One of my lasting memories will be when we left the village of Mingela and the children came to say goodbye. Their eyes lit up at the sight of our empty cardboard boxes and tins and they hoarded them like gold. In the village it was easy for me to identify kids and remember their names, because apart from special occasions they wore the same clothes everyday. The kind of clothes that I would have thrown away because they were so broken and worn. I lived out of a suitcase and rucksack for 2 and a half months with a couple of outfits to change between and I was happy. I’m not a lavish person, but I have been guilty of complaining in the most irritating of tones: “muuum… I have nothing to wear…” When I came back I emptied my uni clothes, (note not even all of my clothes) onto the sofa.
The sad thing is, if I had known how much a T-shirt would have meant to someone in Mingela, I would have brought more of my clothes with me. On our way back, we stopped for a transfer in Doha airport, Qatar. The shiny, enticing, and superflousness of high consumerism hit me like a brick. A dazzling sports car, beautifully airbrushed women in fragrance adverts and oo look, 3 for 2 on shiny big packets of chocolate… the number of things I have bought because of a 3 for 2 deal… the number of times I go and still go to the supermarket and come out with things I do not need and did not want… the money the supermarkets pay for the design and layout that ensures we all go out with more than we wanted. Every single stall in Mingela sold something that was a basic necessity.
A friend from the village took me to the tailor’s once to get fitted for an outfit. She wanted to treat me and give me something to remember her by after we left. Her gesture was so generous… how could I say I had nothing? You always have something, it’s just whether you feel generous enough to give it away.
When I came home, I avoided the shops and consumerism altogether. I couldn’t face it. Instead, I had a little root through our garage. I found more than I bargained for:
Pearl and jade necklaces, a brand new watch still in its packaging, a scarf for a special occasion, one of those mini travel makeup sets that look so useful and then you never use it (this one was so old some kind of fungus had started to eat the plastic on the outside) in addition to the entire professional drum kit that my mother bought and my brother never played… cardboard box upon cardboard box. Only after living in Mingela, in the middle of nowhere, in one of Tanzania’s poorest regions, made me realise the sheer volume of stuff we buy and forget about.
And this isn’t a post about how lucky we are. For the vast majority of the time I was in Mingela, I never felt the need to describe the village as a poor one. Their generosity, the warmth of their greetings- children would rush out of their mud brick houses just to call out: “Mambo! Mambo Louisee!”, the singing and dancing in their crowded churches, at festivals and weddings, just how rich, abundant and colourful the culture was shielded me from the thought.
There’s something to be said for living in the absence of consumerism, everything’s simpler and more straightforward. It was clear what they did not have materially, they made up for in other ways. But when I saw the children on the last day, the veil lifted from my eyes. So did Doha airport and even just walking down the bread aisle in the supermarket when I got home.
The price we pay for having everything we want, is to also produce a hell of a lot of stuff we don’t want, ultimately in the form of waste. It makes sense to mass produce, to keep costs low, to keep the price down for consumers. It does not make sense to mass produce, so that we have to pay the environmental price of an ever-growing mountain of waste. We may be spoilt for choices now, but what about in the future? We are distracted by choice, distracted from the end of the consumerist chain, which is the landfill that does not discriminate between brands, or packaging, or quality, like a constantly overfed rat. When the rubbish is on our doorstep, maybe when it knocks down a housing price or two, maybe that’s when we’ll start thinking of it as a problem.
I’ve racked my brain and I can think of some solutions that might ease the waste problem, but nothing to cure us of consumerism. It took me a 2 and a half month trip to Africa to make me realise it was a problem.
Something thrown away is something we want to forget about in the first place. And our rubbish is handily collected and taken away from under our nostrils once a week. In Mingela there was no rubbish collection service, the rubbish we had, we burnt. On a small scale for 14 people this was ok. But we still managed to accumulate 2 full sacks every night. What if waste became something valuable and useful? Like to the kids who fought over our cardboard boxes? Websites such as https://www.freecycle.org/ create a healthy attitude where people consider first if what they’re about to throw away might still be useful to someone else in their local area. We can also develop our attitude about the treatment of waste itself. There are many ways of utilising it by turning it to biofuel and building more biogas plants (capturing gas produced via bacteria breaking down waste). There’s always recycling, for those who can be bothered. And maybe we need to set an example for other countries who have so much land they don’t feel the need to recycle or have landfill tax (cough cough USA). Maybe waste could be the common denominator for all countries- after all, every country has it. Waste is universal. But our attitude towards that waste needs to change.