood every second Saturday of the month.

Max (annoyed): Don't talk to me about that programme. A complete waste of time in our area. Nobody does anything, and it just messes up my weekend schedule because I can't go out until it's finished. I hope that's not your brainchild, Zack.

Nat (nodding): Me too. Anyway, In our neighbourhood, we dutifully clean everywhere and collect the piles of rubbish in one place for the government refuse disposal lorries to collect them. Of course, the lorries never come, and the rubbish is usually dispersed to the four winds.

Zack (defensively): You can't expect the government to do everything, now. Why not help the government by arranging for a private refuse disposal lorry to carry the rubbish away?

Nat (hotly): What! Are you serious? It's bad enough that the government is messing up our weekends and burdening us with the task of cleaning our environment. But you seriously expect us to start paying to have our rubbish removed as well?

Max (enjoying himself): This is a truly momentous moment. Not only am I witnessing Zack - the arch government critic - defending the government, but he is also proposing a solution that involves the private sector making money. So you don't mind if these private refuse disposal lorries exploit the citizens, as you're always accusing we businessmen of doing, eh?

Zack (irritated): All right, I agree that it's not an ideal solution. If you don't like that, you could always burn the refuse.

Nat (shaking his head vehemently): Burn it? No way! You need to see some of the dubious-looking containers that we sometimes collect as rubbish. Only God knows what the contents of those containers are. And only God knows what would happen if we burnt them - if we were lucky to avoid an explosion, we would probably be tear-gassed out of our houses!

Zack (throwing his hands up in surrender): All right o! I admit it - I am the person who has been going round dumping and scattering rubbish all over town. Oya, do your worst - crucify me, if you like. Are you happy now? Is that what your ears have been itching to hear?

Max (grinning): That's better, Zack. The sight of you desperately digging yourself deeper into a hole in a futile attempt to avoid losing an argument is a most unbecoming spectacle.

Zack: Government action or no government action, I still can't understand how you can sit back and relax while that pile of rubbish remains out there. (Points to the heap in the backyard.)

Max (shrugging): I'm not saying it's ideal - but I'm so used to seeing rubbish in public spaces that I just regard it as a natural part of the landscape and it doesn't bother me that much.

Zack: Really? So you don't worry about the germs that are breeding in rubbish heaps finding their way to you?

Max: Not really - I don't go looking for trouble with germs. I'm careful about what I eat and drink and I usually stay as far as possible from garbage dumps, so I should be OK. Anyway, what's this paranoia about rubbish all of a sudden? If rubbish was as toxic as you're making out, then from the amount of rubbish that's left lying around, we would all have been dead a long time ago!

Nat: See, you're behaving like most people who take a short-sighted attitude to the problem. Because rubbish doesn't directly threaten their livelihood or safety, they assume there's nothing to worry about. Then when the problem is out of control and there's a health epidemic, it will be too late to do anything. Being careful about what you eat and drink and where you go won't be any use then, because the disease will be so widely spread that someone near you will be likely to have it and pass it on to you.

Zack: Exactly! And because people are so used to seeing rubbish around the place, they don't feel any guilt about throwing away their rubbish in public instead of taking it with them as they should.

Max: Come on, Zack! How can you expect people to carry their rubbish with them? What if I've just eaten a juicy mango - you expect me to carry around the messy seed and skin with me? That's just too inconvenient!

Nat (pensively): You have a point. Perhaps the solution would be to have waste bins, like they do in developed countries.

Max (shaking his head): Bad idea. Vandals would end up stripping so much material from the bins that what would be left would only be fit for - guess what - rubbish. And even if the government managed to make the bins out of some indestructible material or fitted them with devices that gave a would-be vandal an electric shock, it still wouldn't matter. Faced with a choice between going all the way to the end of the road to drop a scrap of paper and dropping it where they are, most people would definitely choose the latter.

Zack: You guys are making too many excuses for anti-social behaviour. Those people who you are saying don't want to carry their rubbish with them - I tell you, they would suddenly discover how rubbish and their personal effects can co-exist peacefully in one bag if they knew a hefty fine was awaiting them for littering. Look at what happens in Singapore - they impose very heavy fines for littering, and it works!

Max (with a wry smile): Zaaaaaack... you know what will happen if they introduce a similar litter law here now, don't you? Rather than turning the town into a spotless paradise, it'll breed a host of law-enforcement agents who are never around when the likes of Chief Onitiri are dumping truckloads of rubbish in the main road but who emerge from the shadows just as you are flicking an atom of dust from your shirt to impose punitive fines on you. And needless to say, such fines are not destined to end up anywhere near a government treasury.

Nat: Perhaps we're looking at this from the wrong angle. Rather than trying to fix the problem of accumulation of waste, it would be better to even prevent waste from being created. For example, instead of throwing things away, we should find a way of reusing them.

Zack (scornfully): You're preaching to the wrong congregation - that's a message that you should direct to the West and our brethren in diaspora. Over there, they throw appliances away just because they've been given an almost invisible scratch or because a new model has come out. Over herenew we use, reuse and re-reuse until even the electrician is sick of seeing us and we have squeezed the last atom of use out of the appliance.

Nat: Hmm... you have a point.

Zack: I haven't even talked about how they waste wrapping material. The other day, someone sent me some software from abroad. When I receive the package, it was in a big box. I opened the box, and buried underneath so many layers of wrapping paper and foam was one ordinary CD. I was bitterly disappointed - I was thinking that this must be one powerful software package to come in such a big box! If I had bought the package at the local computer market, all they would have given me would have just been the CD in the case.

Max: It's all about marketing, Zack. Whether you like it or not, if you had seen the CD in its nakedness side by side with the shiny pretty box, you know that you would have picked the box. Even you admit that you thought it would be powerful software.

(Just then, a truck pulls up, and a man jumps out followed by several boys. The man enters the Junction, spies Philo and after greetings are exchanged, they engage in conversation.)

Max: Ah - those must be the garbage collectors who've come to pick up Philo's rubbish. Which gives me an idea - one way out of this problem of litter could simply be to get people to see that not throwing rubbish away was good for their wallet. They could do something like what Philo is doing and collect all their rubbish so that they could sell it back to people who want to reuse it. I'm sure that all that plastic that goes into making pyo-wota wrappers could be put to good use instead of blocking gutters and causing floods.

Nat: The problem is that the reward of keeping all that material does not justify the amount of energy and hassle it takes. If you collected a thousand wrappers, I'm doubtful if you would get more than N100 for your labour - and that's not enough to encourage even people who are desperate for money. I think it's great if people want to recycle their rubbish - but I'm afraid that money is not as good a motivator as the desire to prevent unnecessary wastage.

(There is a sudden shout of anger and the man who entered the Junction a few minutes ago can be heard cursing and shouting abuse at Philo, who just stares impassively back. The man then storms out of the bar, hastily followed by his retinue of boys.)

Max (ruefully): Well, looks like you were right, Nat - it seems it is hard to get a good price for rubbish in this part of the world. I sense Philo was hoping for way too much for his pile of precious garbage - so it looks like we'll be stuck with this view for a while.

Zack (in a determined voice): No way am I going to endure this site for an indefinite period. I think I need to make one or two phone calls to my people in the Ministry and drop them a hint of a certain bar proprietor who is violating state hygiene laws. (Picks up his phone and starts dialling.)

Nat (smiling): I guess being in the Ministry of Health can have its drawbacks when your friends joke about its poor performance... but it does have its occasional perks!


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