Thursday, July 2
On Monday we finally had the Environmentalism Day I’ve been working on for the past couple weeks. It was supposed to be Friday, but it got pushed to Monday because of a sports day issued last minute by the Department of Education, which then got postponed due to lack of funding. But we kept our day on Monday anyway.
I’m really happy we did it. I’m proud of the kids and thankful to Ebinezer, Kelvin, and all the other teachers and sponsors who helped make it happen. Still, I have some lingering regrets, which I’ll get to soon.
I came up with the idea for the day when I was going for a run on the beach. It was covered in trash. I was leaping over sachets and old flip flops, and I felt like I was in one of those video games where you have to avoid the alligators or hot lava. This is really sad, I thought.
I remembered a man I’d met at a recording session with the JAC the week before, who’d just been working in Ada Foah with endangered turtles. He said that there was not much environmental awareness in the area, and that people struggling to get food each day could hardly afford to care. It occurred to me, hey, I’m at a school, working with kids. I can do something about this.
I thought back to the diversity and activism days we’d had at my small Brooklyn high school, Berkeley Carroll (BC). I wanted to have a day like that here focused on the environment, along with a beach clean-up. I figured I could start off the day by talking about global warming and environmentalism; we could do a line-walk activity like the Walk of Privilege we used to have at BC (the whole school lines up and we read off statements like, “Step forward if you reuse your plastic bags and bottles,” or, “Step backward if you don’t have access to running water in your home”); we could train a group of students to lead discussions; and we could have a beach clean-up competition with sponsors and prizes.
Ebinezer and I got Brightest Restaurant to provide lunch to the winning team. Kelvin helped us get Club Rubstone (pronounced Robstone – also the place where we’re putting on the play) to throw a little party give sodas (“minerals”) and biscuits to the winning teams. We contacted the Department of Sanitation, and with only a week’s notice (we did this thing spoontaneously), it was too late for them to provide latex gloves. They would like to participate in the future, though, and they agreed to help us dispose of the trash afterwards, so that we wouldn’t have to burn it in a pit the way we usually do. (It’s seriously disgusting, you can’t walk through the town without smelling burning trash. Barbeques are never going to be the same to me. There is no adequate waste disposal here, so the people have no choice.
Ebinezer and I went by Radio Ada, the local station, and asked them to announce the day on the radio. Mr. Isaac, the nice man there, thought our project sounded great and invited me to come back and talk on the radio. That’s what I did this morning, which was pretty cool, though I didn’t get to hear the interview they put on tonight because I’m in Accra.
Ebinezer and Kelvin were all excited about Environmentalism Day and said they would continue it every year after I’m gone. I was thrilled. And then, I was disappointed, a little.
I led a couple of prep sessions with my Environmentalism Day leaders. I gave them a 101 on the environment (which they sorely needed), challenged their ideas (“okay, but why do you think that”), had them challenge me (some of them didn’t actually think global warming was bad at first. They said, “Hey, we like the sun.”), came up with discussion questions (“How can we deal with waste better and conserve more?”), and practiced icebreaker games (does anyone out there know the game, “I like people who like”?). It was intense, and we left the sessions feeling invigorated. I told them, “I’m counting on you to inspire your classmates.” They nodded.
On the day of, the kids had a blast with the beach clean-up. They got really into the competition and loved the prizes. They were collecting trash on the way over, and we had to stop them so that we could finally get to the beach.
The environmentalism part, though, I’m not so sure they got. Listening in on some of the discussions, I could tell they didn’t always know what they were talking about. They would say things like, “We have to stop throwing our trash on the street because it is heating the earth.” They had all these concepts and information being thrown at them, and I guess it got jumbled. They were earnest and they meant it, but they didn’t really get it.
One of the discussion questions was, “Make a list of the top 5 problems in the world. Is global warming on that list?” Practically every group had global warming as number one, even though that morning during the line-walk, hardly anyone stepped forward for, “if you could have given a definition of global warming before today.”
“Really?” I said to the group. “You all think that global warming is the number one problem? Yesterday you didn’t know what it was.” They stared at me. “Why? Why do you think global warming is so important?”
Finally, one of the boys spoke up, “Because we need to take care of our Earth so that we can keep on living.”
(Interestingly, most of the groups’ other top world problems were natural disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes, and tornadoes. I guess things like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, America’s occupation of Iraq, the modern slave trade, incarceration rates, and even poverty don’t make it into conversation much here.)
At the end of the day at Rubstone, we had an open circle where people could come forward and share thoughts, reflections, or something they’d learned, à la Berkeley Carroll diversity day. No one stepped forward. Kelvin asked the group leaders to say something, and they all spoke about how proud they were of their groups for the clean-up competition. None of them said a word about the environment, until Christian, the last leader, whose group had gotten first place. He just added, “and for helping global warming!” The kids cheered.
I don’t expect them to suddenly be environmental activists, and I know it’s going to take more than a day for environmentalism to sink in. I’m glad I helped to get the conversation started, and I’m glad they’re going to do it again next year. I hope a few of them go home and get their families to start recycling water sachets (there’s a company that will pay you for them!). I hope they try to reuse plastic bags and bottle more, and not toss their trash on the street. Maybe some people will take in what I said on the radio. Maybe a government official will hear my plea for better waste disposal in the area. Still, I felt a little sad as I picked up discarded biscuit wrappers of the floor of Rubstone, just hours after we’d cleaned the beach and talked about better waste practices.
I do think the day had an impact on some of them, though. For the others, I say, next time, and the time after that.