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Breaking a 40-year Habit

June 29, 2016

I looked out my bedroom window and squinted at the pile of leaves ready for composting, freshly topped off with a plastic bag. Ugh. And a tea bag envelope. And a piece of plastic piping. Trash. I rolled my eyes and recommitted myself to having a talk with our worker.

Then I took a deep breath. I didn’t need to be frustrated, I needed to remember that this is a 40-year habit (age is estimated, because guessing the age of a Congolese person is nearly impossible for me). It wasn’t going to be broken overnight.

It was described to me this way: the Congolese have always thrown their “trash” on the ground because, until recent history, all they had was natural. Banana peels, mango skins, leaves, etc. It is still mostly this way in the small villages. Here, if I buy something that is bundled, it is done so with dried grass. Village ways haven’t been forgotten or abandoned, even in the city. But, then products from other parts of the world were brought in. Products encased in metal, glass, and, of course, plastic. These products are often helpful and necessary, but what didn’t get brought with them was the instruction of what to do with trash. So, for the most part, trash still gets deposited on the ground. Everywhere. It is used to fill potholes or dumped onto an empty lot. Or it is burned. And burning the trash is not a selective process. Glass, plastic, tires…burn it all! People who don’t live downtown (like us) must choose between burying, burning, or paying to have the trash taken away. We have it taken away, but I have no idea where it goes (minus this, which I had blogged about earlier).

When we arrived last year, we began to compost. We wanted good dirt for a garden, and since we live mostly on sand, we made our own dirt. I don’t think I need to explain compost to you, but let me tell you, it was not easy to teach to our workers. First of all, they didn’t believe Matthew when he described the process of keeping it wet, turning it, and it will break down into soil. Then, to continuously teach the difference between trash and compostable items has been difficult. We were just getting into a rhythm with our workers when we moved. And the new house had a guard here that we hired (he was working at this empty house without pay before), who is still learning the difference between trash and compost. It hasn’t helped that we have had construction workers here on and off since we moved in, who throw their trash in any pile they see (or just leave it on the ground). But, they haven’t been here this particular week, so I knew this new plastic bag came from our worker.

So, I explained to him that plastic, in any form, must go in the trash (I pointed to the can outside for “poubelle”) and leaves and banana peels, for example, can go in the compost.

The next day he worked, he took some trash that I had left on our kitchen counter and took it to the can outside that I had pointed out, totally bypassing our kitchen trash can. I think I managed to confuse, rather than teach.

Is it the language barrier? We have recently discovered that this worker’s French is much less than ours. But, culturally, he will agree and say he understands everything, even if he doesn’t. So, we really have no way of knowing for sure how well we’ve communicated. And because he is quite good at many things, we rarely have negative outcomes…sometimes just unexpected results.

Another factor is the rote education model that is practiced throughout Congo. Learning here is by the memorization of facts or processes, instead of the critical thinking process that is emphasized in the US and elsewhere. So often, when we try to teach a new concept, we aren’t successful at teaching within a model the Congolese are used to. So when I say to throw something in the trash, it is absolutely understandable that he took it to the trash I pointed out to him, instead of assuming that all trash cans are equal. Because he wasn’t sure and it isn’t cultural to ask for clarification. And because I am indeed saying that not all trash cans are equal – the difference between my kitchen trash can and the compost can are minimal.

I must remember that the process of teaching what is trash and what is biodegradable to someone who has never before considered the difference or why it might be helpful to know, is not a one-day lesson. And that is where I must be patient and understanding. And teach it again. Because how could I be impatient with someone when God is so patient with me? Once again, I must be the learner, more than the teacher. And we still might end up with plastic in our compost.

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