Burn it All

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Burn it All Photo by Mark Engelbrecht

I pat my hair dry and comb it into what I consider to be the most respectable form that I’m ever going to achieve with my unruly hair. However it looks, at least it smells good – of patchouli and citrus fruit – and my shower gel, infused with vanilla, offsets it nicely. I’m clean, and I feel ready to start the day. I’ve even had hot water this morning, so I’m feeling particularly cocooned in a sheath of cleanliness and comforting warmth.

I buckle my sandals and put my bag on my back, waving goodbye to Priscilla, my host’s house girl, and set off for the day of meetings that lay ahead of me, down in the centre of Mwanza town. To begin with my feet float above the dust of the road and I feel sprightly and positive, almost invincible.

Sometimes those first few steps you make out of your front door are the most full of conviction and promise, and today was certainly one of those days. Precious and Mary, who I estimate can’t be older than about 8, wave to me from the other side of the road, heading up the hill towards school, as I head down towards town.

“Good morning, how are you?” They ask, as always, never awaiting a reply, but always just as proud to have asked me the question in their best English, and receive a friendly wave in return. They’re soon out of earshot, their little legs used to the climb and their morning chai giving them the force they need to conquer the hill in youthful speed towards another day of Tanzanian primary school education.

I hold my head up towards the sun, letting my hair fall down my back, and the shadows of the trees lining the road project their natural forms onto my face, making the sun create momentary works of art across my cheeks. The air smells of ‘mandazi’, and I can see the round doughnuts frying in the old lady’s pan further down the street, for young men’s mid-morning snack (for they start work at the crack of dawn, and when my day is just getting started they’re already in need of a break).

Then as I turn in front of the school, the one at the bottom of the hill which is much better appointed than its higher-up competitors where Mary and Precious attend classes, I suddenly find myself retching. I can barely breathe and I feel my eyes, ears and mouth all clog up with a prickling and burning sensation that I can only describe as horrid.

Nobody around me reacts in the same way; all those who are walking down the same street as I am are oblivious to the internal horror I’m facing and I can’t understand why. And then I realise that I’m clearly not as used to it as they are, to the burning rubbish by the side of the road, which the very children who had generated the rubbish are cremating before classes start.

This is not a one-off. I have often come back to the house I am staying in to find a steaming pile of household waste behind the building, being burned by some do-gooder from the household who carries out what they deem to be their household duty of getting rid of the rubbish. But plastic wrappers and banana skins are not intended to be burned, their components don’t go onto the shelf of the shop or the plate of the diner with the dream of one day releasing all of their contents into the air in a toxic cocktail of fumes and harmful molecules.

The gases that are released don’t just stop at clogging my airways every time I walk past the local primary school. They stick to the lungs of the children who burn them. These same fumes will float around the land in which they’ve been brought into existence, having small but significant effects on the climate, the air quality and the health of the humans which inhabit that same land. Dioxins released by certain plastics are some of the most toxic fumes we could possibly wish to create, and we readily do it in our gardens, schools and roads, so that they can be absorbed through the lungs and the skin of those we know and love.

The reasons for this burning are strong and rational: if waste is not collected then it must be gotten rid of, and it is certainly more practical than letting it build up on the streets or in piles behind the house, attracting animals and scavengers.

However, in the many years that we’ve been burning rubbish to dispose of the evidence of our consumerist existence, we’ve learned some important lessons about our impact on the environment, and we need to bring these two schools of thought together into a more harmonious existence, and one each even brings some benefits.

Communities can take their rubbish into their own hands (not literally, as that may be a little smelly and pointless) and create neighbourhood landfills. Local NGOs can support in these projects and advise on the best place to do this, as national regulations for landfills in Tanzania are not as developed as we might wish.

Organic waste can be put to good use to fertilise crops or gardens, and it only takes a small wooden structure to keep the scavengers out. In South Africa, landfills are becoming so commonplace that the country is becoming a pioneer in the field across the continent. In Tanzania we still rely on burning, or carefree waste disposal in rural areas, with no system for the management of the associated gases or rehabilitation of the land following the dumping of such waste.

Tanzanians will have produced almost 47 million tonnes of waste this year, and much of this could be put to better use. In India biogas plants have been created which turn the gasses from everyday waste into useable energy for businesses and households. Plans to do this in Tanzania are moving along slowly but surely, but here’s hoping we’ll soon be feeding energy from our rubbish bins into the national grid.

Not only will this provide more reliable electricity but it will also cut down on the costs associated with powering electronic appliances, and no one can be against fewer power cuts and cheaper electricity. In a district of Chamwino, a town near Morogoro, the residents and authorities decided to implement an official composting facility so that cost-effective fertiliser could be acquired from organic household waste. This was a result of pressure from inhabitants and collaboration between people and power; this can be done elsewhere, Chamwino is not an exception, but an example.

The industrialisation of the African continent, and the globalisation brought about as a result of increased imports, man-made products and foreign-produced goods, means that we each have even more of a responsibility to ensure that the way we act on an individual level doesn’t increase this noxious presence.

When the power goes out I use glass bottles and jars to hold my candles. When I need a container for my water or fruit juices, I use the emptied and cleaned bottles I have in the cupboard. When I wrap leftovers up it’s always in ripped-open food wrappers and branded containers. My waste bin is small and my impact is limited, and I’m not doing anywhere near enough yet. There’s always more to be done, and there’s always cleaner air to be had, if we want it.

Claire Baker

Claire Baker is an international nomad who has lived in East Africa, Europe, Latin America and... wherever the travel angels will send her.

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