Report from Congo: Let's clean the heart of Africa (May 20)

By Nara Petrovič

Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo is a city of approximately 9 million people, most of them living in extreme poverty. It goes without saying that there is no system of waste handling, no landfills, no recycling facilities. Basically, the waste is everywhere. People aren't even noticing the waste; they have to first ensure their bare survival. Cleaning up the waste seems like a redundant luxury...

Combining Winin Pereira's book “From Western Science to Liberation Technology” with the trip to DR Congo gave it a depressing undertone. Former nuclear physicist's critique of the achievements of the Western science, or rather, the gruesome side-effects of it, resounded in the back of my head throughout the trip.

The extraction of wealth from already poor countries to support the excessive richness of the West was staring me in the face at every step: posh airport shops, huge reservoirs of fuel to feed the steel beasts crisscrossing the sky, large bags of plastic waste taken from the plane after each flight - but especially people mindlessly repeating the rituals of: eating their meal with plastic spoons, watching a movie on private screens and wiping their faces with sanitised tissues.

Inside the airplane I was enjoying the top side of the chain of wealth extraction from the environment - through the window I could see the bottom side 36,000 feet bellow: forests, rivers, dirty mines and roads of Congo that supply the West with precious metals, minerals, wood at the cost of people and the environment. But what concerns me the most right now: nobody even notices the final product of it all - the waste! 

Let's do it! World Cleanup 2012 on Congo Eco-village Conference 

Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo is a city of approximately 9 million people, most of them living in extreme poverty. It goes without saying that there is no system of waste handling, no landfills, no recycling facilities. Basically, the waste is everywhere. People aren't even noticing the waste; they have to first ensure their bare survival. Cleaning up the waste seems like a redundant luxury.

So, how to start up a cleanup project in Kinshasa and in DR Congo? How to awaken people to the problem of waste? How to ensure logistic support for the cleanup and necessary finances? Where to take the waste once it's been cleaned? Who are the best people to take up the organization challenges of such a project? How to network institutions and organizations in a country with underdeveloped infrastructure? Where to begin?

These were some of the questions we tried to find the answers to on a workshop that was a part of the eco-village conference I attended. Sixteen people from NGOs were inspired by the process of looking for solutions and they are determined to join the World Cleanup 2012 in some way or another.

The meetings with the minister of communication and minister of environment were arranged. The ministers were notified of the progress of the World Cleanup 2012 and the desire of Congolese people to join the movement with Congo Cleanup. The connection with the ministries is established and some support will be available from their side for sure. Challenges are mostly: forming a good strategy for effective spreading of information, raising the awareness, ensuring the logistics of waste removal and finding good locations for landfills.

We felt this could be a good time to start establishing a recycling enterprise in Congo that would turn millions of plastic bottles that are thrown on the street every day into something useful, providing people with employment. This could bring some money to many people who could collect the bottles and sell them for a fee to the company.

A good idea was to try to connect to the West, especially to Belgium, former colonizer of Congo, and look for all kinds of support and cooperation there. In Africa in general the way to organize the cleanup is through community chiefs - from top down. Starting it from the self-organized civil community - from bottom up - might not work, since people tend to follow the chiefs and ask about their opinion and consent before engaging in anything. Keeping the project people's and at the same time strongly involving the government and other authorities will be something that the organizers will have to experiment with through trial and error, and see how it will work out.

In remote village communities there is very little waste to begin with, and whatever waste there is, is handled by the community quite efficiently (a suggestion was made, though, that in villages there should be a hole available into which one can throw the waste that is not biodegradable and cover it later with soil), so the focus will be towns and villages where urbanization is happening without any real planning and thus infrastructure for waste handling is not incorporated into town development until waste problem becomes too big to be neglected.

Young people should definitely be the main carriers of the cleanup project. Their habits can still be influenced, for older people it is much more difficult. The most ecological thing I've seen them do was to throw the plastic bottle under a tire of their car to be squashed. I've seen even the environmentally educated people instinctively throw plastic waste to the ground - having no other option. It will take years to change the habits therefore well developed awareness raising programs must be developed for schools and universities and also for the general public to ensure long term improvement. 

These were just a few of the conclusions of the workshop which ended with the vision that the cleanup can be done in DR Congo too. Congo is in the heart of Africa, so starting the cleanup by cleaning Africa's heart should definitely lead to the rest of Africa following up. 

In the brainstorming session the main key points that came up were:

  1. Communication & PR
  2. Organisation
  3. Logistics + pilot projects
  4. Awareness / Knowledge management
  5. Finances / Marketing

Four important guidelines reached were:

  1. keep the communication unified
  2. don't expect those people to change who are not willing to change; first approach those who are open
  3. create a strong image to represent the vision of the project and share it
  4. have fun! Celebrate!

Good opportunities for the World Cleanup 2012 idea to spread further in Africa will be Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) event in Senegal in October/November (some other countries from North Africa will participate too); and COP 17 in South Africa in December. The Eco-cities network was brought to our attention and it was suggested that the central office of World Cleanup 2012 connects with them. 

VIPs - Very Important Parasites 

On an informal level one of the conclusions of the conference is that we have to openly express the issue of human parasitic behaviour and bring up the covered up matters that are rarely discussed. Due to patterns of our individual behaviour and social setup we're mostly engaged in fixing the burning problems of our parasitic behaviour, so there is very little space and time for creativity - which is the main foundation for long term, quality solutions.

If people creatively develop core messages, tools, goals and ideals - that will serve them and unite them even long after the cleanup campaign is over. If they make the information meaningful enough, it will spread among people like a wildfire.

The biggest enemy of the project are people's own habits they're not aware of. It is important to know that this project is an adventure; it is no armchair, sit-back-and-sink-into-self-pity project. It grabs you, transforms you and liberates you from disempowerment and lethargy.

Those who take up the organisation of this project become important, but in a different way that it usually happens nowadays. Usually being a VIP comes with an unwritten licence to consume more, to allow oneself “better”, richer and more wasteful items and services - so at the conference at one point a revelation struck us that nowadays VIP is really a Very Important Parasite.

World Cleanup project is creating a new sort of important people that are breaking the old paradigm - travelling light, lessening the environmental footprint, taking responsibility and effectively acting upon the important problems of the environment for the benefit of everyone, connecting to both the top and the bottom social classes with an equal stance, marrying simplicity with dignity knowing that this kind of demeanour is a role model for the future of humanity.

Analysing the society and the world we can definitely conclude that people are parasites. We can also conclude that Very Important Parasites are special only because they do more damage that the less important parasites that they represent. One of the roles of World Cleanup 2012 is changing the image of people's importance - new values are stressed - of cherishing and supporting sustainability, of caring for the environment, of stepping down from pedestal and taking care of the world. In future individuals will be important because they do less damage and more good, and because they inspire others to do the same.