Putting the devil in the bin [Archives:2009/1228/Health]

January 26 2009

Alice Hackman
Jihad, 10, and her family traveled by bus from Sana'a to Taiz for Eid. Along the way, she had a sandwich and juice. When she had finished, she put the sandwich's wrapping and juice carton in a plastic bag, tied it up and deposited the bag in a garbage can at the next stop.

“Cleanliness is of belief and dirtiness is of the devil,” says the bright little girl.

On a windy day, Jihad can see plastic bags flying in the wind from her window at home. “I don't like it,” she says, “The devil flies in them because the devil is dirty.”

Jihad, unfortunately, is fighting a lonely battle. Empty cans and wrappers litter the streets of Sana'a, sometimes piling up in residential areas, yet few seem intent on making a difference. Mounds of refuse are not only a blemish on the face of the city, but are a breeding ground for bacteria and a source of unpleasant smell.

Jihad is a pupil at the Al-Dhalami governmental school in Hadda, Sana'a. Bright blue bins dot the four corners of the school's earth playground and educational posters are stretched across the walls of the classrooms surrounding it. One explains to children that plastic is non-biodegradable because “it will keep its shape for dozens of years”. Another shows children playing in a clean park with a bright blue dustbin in its corner.

Every day in the city in which Jihad lives, a man casually tosses a qat plastic bag out of a minibus window. A child on his way to school loiters at a street corner sipping an orange juice before throwing the empty plastic cup and straw down onto the pavement and darting off to class. And somewhere on the third floor of an office building, someone opens a window and flings a paper wrapper down onto the road below.

“In grades five and sixth, there is nothing in the curriculum about things being biodegradable,” says Nojoom Ahmed, 35, science teacher at Jihad's school. “Carbon dioxide pollution is on the program, but plastic pollution is not.”

Instead the school's teachers encourage their pupils to clean the courtyard whenever they have a free period and encourage cleanliness in class to develop the children's environmental awareness. The school has also organized several clean-up excursions outside the school.

“Teaching children to be clean has to come from the family,” she says, “but if it can't, then education is important.”

“The parents, school and government are equally important in educating children about the environment,” agrees Sadek Al-Osaimi, general secretary for the non-governmental Yemeni Association for Awareness and Environment Protection.

Al-Osaimi, who encourages initiatives similar to that in Jihad's school, has recently launched a pilot project to spread awareness about the importance of protecting the environment in 13 other governmental schools in Sana'a. As part of the scheme, the association trains senior teachers to teach small groups of 25 to 35 students, called “friends of the environment”, who in turn spread their knowledge to their friends, younger pupils and members of their community. The results have been very positive.

The project is an ambitious one and has to be carried out in steps. First, pupils are encouraged to put rubbish in the right place to clean up the school, and then only do they learn the difference between biodegradable and non-biodegradable rubbish. Throughout the program, pupils who come late to class are asked to clean the school. This is doubly effective, as neither they nor their friends will litter the courtyard again knowing who might have to pick it up.

“If there is continuous follow-up, there will be progress,” says Al-Osaimi, whose association also aims to teach children about the ozone layer and biodiversity so that they can better appreciate and take care of the environment they live in.

Long term, it aims to change thinking in the community through imbuing a sense of collective responsibility into its members and changing outdated attitudes towards the environment.

“Some tribal men think that if you put rubbish in the bin, you are not a man,” says Rima Shuja' Al-Din, 27, English teacher from Sana'a. “I've heard it with my own ears.”

“We educate children for the future,” says Al-Osaimi. “Twenty five percent of the Yemeni population is in school: If we succeed with 30 percent of pupils only, it will be an improvement.”

The “friends of the environment” project does not only educate the generation of the future. Al-Osaimi hopes that children in targeted schools will go home and tell their parents about what they have learnt, encouraging the older generation to follow suit and to use environmentally-friendly light bulbs and refrigerators for example.

“If we succeed in changing a student's attitude [towards the environment] directly, he will indirectly report what he learns to his parents,” he explains.

The cost of following the “friends of the environment” project for each school is no more than YR 25,000 a year, estimates Al-Osaimi, who hopes that the project's success will encourage the Ministry of Education to support the project by printing its guidelines and distributing them to other governmental schools in Sana'a and eventually all over Yemen.

“If everyone cleans in front of their house, everywhere will be clean,” says Jihad.