Heather in Senegal

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My host family's cat, Aqua, trotted into my hut last night after I turned off the light. She's taken to visiting me as I'm going to bed. I love this habit of hers. I began petting her and felt something stuck to her hind quarters. I turned on the light and discovered it wasn't to so much as in. There was a plastic bag protruding from her anus.

Everything here comes in plastic bags. Juice, vegetables, coffee, peanut butter, and anything else you want, is available in a plastic bag. Take it out of the bag, and it leaves a bag with some tasty residue left in it. The poor cat must not have been able to resist the temptation.

I tried to pull it out, but she emphatically refused. I snipped it off, close to her body, so that no one else could tug, and so it wouldn't get caught on anything. Never has a bag smelled so foul.

I had a nightmare about the plastic getting tangled in her intestines, but when she hopped onto my windowsil in the morning, she was as merry as ever and had no plastic sticking out of her. She's not too bright. In a few minutes I caught her chewing on one of my old bags of peanut butter.

Garbage is everywhere. I recently saw the classic example of the danger of having no trash management. A cheefuly little girl was playing on the rubbish heap beside her mother's boutique and came back holding an old water bottle, a D battery, and a syringe with a very long needle on it. The more official doctors have disposal methods: they drop syringes down their toilet holes. This one probably came off the black market.

The garbage system here has it advantages. Everything gets reused many many times. One person's broken bucket might be the perfect plastic for another person to melt onto an old oil drum and patch its holes. Old powdered milk bags can be new gardening containers. In the US, garbage goes where most of us will never see it, so there's no chance of some discarded object inspiring a passerby to adopt it for a new use. Here, the average trash heap has extremely little that is still in good enough shape to be identified, excluding plastic bags.

I came to the garden once with an art magazine. A featured photographer had a spread of photos of garbage. In one picture it was tires as far as the eye could see. Another had couches. My gardener's daughter was most struck by the landfill overflowing with cell phones. She asked what was going on in the picture, and when I explained that they were all broken, she scoffed. "Send them to Africa," she said. "They may be broken to you, but we'd fix them." A few months later I found my cell phone in a bed sheet that I had soaked and was washing. The phone wouldn't turn on anymore. I gave it up for broken and bought a new one. It doesn't work as well as it once did, but the guy I gave it to found a way to fix it enough for basic use.


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