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Why are we so nasty?

Published: 
Saturday, February 13, 2016

In outlining his ministry’s measures to ready the country for the Zika virus, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh trotted out a familiar refrain: “We too stink.” 

This minister isn’t incorrect in his characterisation of Trinibagonians as a people fairly comfortable with squalor, but is it really that straightforward? 

Yes, it is difficult to challenge this notion. Citizens hurl garbage out of moving vehicles as if it were a requirement of holding a drivers’ permit. Garbage is piled up contemptibly around “No Dumping” signs. 

Rivers and streams are perennially constipated with plastics. Bush grows unchallenged on vacant lots. 

Anyone foolish enough to confront the owners about the shameful state of their premises, is likely to receive the fury of a cutlass long before the offending bush does. 

Ordinary folk walk down the streets gaily throwing empty bottles or food wrappers over their shoulders. 

You may be surprised, though, to hear it suggested that the problem is not as widespread as we like to think. 

Many of our rural residents don’t share this affinity with filth so commonly expressed in urban areas. 

In fact, it is quite the opposite. In several isolated villages, it isn’t uncommon to find meticulous cleanliness, almost to the point of obsession. In our villages even the most modest homes, ply board assemblages or unpainted clay blocks are fastidiously maintained. 

Surrounding bush is tamed with iron-fisted discipline and modest croton hedges delineate contentious boundaries. 

Old women bent by time and arthritis sweep even the dirt in the dirt yard into some order, then proceed to sweep the area of roadway in front of their homes. 

Though they may be cash poor, country folk aren’t pride poor. They cherish the little they have and by extension the communities where they live. 

So there are many among us who practise cleanliness as an extension of pride in oneself and community. Why then is the nation defined by a general stinktitude? 

There are several reasons for the disparity. 

Somewhere along the way we became Lords, handing down from one generation to the next this idea that there are people paid to clean up after us and, indeed, if we do not dump our garbage on the roadside or in the river, an army of street sweepers would be lost for purpose. 

This unofficial, lower caste of dustmen would be without an income.

As much as the public revel in rubbishing Cepep, it would be interesting to imagine the post-apocalyptic landscape this country would be if those workers weren’t cleaning up after us, cutting bush no one claims as their own, and clearing drains which so many believe are purpose built garbage chutes leading to the ocean where, of course, all human detritus miraculously vanishes.

Citizens of this country have become spoilt. When the refrigerator stops working, you simply put it out on the curb and it disappears, carted off by benevolent, broken-appliance fairies. In civilised societies this is a service for which you must pay (outside of taxes). 

When people eat in public places, they leave their tables in an unholy mess, arguing, “dat is what it have cleaners for.”

The source of this character flaw is a usual suspect in our incalculable list of failings: inadequate education. 

There is a reason why the “Chase Charlie Away” anti-litter campaign of the 1980s resonated so deeply. Just imagine, this idea of accepting personal responsibility for one’s surroundings went viral back when the word viral only referred to an actual virus.

We need a sustained education campaign drilling home the consequences of indiscriminate dumping and a generally slovenly disposition. 

If the state is concerned about the costs associated with such a comprehensive strategy, they should be measured against the more daunting prospect of exponential growth in demands on public health care, coupled with losses incurred by further diminished productivity (which we can certainly ill afford) owed to sick leave. 

Moreover, the Ministry of Education should consider a Civics module in primary schools, one which includes instructions on the importance of appropriate waste disposal, pride in one’s community. 

Of course such matters are best left to parents, but with so many of them ill-equipped to guide their children on life in a civilised society, it falls to the state to pick up the slack. 

It is also past time that this country get on board with recycling and stop treating it as an optional oddity of the elite. 

There are collection sites for plastics across the country, and while there could be more publicity, people should by now be aware that recycling is a thing. 

So our filthy ways, burning discarded tyres, littering, illegal dumping; these are all consequences of the bankruptcy of values in the home. 

Parents don’t know any better and pass on their DNA of ignorance to the next generation of fools who will adopt these warped principles as rules for living in a land of no consequences. 

It is Zika now, who knows what terrors microscopic organisms are conjuring for the human race next. You can however rest assured that we will roll out the filthy red carpet for that disease too. 

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