Monday, December 13, 2010


Today we feature a guest post by Behzad Larry.

I moved to Kigali, Rwanda this October. Kigali is a spectacular city- not in the way that New York or Paris are spectacular, but rather because of it's order and uniformity. Qualities that make it the most unique city I have ever lived in.

The main roads are well paved and wide. The traffic is orderly. And the city is clean. Clean? What? Let's take a step back- I know what dirty is. I know what filthy is. I know what downright disgusting looks like. I have stood in the middle of one of the filthiest landfills in India, I’ve breathed in the putrid stench, and I've re-visited it, over and over. For two whole years, I spent most of my waking hours thinking about trash, planning about trash, or looking at trash. I can discuss efficiency rates for compactors and hook-loaders, lecture on concepts of zero-waste, and then some.

What I can't do is come to terms with how clean Kigali is.

The very first thing that struck me as the taxi wound through Kigali's hills towards what would be my home for the next few months, was the stupendous lack of visible garbage. On every sidewalk in New York City one can see an overflowing trash can. There are piles of black 50 gallon bags on alternate sides of the streets. Garbage is a part of life. Our parking system accommodates our compactors along with their slow daily progress through the mountains of trash that the city of New York generates.

It is much more personal in India. There, we can often pin-point that empty plot of land in our neighborhood where all the trash seems to end up. We see the litter as we walk on the roads, even when we drive through the countryside. Plastic bags, crushed water bottles, decaying vegetable matter. All these are familiar sights.

I've been thinking for a very long time now for a solution that will drive us to cleanliness in our cities. Nothing exemplary, just basic sanitation. We do have rules about all this- stuff to force us into behaving. I'm no saint, I've littered on the street, I've tossed that wrapper in the gutter. But then, it's not like the rules on disposing our waste are the only ones we openly flaunt. India is rated 87th on the international corruption perceptions index. 87 out of 178. We don't need Wikipedia to tell us that we are corrupt, though. We know that. A cursory look at the Times of India can tell us that. Scam and ghotala. We know these words well.

But how are corruption scandals, scams that scalp the tax-payer, and a blatant disregard for the rules that govern the disposal of our trash connected?

Move, if you will, your minds back to Rwanda now.

President Kagame is hard on corruption. His government does not tolerate it. Is there still corruption? Sure. So how is it different? Instead of hearing in the news about a new scam, or another corrupt official, one reads about their arrest. One reads about the repercussions and reactions to corruption and corrupt officials. This has an effect that can be seen on the street. It means that someone is enforcing the law. This means that the fines connected to littering are imposed when a litterer is caught.

Enforcement- that is what we lack. Respect for the law cannot come without respect for it's enforcers. And respect cannot be given to the corrupt. Nor can we claim it if we enable the corrupt. Are the bribers as guilty as the one's taking the bribe? Perhaps. One can argue that if one did not bribe, the work would not be done. Or one could argue that if no one gave bribes then no one would ask for them. But life is not a zero sum game. Neither is Kigali, or Rwanda. Outward order, with proper enforcement, is very possible- but one should not make the mistake of trying to understand a society merely through it's external facade.

In the same way, though our image is marred by our corrupt, and often times dirty exterior, we must dig deeper to understand how to bring effective and long lasting change to India. If a strong president and a unified cabinet can bring such remarkable change to Rwanda, a country that experienced a horrific genocide and civil war only 16 years ago, then perhaps there are lessons we must earnestly learn.

It is easy to blame inept leaders. It is easier still to not vote. It is easiest of all to complain.

Change, however, is only possible if we decide to act. If we decide to participate, and if we decide to lead.

Behzad J. Larry is Director of Policy and Development at the Open Learning Exchange (OLE). OLE's mission is to support the spread of literacy and numeracy through the adoption of open educational resources by providers of basic education world-wide. Previously, Behzad spent a year working in Patna, India on solid waste management initiatives as a William J. Clinton Fellow. He implemented a livelihood generating recycling project for rag-picking women and developed and executed the master plan for solid waste management for the city of Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Behzad currently resides in Kigali, Rwanda.

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