12 April 2011

Trash Talk

The woman scowled at me, the multitude of wrinkles furrowing into deep ridges on her forehead as she queried, “What are you going to do with those? Are you going to sell those?”

I choked back a laugh as I glanced down into the bag full of smelly muck I held in my hand and answered her solemnly, “No madame, I’m going to bring this to the trash heap.” I paused, then continued thoughtfully, “ If you would like to take it to sell, you can do that.”

She squinted at me, peered into the bag, and then looked at the woman on my right, a young female volunteer from the local clean-up association. And luckily my companion got the hint and started explaining what we were doing in Ife, the local language.

Trying to explain why we were out in the middle of the city picking up garbage (and worse) was an unexpectedly amusing challenge. It was a perfect way to spread the word about the work of the Peace Corps-->

About 60 Peace Corps volunteers and 15 Peace Corps staff participated in regional urban clean-up days between March 19th and April 4th. But even more importantly, about 150 Togolese volunteers led the way: identifying key urban areas that would most benefit from the clean-up, accompanying PCVs to approach local authorities and mobilizing friends, relatives, and associations to wake up early and pick up trash.

The regional clean-up days of course had their own frustrations as well as joys as PCVs navigated the personalities of local authorities or ran out of gloves and found that some ‘volunteers’ drifted away when they realized they weren’t going to receive a cadeau. But this single day of trash pick-up sparked new collaborations between volunteers and their regional capitals as PCVs encountered city authorities, developed radio station contacts, met regional representatives of the ministry for the protection of the environment, and found local associations already doing clean-up work.

Suggestions to volunteers on how to keep the momentum going:

The Ministry for the Environment and its regional directors were particularly enthusiastic about promoting this type of work and would love to collaborate with volunteers hoping to pursue waste management projects. Speak to APCD Paul or PCVL Rose to get the names and phone numbers of the prefectoral directors.

Associations like Jeunes Voluntaires pour l’Environnement (JVE) and/or small non-profits who work for the environment exist in most cities, although they may need some new energy.

Speak to your village chief about organizing a Journée de Village Propre. You may be surprised to find out that they already have regular clean-up days.

Get involved with the local group of women who clean the market; it can be a great way to intervene and encourage them not to dump waste into local streams.Good luck and don’t forget to wash your hands after picking up all that muck!

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