Ojuala is a ball made of strips of compacted plastic bags and held together by interwoven sisal rope. These balls were well crafted. They bounced off walls and let out a resounding thud when they connected with a striking foot. Young boys reused and recycled in the days of scarcity and kicked ojuala balls around Nairobi estate roads back when Maradona was the big name in football. Plastic bags were not the standard fare in the 70s and 80s. Supermarkets packed sugar in brown bags, chips was served on square strips of plain paper and meat was wrapped in newspaper. Hence the phrase, “Gazeti ni ya kufunga nyama”.
I moved into a gated neighbourhood and in less than two weeks, I got profiled. It all started when a female neighbor, an older woman with grandchildren in university confronted me on the common stairway. I live a floor above hers and she stepped out of her house as I was crossing her level and launched into an interrogation. At first I thought I was been profiled as a randy bachelor. There was clearly no ring on my finger and single men are generally held suspect until proven innocent. I must have shown the prospect of returning in the wee hours with revolving female companions and by extent messing up the moral balance of what seemed like a fairly conservative neighbourhood.
However her line of questioning started to get circuitous. She wanted to know whether I was aware of the recycling policy as she kept staring the plastic bottle of soda I had in my hand that was half empty. For a moment I thought it awkward but she quickly made it obvious that she was more concerned about how I was going to dispose of the empty bottle.
I ended up getting a 10 minute lecture on the importance of separating my trash. She emphasized that plastic bottles should be kept aside and put in the recycle pile where they can find more sustainable use that came across as “Listen, here young man! Plastic is choking the earth. Recycle!” I nodded in total agreement and pledged my commitment to recycling plastic. I had just become an innocent victim of litter profiling. Did I resemble the sort of guy who filled up his garbage bag with plastics bottle? Was I a numb consumer who did not care for the environment? I resisted the urge to state my track record as an environmental conscious citizen. I have planted a forest in my time and I could ably tend to indoor plants. I could have added that I started recycling even before they had invented a name for it but you know it is not polite to argue with an old lady.
We live ridiculously wasteful times. The amount of garbage generated per individual is enormous. No accountability is required and there is always someone around to clean up our mess. No one gets arrested for littering. Therefore, it is not unusual that many have ceased the responsibility of cleaning up after themselves.
It is easy to succumb to nostalgia. We live in a cheap and disposable era. I grew up in period of scarcity and value. People were responsible for the trash they generated. Clothes were handed down. Bottles were sold to the ‘chupa na debe’ vendor. Newspapers went to the butcher for wrapping meat. Waste paper was used as fuel to light a jiko. Food remains were fed to the pets. Spoilt food made it to the compost heap. Old tin become plant pots. Empty plastic were converted storage containers.
The dreaded plastic container always had an afterlife. Nothing ever went to waste. What we call recycling today, was literally common sense a decade ago. There were no badges to be handed out for general cleanliness. The awareness of the environment included everything that was around us and not just the greenery.
There is a familiarity about the fussy old lady on stairway. She is a symbol of time when people used their heads and reasoned like sensible farmers. Give a farmer a pile of garbage and he will convert into high grade manure. The old lady was right.
What are you doing with your empty plastic bottles?