In Europe we feel like criminals if we drop any rubbish (even a cigarette end on the beach!) This is after decades of indoctrination about ‘keeping Britain tidy’ and taking personal responsibility for public space and the environment. No such sensibilities around here, where I recently met someone who had lived in Maputo some years ago and on a return visit commented on how much less less garbage was lying around the streets nowadays. Hmmmm, I’d just been thinking about all the stinky messes I walk past every day, despite endless dawn sweepings of private yards, municipal services and many local NGOs organising volunteers for district clean-up days. Whatever. It is not enough and trash large and small wafts and blows, accumulates in holes and drains and around certain big trees which then turn into fly tips and smelly urinoirs.
From our flat’s front bedroom can be heard at 2 or 3 am the clanging of the garbage wagons as they empty the metal bins opposite our building, spilling large amounts that then add to the drift and drive of loose rubbish to fill yet more corners and crevices in the vicinity.
Recycling as we know it in Europe is in its infancy here. The slippery thin black plastic bag is a new bird in the wind and a new species of flower adorning the trees. But the trash pickers are also on the lookout for what can be retrieved and sold, and after dark can be seen going through soggy plastic bags and boxes ahead of the municipal wagons.
Of course the exclusive neighbourhoods are entirely trash free. Here the streets are lined by big houses with gardens, and protected by razor wire, armed guards and dogs. In these areas are rich Mozambicans, embassies, foreign consulting firms, the (separate but neighbouring) houses of Graca Machel and Nelson Mandela, the President’s house and probably various mulungus (the Shangana and Zulu word for white people). The outskirts of Maputo are green belts full of gardens growing lettuce and cabbage and corn. But close by there is always a pile of trash.
But the serious trash pickers actually live at the landfill tip several km out of town, where they find and sort what scrap they can sell from the steaming dumps of organic and inorganic. Most of these are homeless kids on the edge, AIDs orphans, destitute. It’s how they survive, selling bits of metal, plastic and other recyclables.
One group of boys who pick through the trash here became students in a Moz-Italian photo-video project called A Mundzuku Ka Yina (means ‘our tomorrow’ in Shangana, the most widely spoken language in the south). See their photos at the landfill of Maputo in Hulene. They also told snippets of their lives through video images, dancing being a dimension of their play and socialising. [If that link does not work, try clicking on this or pasting it into your browser http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-uC5xhNXIQ].
It astounds me to see the energy and spirit of these kids and their ability to excel at something that is truly their own. The setting is the antithesis to our antiseptic modern world, so this mountainous trash area at Hulene makes the loose plastic and paper that blows around central Maputo, and the bags, bottles and cans that collect in holes and hedges, seem like a mere bagatelle.