A Rubbish Play and a Good Day

by Jane Plastow

Saturday April 2nd. It is 3pm and I am pouring sweat, picking out hundreds of old plastic bags, broken sandals, plastic bottles and empty pill cases from around Works Village, one of the poorest areas of the very poor suburb of Walukuba, in the city of Jinja, Uganda. On the upside I am not alone in my efforts. In fact I am surrounded by about a dozen children carrying a large red plastic drum, who are all helping me collect old plastic as though it’s the most fun thing in the world. And we in turn are but a microcosm of We Are Walukuba, the community organisation leading this Community Clean Up, which has mobilised about 20 members and around a hundred Works Village residents for one of its regular efforts at drawing attention to the problem of waste disposal.

Walukuba children collecting organic waste

This is my last day of a month’s work with We Are Walukuba, the group that decided to constitute itself last year after an eleven month engagement with anthropologist Katie McQuaid and myself (I was only there on and off, Katie was there all the time). There’s not time to explain it all here, but the work is heavily indebted to the ideas of the great Paulo Friere about relevant, dialogic learning through a sustained circle of action and reflection. We are obviously currently involved in a bit of action, as part of what I have somewhat pretentiously called a day of Interactive Waste Management.

Walukuba’s waste management is truly rubbish. The council is supposed to collect garbage from commercial sites, but due to endemic corruption only does so on a laughably sporadic basis. (The group is trying to impact this by demanding that officials act on their responsibilities but it’s an uphill battle.) Household waste is left entirely to the community. People sporadically burn their own stuff, both organic and plastics, but much is left, as we are finding, embedded throughout the tiny plots surrounding one and two room shacks and houses, where people try to grow some of the food they need to feed often very large families.

We are collecting waste which we divide into two kinds. Organic material is being heaped in a pile for use in our alternative fuel project. Plastics – and there are unending amounts because of course it never rots – are being heaped in piles around Works Village, and despite the pollution, for want of any better solution, are being burnt. We have an eye to future recycling possibilities here but we simply can’t address everything at once.

The Community Action goes on for a very sweaty, stinky hour and a half with massive popular engagement, and then everyone gradually congregates at our impromptu theatre space. This is just an open area, ringed by trees and banana plants where Works Village has its local meetings. But today it is immaculate. We Are Walukuba (WAW) members who live here have brought out benches and plastic chairs, and there is even a top table with a table cloth. Backstage is behind one of the metal pod-like houses where so many community members live. And here are stacked our mega-masks which are central to our play, The Kingfisher’s Story.

This is the sixth piece of theatre WAW has made, five with me, and one by themselves. The theatre has used many styles: verbatim, comedy, poetry, rap and breakdance, to promote discussion about issues the group has identified as key to their lives: poverty, environment, relationships, the treatment of women – and today the problem of rubbish. The intention is always not to preach, not to hand out messages, but to inform, entertain and above all promote debate.

We’ve made the play over the last two weeks, with a somewhat floating cast of around 15 people – timekeeping is seldom great in Uganda and then all sorts of personal problems come up. We’ve met most days for around two hours in the afternoon, devising and rehearsing in the grounds of the ramshackle community centre. The play opens with half a dozen women coming on stage carrying out a community clean-up, who are then successively challenged by passers-by who say they are stupid to work for no money, that it is the council’s responsibility to deal with rubbish, that garbage is not a big issue, etc, etc. This then segues into a sing off between the ‘rubbish deniers’ and community activist group, which culminates in the threat of violence. At which point the storyteller breaks in and says they should all listen to her.

We Are Walukuba perform The Kingfishers' Story

I got The Kingfisher’s Story that follows from an old Ugandan MA student of mine, who in turn got it from a Kenyan environmental activist, and we created an adaptation for our purposes, complete with beautiful huge animal masks made by an artist belonging to the group, Abdulla. The story tells of animals meeting in the forest when it is very, very hot. They debate the causes until interrupted by a very stupid King Lion who threatens to eat everyone. At this point an Eagle (clamped to the back of the wheelchair of George our local disabled councillor) flies in and tells everyone to run for their lives because there is a forest fire. The animals panic and head for the Nile. They worry about the smaller animals who won’t be able to cross but the Lion says the strong must look after themselves and dives in – whereupon he gets eaten by a huge crocodile. While the animals are still reeling with shock a small black and white Kingfisher flies across the Nile and stoops to pick up a beak full of water before heading towards the fire. The Eagle asks what she is doing and she says she is going to put out the fire. When the other animals challenge her, saying she is only one tiny bird, she calmly replies that she knows this, but at least she is trying to do something to save all their homes. At this point the storyteller steps back in and asks the audience for their advice about what the animals should do and what the play means to them.

Lots of Theatre for Development plays in Africa end with what is called community discussion; ours is a community-based play and our discussion, led by one our most committed members, Brenda, slowly seeks to tease out community views about attitudes to garbage, views on responsibility, and possibilities for community action. Brenda emphasises that WAW does not have the answers, we need to share our thoughts. The audience of around 120 have nearly all stuck around for this discussion that goes on for some half an hour. At first only the same three or four people contribute, but gradually more join in, and they include men, women and boys and girls. Our two note-takers write down the content of all the interventions. These will be typed up and used to collate ideas and evidence of local concerns for future actions at both community level and to put pressure on the council. WAW plans to hold similar days in all 15 local ‘villages’ of Walukuba in the coming months as part of a sustained initiative.

The briquette making machine

At the end of the discussion Jouret comes forward. She is one of a six member cooperative drawn from WAW members who have just begun a briquette making project, and she has come to tell the community about it. In Walukuba electricity is far too expensive to use for cooking, so most people buy charcoal, which is also a major expenditure and is environmentally damaging. So we are making briquettes. These are large pellets, about six inches long and three round, which are made from organic waste which we collect from the area – vegetable peelings, maize cobs, weeds and scythed grass; there is plenty of such material just lying around. The material is charred, pounded, compressed in our manual briquette press, and then left to dry out for around 4 days. It is then an environmentally sustainable, cheap fuel source which provides income for both WAW and the ladies of the cooperative. Our project has only just begun with the help of our engineer volunteer, Ciaran Powell, so Jouret is informing the people and passing out free samples. There is lots of interest.

My final action of the day is to round up 6 young boys who volunteer to cart wheelbarrows and large bins of organic material we collected in the clean-up operation down to our briquette making site. The impact of all this work will be seen in the coming months – but it was a very good rubbish day. I did also need a long and soapy shower when I finally got home.