Are we Africans, like the 'bad' white man claimed, no longer able to keep our spaces clean?

On April 1, Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai would have marked her 75th birthday. She would most likely turn in her grave now.

LAST month, a close friend gifted me Wangari Maathai’s book, Unbowed. A phenomenal African woman with a compelling story of triumph in adversity, she is one of those people that I will invite to tea when I get to heaven.

One of the things that stood out from her writing is the absolute love and respect with which she speaks about the soil and plants, and how we must conserve the environment. I consider myself a true African child of the soil and deeply identified with her passion -  to me she is right up there with the Steve Bikos of this world.

So while on a trip to Kenya—her beloved country—and on a visit to its western region, I was struck by how there seemed to be discarded plastic everywhere. It sparked a familiar yet uneasy emotion—the same plasticky feeling I had while visiting the breathtaking Maasai Mara.

It is a feeling of sadness and sometimes, hopelessness, that I also experience back home—in South Africa we have christened plastics as the “national flower”. Think about it, and you can see why.

Given up on ourselves?

It raises the question - why are we in Africa incapable of properly disposing of this kind of waste? Are we aware of the dangers it poses to our ecosystem? The bigger frustration was that we Africans seem so okay with the amount of pollution around us, especially in our public spaces. 

In the same breath we expect someone else, such as the government, to deal with it, yet it is our mess to begin with. When they fail to do so, we shrug our shoulders, or allude to political reasons. There is nothing political about people making conscious decisions to litter. A man’s castle says says a lot about who he is.

“Africans are hopeless and that there is no fixing Africa, and that if you preach the gospel of positive change in Africa, you will either get killed or die not having realised any of your ideals”, a friend recently told me.

Given that many Africans share similar views, is this an indication that we have somehow given up on ourselves as a people?

Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai would have been disappointed. (Photo/AFP)

It hasn’t always been this bad. During my childhood in the township, residents were very meticulous about cleanliness. It begun in individual houses—on a typical weekend in ours we would be woken up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, which in a pupil’s mind was supposed to be a day of rest.

We would scrub the floors on our hands and knees, without the help of modern day tools like the mop, as my mother viewed their use as tantamount to laziness. I thought she was sadistic and would furtively cry while cleaning, thinking, “Lord what have I done to deserve this, we have a helper for crying out loud!”

Fussy mum

We were convinced that adults had children so that they could have mini slaves, and take pleasure in watching them squirm. My mother was very specific about how every corner of her house was to be cleaned. If it was not properly done, she would make me do it again, so I made sure that I cleaned properly the first time around. 

To top it all she would kick us out of the house as soon as we were done to ensure that the house remained spotless for the rest of the day!

The way the home was kept was thought to be a direct reflection of a woman’s pride in herself, so many homes looked impeccable. In retrospect, the strict cleaning lessons imparted a sense of pride in us. The men would also take great pride in tending to the gardens and yards. People used cleanliness as a barometer to gauge what level of respect and admiration one deserved in the community.

Keeping the streets clean was a collective community effort, which inspired pride despite the hardships in the townships, and the care also extended to people’s general sense of dress.

Workers of a cleaning company collect garbage in central Monrovia on September 30, 2014. AFP

Sadly this has changed all over the continent in recent times. We continue to look good, but our spaces reflect the opposite, fuelling claims from some “bad” white quarters that only they can ensure cleanliness.

Wangari alluded to it: “For rural people, travelling town was a novelty and you didn’t go unless had something to do, since it was not a place to hang around. In fact the British established rules and regulations that meant you could be arrested if you were caught loitering. Ironically because you weren’t allowed to loiter, the town looked organised, clean and orderly,” she wrote in her book.

Could the white people’s claims right about us - that the fewer black people you have in a place, the cleaner it will be? On the surface  this seems to be the case, as our communities are full of litter, whereas if you visit places that are mainly inhabited by white people there is less littering.  Of course declining cities in America, for example, also have litter, so it is a more complex story.

Nevertheless, it is worth asking; has apathy irreversibly replaced our sense of pride and cleanliness?  

I know it cannot be so, I think we are much better than that, but it is hard not to wonder. We must all become active agents of change to build cleaner communities, debunk the misplaced racist narrative and reclaim our pride in our own environment—in other words stop talking, and start doing. 

We must be better examples to our children.

—The writer is an avid traveller and commentator on social issues in Africa. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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