We’re talking but not enough trash

(By Oluwafunmilayo Oyatogun)

In hinging our environmental discussions on trash in Nigeria, we meet at a fine junction between injustice towards the Earth and injustice towards people. Marjora Carter, one of the phenomenal environmentalists to emerge from the Bronx, and founder of Sustainable South Bronx, famously said that environmental justice demands that no one should live with more environmental burdens and less environmental benefits irrespective of age, class, gender, socio-economic status, etc. But in Dustbin Estate, people live with heavy environmental burdens BECAUSE of who they are in society. They sleep and eat in trash that they did not create…that they cannot create. Their children play in what’s left of the wealth that eludes their parents.

I’VE just finished a 1-litre carton of a popular brand of fruit juice; this one is a berry mix. Every empty juice carton is an opportunity to practise my basketball skills, perhaps regain my old glory of being able to dunk anything into anything. I go close enough to throw the juice carton into the dustbin and realise that it is full and needs to be emptied into the larger dumpster. There are things like fish entrails in there, a discarded battery, faulty electronics, shoes worn out beyond repairs and this juice carton. It’s refreshing to rid the house of unused and unusable items and it’s almost a necessary part of the day to throw such things away.

But, where is away?

The moment I stepped into Dustbin Estate, Ajegunle, ‘away’ came home. I visited Dustbin Estate in February with a group of women from my church here in Lagos. When we were told that there were people, in this city, living on top of trash heaps, we empathised with them but never fully grasped the reality of people living on trash piles. In fact, we saw it as a fair exaggeration and a charity opportunity. Then, we got to the estate and there were indeed people living on trash heaps.   Like every other place, life goes on as normal; children make toys of whatever they find around them, grocery kiosks are set up in strategic corners, and lean pet dogs run around. We even stumbled across a cow, perhaps belonging to a resident meat seller. The place is closer than skin to those who live there; it is where they bathe, sleep, eat, wake-up and learn about life. Worst of all, it is what becomes normal to many of them.

Even though Dustbin Estate may be a prime background for a documentary, a poster-child for the filth of Ajegunle living and an epic storyline for Nigerians and their famed resilience (or what I’d rather call generational conditioning to suffering and smiling), it is also a pitiful representation of our country, Nigeria. Dustbin Estate is a snapshot of our Dustbin Nation.

One of the biggest flaws in our social reconstructive efforts is the conspicuous absence of environmental reconstructive efforts. What we fail to realise is that attaining social justice is incomplete, in fact, impossible, without attaining environmental justice.  We have externalised our negative contributions to the environment and we simply refer to them as ‘away.’  The methods of delivering environmental messages have long evolved because the problems have long evolved, and continue to do so. Environmental issues are now social issues more than they are issues about the planet.

In hinging our environmental discussions on trash in Nigeria, we meet at a fine junction between injustice towards the Earth and injustice towards people. Marjora Carter, one of the phenomenal environmentalists to emerge from the Bronx, and founder of Sustainable South Bronx, famously said that environmental justice demands that no one should live with more environmental burdens and less environmental benefits irrespective of age, class, gender, socio-economic status, etc. But in Dustbin Estate, people live with heavy environmental burdens BECAUSE of who they are in society. They sleep and eat in trash that they did not create…that they cannot create. Their children play in what’s left of the wealth that eludes their parents.

We’re talking a lot on social media, especially Twitter. Twitter, the popular micro-blogging platform, was aptly likened to a ‘village town hall meeting’ and to a ‘bizarre radio channel’. Yet, we’re not “talking enough trash.” We’re quickly running out of time. This is neither a doom prophecy nor a pep-talk, it’s a reality check. We don’t have enough time to continue to wallow in reclining development, in environmental unsustainability, in environmental injustice and in poor education.  So, we must re-orient ourselves, starting with our young ones. In Nigeria, it is difficult to relate to snowmelt in the North American Rocky Mountains, as disastrous as that is, and depleting wildlife in the Amazon, as damning as that is for us, but we can relate to children, shoveling for old syringes and scraps of metal instead of grasshoppers and Ixora flowers. We can relate to Makoko, to Ogoni, to Dustbin Estate and to Bagega. If we can relate to one, we can relate to all because environmental problems are connected with one another: Climate change with floods, pollution with depletion of wildlife, and so on. They are also connected with other things: Climate change with climate change refugees, pollution with loss of livelihood, and so on.

I recently founded a youth-run organisation, called Bailiff Africa, and the goal is to somewhere, somehow, marry youths with art, culture, literature and media and use whatever baby they produce to educate on environmental issues as they relate to Nigeria and Africa.   Several Nigerian youths are doing things in their own way but for the same purpose. Yet, we aren’t enough. Top-down and bottom-up sustainable development must meet half-way.  We’re “talking trash” too, through our weekly discussions titled Bailiff Issues on Twitter via the hashtag #BailiffIssues. Every Wednesday, we gather online at 6 p.m. until 7 p.m. with a featured panel to discuss environmental issues pertinent to Nigeria and Africa. We are young Nigerians imploring other young Nigerians and Africans to join us as we undertake an environmental revolution. This generation has been handed over so much technology, educational opportunities, information and even problems. But for every problem we’ve been handed over, we’re very much equipped to create a solution.  When we’re 50 or 80 years old, when we’re feeble and frail, we will have absolutely no excuse in the eyes of history not to have made an impact around.

So whenever you throw something away, think about it for a minute, “where is away?” Think about those before the product, behind it and beyond it. Think about who really paid for your product and with what they paid for it. Then start “talking trash”.

Oyatogun is the founder and CEO of Bailiff Africa.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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