Garbage Detail

Last Week Freedom Friends hosted Ruah and Lewis, Quakers from Vermont doing a John Woolman walk talking about enrivonmental concerns. It was a good presentation. It caused me to remember one of my own Woolman moments. With deep respect for my Burundian Friends, here is...

Today's UPI column, #91

So There I was...

Insulting my friend by talking to her about her garbage.

I was a long-term guest in an African household. My host’s socially appointed role was to make sure that all my needs were met, and that I was adequately protected. My role as a guest was to be effusively grateful, and to bless the household spiritually and materially, as I could.

I was being a bad guest, and I knew it, but truly, I could not help it. My hostess, my sister in the Lord, my fellow mother was unknowingly endangering her children, which I now loved as if they were my own. If nothing else, the rules of the International Union of Mothers required that I speak up.

My friend ran a well-ordered household. It was hers to rule. Lower middle class though she was, she had a cook, a gardener and a night watchman, as well as a couple of younger sisters from up country who worked for their school fees and board. I, as a guest, had my own young female helper. This was completely normal and pro-social behavior; to have the ability to employ people and to not do so in a country of vast underemployment is seen as selfish.

My friend had a lovely vegetable garden inside the compound walls. She also had a system for dealing with trash, as the city of Bujumbura did not have anything like trash collection services. The trash went out to the far corner of the compound, and the heap was burned and turned once a week, when well broken down, it was mixed with the droppings from the chickens and rabbits and spread over the vegetable garden. Nice and orderly. Except for one thing. The toxins.

Imports from China and Eastern Europe have made it to the third world. There are the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags. The universal cheap plastic lawn chair. Cell phones are cheap. Many things including food now come in colorful paper and plastic packaging. And battery powered toys, radios, and other devices are now common for the middle class. And no way to dispose of any of it.

It was when I saw the double A batteries, broken by fire, in the compost around the maize that I investigated a bit. I thought about it. I prayed and I took my sister aside privately and did my bad guest behavior. I praised her housekeeping skills. I praised her first world education and professional demeanor. I added as a very slight aside that as busy as she had been with the good work of God’s Kingdom that she might not have had time to learn about the contents of batteries. I offered my information as a trifling aside. Heavy metals, toxic chemical, damage to the soil, her plants, and the beautiful food that she grew and fed her babies.

She laughed at me. Silly paranoid concerns. Irrational beliefs. Could I not see how pretty her corn and beans were? Had I not tasted the food? Was it not delicious? Could I not see how fat and healthy and smart her children were?

I praised effusively her cooking and her progeny. Then I very gently asked her if she would break one of those batteries open and let her youngest suck out the contents. She looked at me with horror. I suggested every so gently that to break them open and put them around her beans meant that the contents went into the beans and into her child even if the beans tasted good.

I suggested that she separate her garbage into two groups, one pile for food waste and animal waste and plant waste; and another place for plastics, colored paper and such. I suggested that only the food and animal waste go onto the garden. I suggested that the batteries be put into a storage container and just left alone – forever if necessary.

She laughed at me again, but not so good-naturedly this time. She pointed out the obvious flaw in my thinking. The purifying fire of her little garbage heap. Did I not know that fire cleaned all things? I gently reported that I had been told that home fires are not hot enough to truly destroy all the bad things in plastic and batteries and such. She gently suggested that I put my hand in the fire and see if I thought it was hot enough.

I apologized profusely for my bad manners, obvious lack of knowledge about how things are done here, and let it be.

But the next week I noticed that there were two garbage heaps in our household.

Every other good mother of Bujumbura continues to burn her plastics and imported garbage. You smell it in the air every evening – purifying fires. And the babies mostly look fat and happy.

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