Who would have thought that there could be different cultural ideas about what trash is. Trash is trash, right? A broken flip-flop, a rusty Coke can, a broken wine bottle, a sandy syringe, bits of torn fish net, disintegrating pieces of foam, graying underwear – surely everyone agrees that these should not be strewn along a beach. But I learned on Saturday that Mozambicans and Americans have clearly different ideas of what it means to clean up a beach.
Each year Oasis organizes a city-wide clean-up day in anticipation of Beira Day. On Wednesday, Beira will celebrate its 101st anniversary. On Saturday hundreds of participants from churches and schools around the city gathered in various spots along a 5km stretch of city beach to spend a few hours cleaning the beach with rakes, hoes, work gloves, and garbage bags.
I worked with a small team of ten people – five of us were adults and five young teenagers. I immediately set to work filling bags – lots of foam and bottles and plastic bags mixed in with sticks. After a couple hours, I went further back on the beach to see what my teammates were doing. They had meticulously raked pine needles into piles, ignoring much of what I would call trash. I asked one of my colleagues why they were doing that. I explained that pine needles were natural and didn’t need to be cleaned up but that we needed to be cleaning up the trash. I picked up a bottle: “This is trash,” an empty chips packet: “This is trash”, a plastic lid: “This is trash.” He politely agreed and said, “But when a tree drops its leaves, isn’t that trash?” Yes, if it’s in a garden, not out in nature. I decided to let them be and continue doing what I could on my section of beach.
Later as we were hauling trash bags out to the road, I noticed that the ones the youth were working on were all filled to the brim with pine needles, unable to be tied shut. Another colleague and I went around emptying some of the overflow into new bags, but I still spent some time on the roadside tying shut most of the bags. And when I looked around where the youth had been working, I realized they had completely overlooked shoes, bottles, cardboard, broken canvas bags, etc. I grabbed another bag, and with a colleague, filled it with actual trash. However, by then it was time to start packing up.
After all our hard work, we gathered together for some bologna sandwiches and Fantas. And would you believe that after three hours of clean-up, some of my group threw their napkins and cans on the sand?
I realize again and again here that we, as outsiders, can never assume anything about expectations or common understandings. I will suggest to the organizers that next year that we include a brief teaching on what garbage is and why we’re picking it up. I understand that a Mozambican and an American will respond differently to the aesthetics of trash (using my definition of trash here) on the beach, but in a society where sickness and disease are rampant, picking up trash and establishing habits of keeping environments clean is a matter of health and hygiene.