I may have reached my breaking point. Up until now, the small battles I fight to maintain a sane and sanitary lifestyle amid the dust and squalor of Kumasi had seemed win-able. But today, I hit a road block and may have to admit that I am beaten.
When we moved into Casa Kumasi more than a year ago, I took it upon myself to beautify the grounds. The small patches of lawn in front of our compound wall seemed like a good place to start. They offer visitors and passersby their first impression of who might live beyond the gate and they were outside the domain of the chickens and goats.
I began by pulling out the big, thorny weeds and trimming the grass using a hand scythe. Within a few months, a lawn began to materialize. Soon it was looking as respectable as our place back in the States. A year later, Bob bought a lawn mower and keeping the lawn nice was even easier.
Meanwhile, the neighbors began acquiring dogs. Meat dogs to add to the roaming chickens, expanding their dinner choices. Before long there were at least three dogs which soon went hunting for extra calories in the form of neighborhood garbage. Our nicely trimmed lawn seemed like a good place to lay down and gnaw on bones. One step forward and another one back.
So now, in addition to mowing and pulling weeds, I was occasionally removing shredded black plastic bags, tomato paste cans, corn husks, gnawed bones and even baby diapers. To Bob’s horror, he stepped outside one morning to find dog-gnawed canine bones, leftovers from a weekend meal.
Today, as I stepped outside our gate on my way to buy tofu, I saw a new spread of trash. Unable to walk away from it, I went back inside for the broom and dustpan. As I began sweeping bits and pieces from lawn to dustpan, I saw what looked like bloody cotton balls. At first I thought someone had cut themselves shaving, but realized in a moment that the dogs had enjoyed a used sanitary napkin. And a disposable diaper.
As I worked, I found myself having a difficult time returning the cheerful greetings from my neighbors. “Where is your pride?” I wanted to ask them but instead, offered a curt “eta sen” and continued cleaning up the mess. The words I’d read last night before falling alseep rang in my ears. It was an exchange between Paul Theroux and his South African tour guide, Archie in “Last Train to Zona Verde:
When he kicked a beer can with the side of his foot, I used that as an opportunity to ask him why the carefully planted flower gardens in front of the cultural center were blighted, and the whole of this street and its sidewalk littered with beer cans and waste paper and blowing plastic.
“We don’t know what to do with it. People throw it and it blows.”
“Why not pick it up?”
“It is a problem”
“Archie, all it takes is a broom and a barrel.”
“The municipality cares for it.”
“If that’s so, why is this crap still here?”
I deliberately put him on the spot because he was, so he said, the spokesman, and the cultural center was the primary destination of the township tour-as it happened, a busload of white visitors had arrived and were looking with that “where are we?” squint of tourists just off a bus. In a place where tens of thousands of people had no job and nothing at all to do-a number of people were conspicuously sitting around and talking, or gaping at the tourists-not one was picking up the masses of litter.
I knew my neighbors were only indirectly to blame as there is no way of telling where the trash the dogs drag over to our trimmed patch of grass comes from. Surely some comes from their household, that is the collection of dirt-floored, tin-roofed rooms of crumbling cinder block they call home, but not all.
Moreover, taking responsibility for your pets (er, livestock) isn’t done here and cleaning up common areas is also outside the cultural norm. In fact, I’m sure they regard me with curiosity every time they see me bending over to pick trash out of my little patch of lawn. Sadly, this knowledge only made me more frustrated.
After five trips to the thick weeds down the street, the dustpan was streaked with blood and feces. When I was done, I put the broom and dustpan into a bucket of water and added disinfectant and I washed my hands for a long time before I felt capable of continuing my trip to the store. I shared my frustration with Bob and he suggested it was time to let the front lawn go. Exposing myself to blood-borne pathogens in West Africa seemed like a high price to pay for a pretty entrance.
I felt a heavy sadness. For so long, I felt as if I were winning the battle, eking out a semblance of “normalcy” in this foreign land. A bit of order amid the chaos. And now, in the name of sanity, I would have to abandon my dream, letting the nasty stuff pile up until even the dogs decline to lay in it, or stooping only to remove the overflow that spills out onto our concrete entrance way. I was filled with the hopelessness of it all – from all the NGO’s seeking to improve the standard of living in Africa, to the fated fecal sludge-to-biodiesel project, to our own little patch of lawn.
Back out the gate I went, still shaken and telling myself I needed to let it go. “At least my mother is still alive,” I thought. It popped into my head, followed quickly by the realization that my friend Mano unexpectedly lost her mother a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I thought, things could be worse, they definitely could be much, much worse.