A large-scale campaign has been initiated by some well-intending volunteers to clean up Mauritius. The aim is to be able to say – as my friend Georges Chung put it – on December 1st this year that Mauritius has gone free of litter.
It is an ambitious objective and it needs to be encouraged by all means by joining in the effort being made at national level. For, many of the country’s right-thinking citizens have realized that if current trends of littering around are allowed to carry on, people may end up taking it in their stride that it is normal to live in increasingly ugly surroundings littered with all kinds of garbage. Once such a view will entrench itself, a national tragedy will play out and the disaster will not simply be counted in terms of economic losses to be sustained. The issue will be how to deal with a distorting mentality of free-for-all in matters of environmental pollution.
Basic Training not to pollute in the first place
My generation of school-goers was taught how to be meticulous about personal hygiene. Inspectors would regularly come unexpectedly at school and examine if we have trimmed our nails, whether we are wearing clean clothes and whether leaves fallen from the trees have been picked up so that the schoolyard is neat and trim. At home, we were told to leave our slippers out when going inside the living quarters and there were strict protocols never to set foot in the family prayer room except on bare foot. We were given the reasons for the restrictions, notably that “you would otherwise be introducing in those places all the bad things you’ve walked upon”. Those who failed to abide by the laid-down norms of cleanliness were derogatorily referred to as un-companionable “phoo-wurs”, “malpropres”, i.e., despicable of conduct. Everybody made his personal effort to be seen to be operating according to the code of conduct of cleanliness.
The notion of having to keep clean under all circumstances went deeper despite the relatively lesser amount of comfort citizens could afford in those days. After primary level, teachers would typically test our understanding of prominent sayings, proverbs, etc., or even ask us to write “essays” on some of them such as “mens sana in corpore sano” (a healthy mind in a healthy body). One of these sayings was: “Cleanliness is next to godliness”. Another one was: “All that glitters is not gold”. And so forth.
Immature as I was at that time, I understood that the teachers were putting our memory and accuracy of recall to test so that those expressions were most of the time taken at their literary meanings. For example, in the expression about cleanliness being next to godliness, I imagined that God must be a very clean person and he would not tolerate someone unclean being seated next to him which logically also explained the ablutions we had to go through before entering the prayer room. It is only later on, after much ponderation, that I came to realize that the cleanliness in this expression referred to much deeper values. In other words, people who are swayed by passions such as anger, greed, lust, jealousy, hatred, violence and obsessive attachments, are really as far from the company of God as it is possible.
Progress towards cleaning up must be enduring
The two dimensions – the physical interpretation of cleanliness in the world in which we live and freeing our inner being from dominance by valueless passions – are related when it comes to keeping at least our physical environment clean. It is the quality of the mind that sets the pace as regards how we choose to deal with our surroundings. The more we adopt a slovenly, laissez-aller attitude in all we do, the more we risk being surrounded by unpleasant surroundings. The more it is a habit of mind in us not to throw around things all and sundry, the more we will tend to accept to live in an ugly and littered environment.
The team which has set out to clean up Mauritius may produce a sparkling outcome on December 1st 2013. It will no doubt have achieved something which armies of official scavenging workers have failed to redress since the litter always surfaces back with the same abandon after the scavenging team has departed the scene. For doing the demonstration that concerted action to clean up Mauritius can actually produce results, the team will deserve to be applauded. It will be sending a critical signal that the authorities alone cannot take up what is essentially every citizen’s responsibility. But, unless the mind is trained up not to indulge in the prevailing slothful and mindless throwing around of rubbish of all sorts needing to be disposed of, the devil will come back sooner than expected.
The mindset is critical in the act of keeping clean
It was late evening in the winter of 1975. I was in the company of a couple of American friends, Allen and Virginia, along with my wife some days after we arrived in Washington DC. We decided to go to the theatre. During the interval, our American friends bought some popcorn for themselves but we were not keen. They offered to take us back after the show and came along to our apartment. On reaching there, Allen asked me where the garbage bin was to be found. To my utter surprise, he was enquiring about it because he had carried his empty popcorn bag all the way in his pocket and wanted to drop it into the bin. Virginia opened up her handbag and followed suit. After they left, I saw the difference. It was in their upbringing not to throw around in any anonymous place anything which had to be thrown away and they had the patience to carry it up all the way to the garbage bin in the apartment! I must add that even at that time, supermarkets in Washington gave you free paper bags to carry away your purchases back home, no plastics.
We in Mauritius can set the example by cleaning up our physical environment in a collective demonstration about keeping the country clean. But it would need some amount of engineering of set mentalities if we in Mauritius do not want the littering problem to become an eyesore and an impending danger to public health. On our way back from Washington DC, we stopped for a while in Zurich. The lake is found in the city centre. As we strolled near it, great was our surprise that so limpid was the water and utterly free of man-made objects that we could see the ducks diving into the water all the way to its bottom; despite being in such a central and crowded position, there was no trace of pollution or rubbish in it. That was the state of pristine neatness I used to enjoy at the beach and in the translucent waters of Belle Mare when I went there for a swim on weekends. But Zurich took the mind immediately to the parlous state in which the lane beside the meat and fish market of the central market of Port Louis found itself in anytime I had the misfortune to walk through it. Beside the heaps of litter in different stages of putrefaction, municipal loaders full of garbage and waiting to be picked up were nearly always lying over there. What a sharp contrast!
Some years back, the Minister of Finance introduced a tax on plastic bags. The aim, according to the Ministry, was to arrest the excessive use of environment-polluting non-biodegradable plastic bags in Mauritius. The tax was supposed to act as a deterrent. Seven years after, it is clearly visible in public that the use of plastic has actually multiplied, not decreased. In other words, the imposition of the tax simply helped produce one more source of revenue to the government, not to deter the expanding use of plastic in the country.
Contrast our situation with Rwanda. The country took the decision that it will be a plastic-free country. What do they do? They don’t go about it in a roundabout fashion; customs officers check at entry points all luggage containing plastic and keep them off at that point itself, let alone prohibiting the employment of plastics for the multiple purposes for which they are employed in Mauritius. They are not interested to let the plastic in and collect tax revenues from it, presumably in a bid to deter its use. They will knife off even plastics covering suitcases and not give them entry into the country. It is working and, make no mistake, this is Africa, neither the USA nor Switzerland. It is at the heart of Africa, a tropical place which ambitions to be among the cleanest places of the planet. It is a place torn by civil strife a little more than a decade ago with a large number of casualties. But its sense of leadership is such that it is aspiring to host in the near future the Singapore model as an international finance centre. There are countries like this which do what they say they’ll do. Perhaps they are one of the upcoming black African states which will prove to the world that, howsoever small they may be geographically, they can contribute their share to making the planet a cleaner place than it is.
An everyday experience in Mauritius
There are hardly many public places in Mauritius which are maintained in a clean and neat condition as a matter of routine. Those who go to beaches when they are clean, leave behind heaps of trash. It is so not because there are no bins to put the rubbish into them over there. It is a habit, easy to make but hard to break. Let others rid the place, if they want, of the rubbish they will leave behind. No public place, including public roads, is spared: polythene take-away containers, plastics, grease paper, cigarette stubs, empty beer cans, plastic drink bottles, dead creatures, rags, you name it, all are thrown around with careless abandon.
I take a walk every morning from my home in Morcellement St Jean to the Candos Leisure Park. I would be terribly surprised if, on a particular day, I did not encounter heaps of rubbish all along, including those that have been piled up by workers belonging to different departments of the public sector. The heaps lie around for weeks, at times — nasty sights for early morning walkers — one presumes, because there is no coordination among the different authorities. In other cases, so long there is nobody in sight, some unload heaps of rubbish in unoccupied lands. A month ago, I noticed a piece of furniture in an abandoned cane field adjoining the Park. I thought it could be the work of thieves who must have run away with the furniture itself. It is still lying there today but the computer and other plastic cartridges which formed part of the convoy, have been set aside from the small path leading to the Park.
This sort of thing must be happening in other places just as well. It shows the degree of irresponsibility which has visited upon the psyche of those who couldn’t care less about others or the environment. They must always have their way, no matter how much it inconveniences others. So long this mindset persists in the country, there will be no going-back from the anarchy that has set in already. The question one has to ask in context is the following: why will the same chaps refrain from throwing rubbish around if they were to visit Singapore but come back to their poor habits once they are back in Mauritius?
* Published in print edition on 4 October 2013