The smell of burning garbage woke me up on Saturday morning.
Still lying in bed, I gazed blearily out my window and found a sky hazy and white, an unusual sight in Freetown. “Fog?” my sleep-addled brain briefly asked, before I put together the pungent smell irritating my throat and the clouds of white outside.
Burying my head under the pillows, I thought with resignation: national cleaning day.
I had time on Saturday to write this blog (after a long period of silence) because I wasn't allowed to go anywhere or do anything until after noon. Friends who ventured out (wittingly or unwittingly) on previous cleaning days have been turned back by police checkpoints and – more commonly – self-styled civilian enforcers. If you’re not going to help clean, they say, go back to your house and stay there. (Fair enough).
I swear I’ll help with a cleaning day at some point, but for now the idea of shoveling out gutters filled with human waste makes me shudder. Instead I hid in my house like a spoiled brat and wrote about it instead.
The idea of a national cleaning day – at least in the capital – is usually credited to one of the handful of military dictatorships that took charge in successive coups in the 1990s. Perhaps the most hapless of these regimes, the NPRC (National Provisional Ruling Council) came to power in 1992 and ruled until 1996, when elections returned the government to civilian hands.
According to conventional wisdom, their coup was mostly accidental; the young group of military officers simply wanted to file a complaint, and then found themselves in charge of the country. They spent most of the next few years throwing lavish parties in the presidential mansion and doing little for the country, but are nonetheless frequently named as the best government in recent memory. The reason? Cleaning Day.
Under NPRC rule, every man, woman, and child in Sierra Leone was required to spend one Saturday morning a month cleaning: their own house and yard, the streets, common areas. Sierra Leone has a long history of communal labor in the rural areas, where (for instance) chiefs will designate a day for “road brushing” – the backbreaking work of clearing and repairing the roads, bridges, and footpaths surrounding a village or chiefdom. Overgrown footpaths are one of the first signs that something is seriously amiss in a given area.
But I’m not sure anyone had ever brought the concept to Freetown before the NPRC, and people loved it. “The NPRC, now that was a government,” many people have told me. “With them the streets were clean.”
The idea has been resurrected from time to time since then. On the very week that I arrived in Sierra Leone – late March 2006 – the then-Minister of Trade and Industry called for a cleaning day to prepare the city for the investors and businessman that would be visiting Freetown the following week for an International Trade Fair. People responded with enthusiasm, turning out in droves on Saturday morning to sweep yards and shovel gutters and gather garbage.
And yet when I arrived on Sunday, the city was absolutely filthy: covered in massive mountains of rancid garbage. Over the next few days, the piles remained – in places blocking entire lanes of traffic – and began to smolder.
The Freetown residents had done their part, dedicating their Saturday morning to making their city clean, but the government had failed at its task: collecting and disposing of the waste. Some say that money was allocated to hire trucks, but was stolen by corrupt officials. Others say the government simply didn’t think things through beyond asking people to gather the garbage in central locations. In any case, the result was clear: Freetown was had laid out a welcome mat of garbage and filth to potential foreign investors it wished to woo.
To paraphrase Paul Theroux, it’s the old African story: great people, terrible governments.
The government subsequently obtained a number of shiny modern garbage trucks – donated by someone – and figured out the basics of cleaning up after cleaning day. And the new APC government has apparently decided to usurp the NPRC legacy and make cleaning day a regular event.
The most amazing part about all of this is the spirit of collective action. Though the police will turn you back if you’re wandering the streets on cleaning day, Sierra Leone is far from an authoritarian state. In fact, the government and police alike are generally too bumbling to enforce much of anything.
No, people clean on cleaning day because they want to. They are willing to give their time, and to work at a filthy and unpleasant task, in order to make up for the lack of a comprehensive government-run sanitation and waste-disposal system.
Imagine if your local government suggested that. Cleaning Day USA? Would you turn out with a broom and a shovel?