A while back, I wrote a series of tweets addressed to the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Environment about a refuse dump at a community in Abuja called Karu.
The dump site served as the collection point for the communities surrounding it.
If the dump site was located anywhere else, I probably wouldn’t have noticed enough to make an issue an about it. But…it was right there on a major road and in between houses, shops, schools, religious centers and banks. Most people have to pass that road to get from Nyanya to Jikwoyi, Kpeyigi, Kurudu and other areas beyond. And because these areas are some of the most populated areas in Abuja, thousands of people ply that road every day and see the refuse dump that kept getting bigger and bigger.
Then the dump spilled beyond its boundaries and into the roads. The dirt and decaying substances were everywhere. And because the rains came in, puddles of really dirty water formed mini-lakes on the road.
It was an eyesore. But beyond that, it stank to high heavens.
Every time I had to pass through that spot, I had to breathe in as much clean air as I could, hold my breath and pray to God the driver of whatever I was in/on sped past as fast as he could.
One time, we were caught in a traffic jam right at that spot. We were there for roughly ten minutes. I couldn’t hold my breath for that long. The first time the smell hit my lungs, I couldn’t be more repulsed. I wanted to puke! Desperately! But if I did, it would mean opening my mouth to the foulness that was the stench of that place. When I got home that day, I had to take a long bath to scrub the smell off my body. Yes, the smell was mostly in my head but having been there for so long, I felt like I had a cloak of the disgusting smell all over me.
So I wrote a series of tweets asking the Federal Ministry of Environment and the Abuja Council to save us from that nastiness.
About a week later, I was off to work when I saw large trucks at the spot with men clearing the refuse dump. I was so elated I forgot to breathe in the clean air I would need to pass through the spot. Because the men were clearing the refuse in batches, the smell was especially ripe that day. I drew in a nasty smell of rot and decay…and gagged.
As I quickly covered my nostrils, I noticed that some of the men working at the site didn’t have their noses covered. How the hell were they comfortably breathing in that mass of horridness?! But more than that, why?!
It got me thinking of a lot of the trash collectors I have seen in the many places I have been to.
These men (and women) have to deal with some of the worst things in people’s garbage bags and cans. From rotten food to improperly disposed sanitary towels, these people come in contact with a lot of disgusting things when they collect trash. And because we don’t separate our trash into biodegradable and non-biodegradable, these people have to sift through all our trash to dispose of them.
Most of these people usually have no face masks on when they work. And where they do, it is the flimsy faux surgical masks they use. Those masks in particular may be good for preventing dust particles from going to your lungs but it doesn’t prevent any smell from doing same. So technically, it makes no difference whether they wear a mask or not.
Even more deplorable is the state of the local trash collectors who are not employed by the government or trash collection agencies. These are everyday people too poor to do anything else. So they get a wheel barrow or a mini-truck and go from house to house asking people to bring out their trash. These men have no protective uniforms or boots. They don’t have masks or hand gloves. All they have are their dirty clothes and even dirtier slippers. And because they mostly work in the ghettoes and poorer neighborhoods, the kinds of trash they have to deal with is even so much worse.
To make matters worse, these trash collectors only earn minimum wage if they work for the government and not much better when they work for private corporations. Those of them who work in the ghettoes collect between ₦10 and ₦50 per house. So not only do they have to do a shitty job, they don’t get enough money to make it worthwhile.
They also expose themselves to grave harm from the micro-organism found in and around trash. These micro-organisms can be disease causing or not. They stand in the trash, breathe it in, pick them up with their bare hands, and barely clean up properly before taking in food or water.
I remember once when the trash in my house piled up because these guys weren’t working. The trash was an eyesore and the smell, horrible. My housemate and I would wait out for the collectors and even walk as far as our junction to find them. And when for a week we couldn’t have our trash emptied, we were disgusted by the sight that greeted us whenever we got back home from work. The day we finally saw a trash collector, we almost danced in celebration. We paid him way more than was necessary because we were reminded that they were an integral part of our sanitation and sanity.
For the most part, we really don’t see these people. As long as we get our trash taken out, we barely recognize that these are people with needs, wants, aspirations, problems and what not. We get so engrossed in our lives that we do not see the danger these people put themselves in to ensure we stay clean and healthy. And sometimes, we put these people in danger by refusing to properly dispose of our trash. Some of us even dispose broken glass and used condoms with such callousness for those who handle our trash.
I think we need to do better and learn to respect the people who help us keep our environment clean. See them. Start a conversation. Ask them about their lives. I am not saying that you should pry but show interest in one of them. And if you can, please give them more than the customary ₦50 or ₦100. Not necessarily all the time but when you can, please do. You may not know what that simple gesture may do to a life that is already dealing with poverty, poor health and general suffering.
So…think about that trash collector in your neighborhood. And once in a while, make this unsung hero feel special.
Image: Daniel Marenco/ Canarinho Press