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Reading plastic bags

December 27, 2009

Sam, our glamourous Zimbabwean campsite owner, explained the origins of the beautiful community library she built, today – which fortunately seems to have survived the earthquakes and tremors we keep getting here. It’s a great example of how villages can improve their educational faclities, so I thought I’d retell it.

It started one day in 2006, when a villager demanded to see Sam, claiming that one of her staff had bewitched his goat causing it to die, and demanding 3,000 kwecha ($20) compensation from her (the staff man couldn’t afford to pay). Sam refused to pay, saying that the guy hadn’t bewitched the goat, it had died of other causes. “Bring the goat to me,” she said, “and I will tell you exactly how it died. If I am right, you pay me 3000 kwecha, if I am wrong, I will pay you 6000 kwecha.”

The goat was brought. “Now, cut open its belly and inside you will find a red or blue jumbo [plastic bag],” she said. Sam turned around (she’s a vegetarian) while the slicing was performed on her lawn, and sure enough, there was a jumbo knotted inside. “That is what killed your goat,” she said.

A month later, the man returned complaining that her staff had now bewitched another of his goats. Again Sam insisted the goat was opened; again a plastic bag was found. Sam refused to pay, the man refused to pay. A tribunal was called.

Sam went to the tribunal and took the village chief around village and its fields, pointing out the many many plastic bags and other rubbish. “You can’t eat them and neither can your goat,” she explained. The chief was convinced and Sam won her case.

But the problem troubled the chief. What to do. He approached Sam, who found out about a facility in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital) that recycled plastic and paid 12 kwecha per kilo. She recruited village kids aged 3 to 10 to collect bags – they would be paid 5 kwecha per kilo and the remainder went to a fund. Within a couple of months, they had cleaned up the village and raised enough for toilets to be built at the school.

The library was then built using plastic bag money. Now, as I walk through the village, it’s filthy with rubbish everywhere. What went wrong? “It’s my fault,” Sam says. “I got everyone to dig pits to put their rubbish in, from where it could be burnt. The village was beautifully clean. But then the monsoon came and because i hadn’t told them to cover their pits, the rubbish got wet, wouldn’t burn, buit up and overspilled.” Now no one bothers anymore. If something doesn’t work once, it is abandoned – particularly if it requires a modicum of effort.

The library is wonderful though.

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