Trash Talk in Ghana
Pretty much any public matter can be linked to faith - if you don't think so, take a look at Ghana's interfaith initiative against garbage. Recently its leaders got together in Accra to take stock of their somewhat improbable project - an effort they call their "Crusade against Filth".
The challenge is real and important. Ghana is progressing on many fronts, raising its standard of living, attracting a good flow of investment. Presidential elections are coming in December and a dynamic campaign is under way. Ghanaians have a long tradition of excellence in education and lead several important global institutions.
But Ghana is doing less well in child mortality and nutrition. And for sanitation, judging from the Millennium Development Goals, Ghana is third from the bottom in the world.
Sanitation is not just a matter of garbage trucks and sewage pipes. It's a reflection of culture and how well the community works together. Part of cleanliness is about attitudes, and these can be shaped in schools and in churches and mosques. And sanitation matters. Poor sanitation contributes to diseases of many kinds - by one estimate 80% of infectious disease. Malaria is a case in point, because mosquitoes love to breed in stagnant sewers.
And cleanliness is integral to many religious traditions. So three years ago Ghana's religious leaders decided to work together to tackle the problem. They took pride in the fact that in Ghana the idea of Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Baha'is and traditional religious leaders sitting and working together was totally plausible.
They formed a committee, got support for the process from the World Bank office in Accra, and set to work. They organized campaigns and put together proposals that they hoped would attract some funding. Several other African countries watched to see what they might learn.
Taking stock in late August this year, the Interfaith Committee pounded hard on the problem of filth, and its devastating consequences. Ghana's Minister for Chieftaincy and Culture made the point forcefully that attitudes count most of all on sanitation issues. He told of a group from Ghana that was visiting Korea when one member dropped a paper carelessly on the ground. A small Korean child picked it up and said, "We don't do that here." Others spoke of children playing on heaps of garbage and Ghana's poor performance on waste disposal - "you just throw your shit bombs," one bishop remarked, referring to the practice of careless disposal of human waste in plastic bags since so many households lack toilets.
And who has the most power to influence attitudes and mobilize the community? Religious leaders and congregations, since virtually everyone in Ghana is part a religious community and practices a faith tradition.
The Interfaith Waste Management Initiative can point to some tangible action and results - especially clean-up campaigns and education to create better attitudes. But the surface has barely been scratched. It took a long time to set up the institutional apparatus, and there was plenty of griping that available funds were not flowing their way. But now, they said again and again, all is set for action. Ideas were tossed back and forth: radio programs, community clean-up days, videos on television, dramas, and pressure on city government.
The meeting ended with fervent prayers and promises of action, with repeated reminders that "God helps those who help themselves". The potential for exciting change here is real, change that could make life far more pleasant and transform culture and attitudes. Let's watch this sanitation space.
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