August 26, 2009
Trashcans are an illusion in Khorixas. When I first moved here, I lived in town at the Ministry of Education volunteer house. For those of you loyal blog readers, you’ll remember what happened that ill-fated night in January 2008 when the volunteer house trashcan lost it’s life at the hands of a naïve young American with a tiny touch of pyromania. To this day, the deformed and twisted plastic remains can be found in Khorixas and, essentially, serve as a warning to new volunteers that they know nothing and probably shouldn’t assume they do.
But this story isn’t about that trashcan. It only begins there. I know I’ve described the difference between “Town” and “Location” in Namibia. But to summarize, town is, for the most part, nicer. For example, they have regular trash pick-up and the location does not. Last year, when I moved to the location, I did not know that the trash pick-up I had so quickly shunned in town and that trashcan I so quickly killed would be the only real trash-solutions I would see in Khorixas for the rest of my days here.
When I first moved to the school, I remember standing with a few of my teachers at the door of my new flat. We were talking about what would be the most beautiful way to decorate my windows, when it suddenly occurred to me: what will I do with my trash? So, I posed the questions. The hostel matron pretended she didn’t know English and just stared at me blankly (to this day, she still pretends she doesn’t know English. The ruse is up matron! I know you’re faking!). The first grade teacher giggled under her breath and said she’d let me borrow her curtains for my living room windows. And my supervisor said, “Weeellll, dear… I don’t know.”
She didn’t know. A Namibian didn’t know what I was supposed to do with my rubbish and here I was, trashcan shy after my last attempt at anonymous trash disposal, by means of fire, left to my own devises. My first attempt at disposing of my trash in the location was to take it out to the trashcan in the hostel yard. You see, all over Khorixas, there are brightly painted public trashcans. These trashcans stand on two legs that are planted into the dirt. Then the legs rise to the top of the trashcan, where there is a hinge that allows the can to swing back and forth. There is about foot or two of space under the swinging trashcan and one lone crossbar in that space that children can use as a way of climbing up to look inside. And as luck would have it, the hostel yard had one of these trashcans. It was a glimmer of hope. It was a solution to a smelly problem. It was something that just made sense, right? Wrong.
The first day I carried my little bag of trash out to that can, learners jumped eagerly by my side: What are you doing, Miss? What is that, Miss? Can we help, Miss? In the midst of chaos, I arrived at the trashcan to find it full of grass. Yes, dead yellow grass – like someone had mowed the field from heaven in “Gladiator” and stuck in our one trashcan. I don’t know why. There was grass everywhere; why should we cram our trashcan full of grass? Isn’t that something we can just leave on the ground? Or feed to the donkeys? Apparently not. So, what was I to do? I threw my trash on top of the pile. The trashcan swung lightly on its hinges, squeaking ever so slightly. It was one lone tied plastic bag sitting atop a mound of grass. It looked so forlorn, so lonely. It looked so… just then, the kids stole it and ran away!!! They stole my trash!
From afar, I cringed at the fun the kids were having with my rubbish. The running commentary in my head was more than I could bear: Eeew, don’t eat that!! Oh my gosh, is that my dental floss? Oh please, oh please, take that off your head!
It was too much; I went inside and decided something must be done immediately. For months after that I carried my trash to town when I did my shopping. In town, they had regular trash pickup. I would walk to town with a bag full of trash, dump it, and then, walk home with a bag full of groceries. Thankfully, Jill was understanding – what sort of weirdo carries their trash around? Her site-mate, that’s who. The worst was when I would forget to empty my bag before I went into the shop. Then, I would open my bag to put all the groceries in but it would already be full of rubbish. It all got to be too embarrassing. I needed a new solution.
It had been months and the hostel’s lone trashcan was still filled with grass. It was then that it occurred to me: the trashcan was just an illusion – no one was ever going to empty it. I considered this and decided I was ok with people going through my trash. The key was that they shouldn’t know it was mine. So began the short period of trash displacement. The plan was like this: I would walk trash to public rubbish bins that were less full than the hostel’s but still in a somewhat close vicinity. I would do this at odd hours of the day and night so that no one would follow me. Children could then pilfer through the small bags later taking the good things. And, finally, no one would be the wiser that the things had once belonged to me.
It worked well at first. The sun would just be glistening at the horizon, with me sneaking back to my flat in my pajamas empty handed. Sunday mornings were the best because everyone was at church. The closest, yet just distant enough, trashcan happened to be adjacent to a makeshift soccer field and was therefore dangerous at too many times each day. The next closest, yet distant enough for privacy, was missing it’s bottom. This was a problem because it felt like littering. I put the bag in the top. It fell out the bottom. What was the point? Then the next closest was just too far. I got lazy. It would be weeks between taking out the trash. Gross smells and cockroaches were the only things that could persuade me to take action. I needed a new plan.
The new plan was brought about by desperation. For, desperation was the only thing that could drive me back to the match. I was going to burn my trash again. I was shy at first. I used an old baking pan to burn the small plastic bags full of evidence that I had lived. I would burn them within the walls of my porch behind my house so that no one could see me. There were many months of this sort of secrecy. Then, one Saturday morning, I smelled fire from my house I looked out the window and there stood about 50 boys burning trash just beyond my back door. It was chore day for the boys and it was their responsibility to burn up their rubbish. Brilliant! Other burners! I was not alone.
Where the boys were burning there was, yet another, large mound of cut grass and just beyond that was a rocky field full of all sorts of rubbish that had been abandoned there. This was the perfect place to take my burning public. The rubbish field and I were happy for quite some time. I would take my trash there, to a small patch of dirt and burn it. It was gone and I didn’t have to go more than ten steps from my door. No learner would ever again wear my dental floss as a headdress or use hair from my brush as a ball. Mission accomplished.
Slowly at first, and then gaining in frequency and severity, the rubbish field and I started to have disputes. People would come by when I was trying to burn my trash and ask, “Jessica, what do you think you’re doing?” And I would say, “why, burning my rubbish, thank you.” To which they would say, “tsk.”
A seed of doubt grew in my mind. Was it unacceptable to burn here? Was I breaking some sort of unspoken rule about women burning trash in fields? I tried to forget it, but more and more people, while facing the self-explanatory flames, would ask, “Jessica, what do you think you are doing?” Couldn’t they see? Or was it a deeper problem?
Out of shame and self-doubt, my burnings became less frequent. I would only burn important things like letters, prescription information or address labels from boxes. The other trash, I would put in the rubbish field with the scattered rubbish left by other teachers who had not been burning. Milk boxes, chicken bones and carrot tops were ok to be left on the ground, I thought. It’s not littering, I reasoned, the goats will come and eat it, or children will come and take it to play with. My first year as a Peace Corps volunteer turned into my second as told myself still, it’s ok because other people are doing it.
But it wasn’t ok. I had let it continue too long. The burnings had dwindled to once a month or every other month. More and more rubbish was being left on the ground in the rubbish field. I left the rubbish atop the mound the boys used to burn their trash on chore day, but it just didn’t seem to atone for the sin like I hoped it would. I despaired. I couldn’t see the difference between a rubbish field and a regular street in Khorixas anymore. I fell deeper and deeper into a hole of loose garbage morals of my own making. Children would come to my door and offer to take my trash out… and I would let them! I could see them in the rubbish field taking the good parts and leaving the rest behind on the ground and I felt nothing buy apathy (and joy that my trash had been taken out). I couldn’t see the light from the bottom of the deep dark hole. Until, someone saved me.
This past weekend, I took my trash bag the ten steps to the rubbish field and started a back swing to launch it into the wasteland. Just before I let it fly into the air, a guard walked by. He was hired by the Ministry of Education to make sure the school is not broken into during the school holiday. He stopped and said, “Good morning.”
I let the trash hang by my side. “Good Morning,” I said.
“How are you?” the guard queried.
“Fine, thanks. And you?” I replied.
Which wasn’t at all weird because every person you pass in Namibia, ever, must says some semblance of these things to you and every other person they pass. But then there was a pause. Then the guard raised his eyebrows and pointed. His accusatory finger was not pointing at me but it would have been much less painful if it had been. It was instead pointing at the one and only hostel yard rubbish bin, the one that had been full of grass for so long. He said simply, “There.”
“Oh,” I said quietly and hung my head in disgrace.
I was too ashamed to walk to the rubbish bin then, so I simply went inside. The next day, I had gathered enough courage to try a second time to take my trash out to the hostel’s lone trashcan. When I was approaching, I could see that the top no longer sported a huge mound of grass. I had been too blind, too apathetic, to see that the trashcan had been emptied! Trashcans were not an illusion! People were starting to care about what to do with their garbage! It was the beginning of a new era in Khorixas, where the streets would be clean. The Ministry of Works would pick up trash all throughout Khorixas – there would be no distinction between Town and Location, between rich or poor! All trash would be equal! This was momentous.
I reached the trashcan full of joy and hope and gracefully tossed my tied plastic bag in. I felt satisfaction. I felt accomplishment… I felt something on my foot. I looked down and it was my little bag of trash. How…? What…? I tipped the trashcan on its hinges and peered in. At the bottom of the can, I saw my toes peeking back at me. There was no bottom. That was it. Just a can. No bottom. A tube to accelerate littering on the ground. A laugh in the face to someone trying to clean up the chaos. A step backwards in the grand scheme of garbage.
You see, I tell you this cautionary tale so that you can see the plight of those who want privacy in a developing country. I tell you this so that you can look down into your own trashcans and consider what would actually make a good toy for a child who needs less to be entertained than an American child. I tell you this so that you can feel a small sense of joy when the garbage truck drives to your house and takes your trash away so that you never have to see it again.
No, but seriously, with three months left I still don’t have anything to do with my garbage.