Thursday, January 25, 2007

I Must Take Issue With This Open Sewer Concept

January 23, 2007

Kumasi, Ghana

Now, people will tell you that I’m not the most hygienic person in the world. I’ve spent days on end in the forest without bathing. I’ve been known to keep a “recycling” pile of pizza boxes in the corner of the kitchen until it becomes a nest of ants. I once stood barefoot in a public latrine of questionable character, whilst taking a whiz. And the five-second rules applies, even in Africa. In general, germs do not frighten me. But I must take issue with this African tendency towards open sewers running alongside every street.

Pardon me, they are not sewers per se; they are storm drains, according to a recent news article in one of the local papers. It seems there’s a national push on to clean the “filth” that routinely collects in these drains.

Well, smack me with a bucket of feces and call me cholera: that is a capital idea.

Call the infrastructure what you will, the name won’t change the fact that streams of grey sludge carrying more bacteria than a field of fetid corpses wash perpetually down deep gutters on either side of roadways in urban Ghana, on a daily basis. It won’t change the fact that people can and do throw anything and everything, organic and non, into these trenches; that ‘water’ from the squalid market streets runs into them; that, men unbuckle and women squat to pee in them, albeit fleetingly; or that livestock — chickens, mostly — root around in them, looking for some tasty morsel, and in all likelihood depositing a few of their own.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Wee, another colonial wanker from the West pooh-poohing living standards in the developing world.’ (Pun most definitely intended).

Well, I’ll have you know I once watched a child drop a deuce outside his front door in Lhasa, Tibet. I also saw an old Tibetan man hike his robes up around his hips and do the same thing into a gutter. On both those occasions I refrained from taking photographs — that would be rude — but I did watch out the corner of my eye with a morbid fascination that was stronger than my respect for cultural propriety. No big deal: you gotta go, you gotta go. The call of nature can claim us all, at any time and in unusual places. It was interesting to see how publicly they do it on the other side of the planet.

What I saw on my first day in Kumasi made my stomach heave, and I could not watch.

It was high noon; it was hot. We had arrived the previous evening after a sweaty six-hour bus ride from Accra. We left the hotel and rounded the corner at the bottom of the street, to find the banks and the market, and there they were: two of them, both boys, both around six years old, crouched down next to the drains. They were in up to their elbows, fishing around in the grey filth for God knows what. One of them was using a flip-flop as a scoop, splashing the scummy water about and digging in the hideous debris that lay beneath the surface. I have to assume the other one was using his fingernails. They were both splattered head to foot with blotches of the rotting muck of civilization, drying in the noonday heat.

A better journalist would have stopped and asked what they were about, but I had to get out of there. It was a crowded street; who knows if their parents were nearby, or aware that their sons were rooting through a river of crap. I can’t imagine what they were looking for. Very few material things in this world would be worth that kind of exposure, without the protection of some kind of glove, or space suit. G.

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