Cleaning up litter, Nigerian students are agents of change

This story appears in the Sustainable Development Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production feature series. View the full series.

by Teresa Anyabuike


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Proper waste disposal is a major problem and, in many places in the world, people are not very concerned about it. I have made it my priority because I feel sad when I walk down streets and see how trash litters most corners. So many people care so little about it. But I believe that proper waste disposal is something everyone can do to help protect our Earth.

Students I work with from Notre Dame Girls' Secondary School in Oro, a town in Kwara state in western Nigeria, decided to tackle the problem. One of the goals for the students, members of an organization called Young Catholic Students of Nigeria, is to keep their school grounds and homes clean.

 At first, the students felt it was a difficult task. Their school compound is big and some of them thought it was a menial job that is for the school cleaner only. Plastic bags of different kinds, cans, wrappers of used items, and worn-out clothing littered the school compound. My encounter with some of the students was a turning point for us: I saw some students throw away their used paper or plastic bags from their snacks anywhere they liked, even in their classrooms.

So I brought to their attention one of the most dangerous effects of improper waste disposal: diseases. I also encouraged them to see the task as a personal goal not only in the school, but at home and everywhere they find themselves: Cleanliness is next to godliness.

What a change in their surroundings — and their attitudes. Before, some of them thoughtlessly threw refuse about, no matter where they were. (Biscuit wrappers along the road are common.) Now the students are happy to be part of a change in their environment. They sweep their classroom and school compound and pick up pieces of paper and put them in the trash baskets provided. They also do similar things at home.

The motto of Young Catholic Students of Nigeria is "See, Judge and Act,'' that is, see a situation, judge what could be done to better the situation, and act to effect change. I feel that the era of talk-shop is over. Positive action is what we want to achieve and I'm so pleased that the students are ready to act.

In Young Catholic Students of Nigeria, we also challenge ourselves to talk less, see more and act more. In doing this, we capture the attention of other students who are not part of the group. This positive action is helping change the mindset of others who feel waste can be disposed anywhere at a time when awareness of humans' effect on climate change is growing.

Since waste disposal will continue to be one of our major challenges, we are not going to be deterred. The school management is very happy with our contributions, and the other schools I visit, which are co-education, are doing their best to ensure that their surroundings are equally clean. Disposing of waste properly, even when one will not be paid for it, is the proper thing to do in order to safeguard our health.

This reflects my core value to keep my environment clean so as to live a healthy life. As a human being, I am saddled with the responsibility to care for my environment as part of God's creation. After reading "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," I felt more responsible to others and my surroundings.

It is especially heartening to hear that the students themselves understand they are also bringing awareness to their classmates. Being agents of change on an issue of this importance will help them eventually become men and women of integrity doing things right now and in the future. They will be able to stand up for a just course, such as care for their environment.

During one of our sharings, a student narrated how she convinced her friends at home to be sensitive in their waste disposal to live a healthy life and to keep their surroundings clean.

Sometimes I wonder why some people feel comfortable throwing trash anywhere they like. Once I was traveling in a public bus, and a woman who had just finished eating a plate of rice threw the disposable plate out the window. We talked about better ways to handle trash.

When she looked around, there was no proper place to dispose of her waste on the bus. Then it occurred to me that since there was no waste bin here, or in many strategic places, a lot of people are bound to throw their trash anywhere they prefer. On second thought, this should not be. People can keep their trash until they get home to dispose of it properly.

When everyone throws trash out carelessly, our communities become filthy. This is why the Young Catholic Students of Nigeria in Oro have decided to work toward being agents of change in waste disposal, to make sure that the change starts with us. This is practical way to become sensitive to the needs of those around us and a pathway to becoming compassionate, responsible and respectful individuals in society.

[Teresa Anyabuike is a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. She is the coordinator of Catholic Community Self-Help Association, a department in Justice Development and Peace Mission, Ilorin diocese, Kwara state. She likes working with children because of their simplicity, which challenges her.]