“Sister Salima...! We have come to collect
our bag...Sister Salima...!”
I look out of my tiny window and can see it is dawn. I
definitely don’t need an alarm clock here! If it isn’t the call to prayer
from the mosque around the corner waking me up at 4.30 am, it’s the church
bells of the vague seven-member denomination just up the road at around 6
am. Or...and this is what happens most often...a knock on my door, early in
the morning and children’s voices forcing me out of bed...
I notice I’ve fallen asleep wearing my clothes from the previous day and I
open the door as I am. There they are, sitting on the crumbling wall of my
tiny veranda. Three children looking at me with their huge brown eyes. I
greet them with a ‘Dessebaa’ and painstakingly ask them, in my best Dagbani,
to return on Saturday, which is the day we take in the sachets and hand out
They laugh at my clumsy wording but don’t budge and stubbornly repeat that
they want their bags. Patiently I continue in English, explaining to them
that they need to check their piece of paper for the date on which they can
come and retrieve their schoolbags.
They give me a look of confusion and I understand, of course! For days on
end you’re strolling through town, picking up trash like a true garbage man!
Then you have to count yourself silly because, oh, you need so many!
Finally, full of pride and expectations you deliver the requested amount of
sachets to the workshop, where they make you a schoolbag and
then...THEN...you have to wait five whole weeks before you can collect the
coveted item! What a waiting period! But...this is how it is for now: the
result of a project that is turning out to be such a huge success! Up to
this point, we have a back-order of 983 schoolbags for these
trash-collecting school children. That means we have collected almost
250.000 water sachets which would have otherwise ended up on the streets and
in the sewers and gutters!
After giving them a pat on the head and a gentle push in the back, they
disappear around the corner, waving. I shake my head with a smile, grab my
broom and dustbin and start my daily morning ritual: cleaning my ‘part of
It only really started on the first day of this new year, 2010. After
returning from the Netherlands in December with, finally, ‘in the bag’ , a
sponsor who would help me realize my plans, I started collecting water
sachets. These sachets pose the biggest litter problem here in Ghana.
If these bags were deposited in garbage bins, it wouldn’t be an issue. But
everyone throws them into the streets where they blow into open sewers,
causing blockages, which in turn cause water stagnation, creating an ideal
breeding ground for the malaria mosquito, malaria being the highest cause of
death amongst children.
So, assisted by kids in the neighbourhood, I started cutting open the bags,
washing them, drying them, sewing them into ‘material’ and making schoolbags
for my little helpers...
In no time it became common knowledge that some weird white woman was
collecting plastic bags and as proof, my veranda was always filled with the
trash I wanted to re-use. After about 3 weeks, I had such a huge stash, that
I could start executing the plan I’d had in my head for so long: I announced
that, as of January 1st 2010, anyone who wanted a schoolbag should bring me
250 sachets, neatly washed and bundled.
I wrote their names in a book, gave them a piece of paper with the
collecting date for their bag and thus I sat, day and night, behind my
sewing machine, on a rickety table in the middle of the street in front of
my room, without the slightest notion of the effect this was going to
Now, almost two months later, this is what has developed:
We now have a workshop with four sewing machines, situated next to the
mosque. Eight full-time employees, working six days a week. Four of them are
women: Amina, who is at the peak of her pregnancy; sober Araba,
breastfeeding her little girl whilst doing her job; the outgoing Fawzia and
the very quiet Humu, a hardworking middle aged woman. These ladies are
colourfully enhanced by the likes of Latif, a lightly spastic boy, who,
because of his disability is somewhat slow, but incredibly serious. And then
Rafik, Sadik and Yahaya, the three ‘scoundrels’ of this less than
In short, a smart team which keeps me on my toes and in turn, I keep them on
their toes because I have little tolerance for wasting time, and although I
accept the African mentality to a certain extent, I will not accept people
abusing this. My ultimate expectation is quality and a good and beautiful
What a wonderful feeling to open the padlock to the workshop, prepare
everything, to watch Latif walk around somewhat awkwardly, always the first
to arrive well before it’s time, and to hear the rattling of the machines as
they are being occupied one by one...
Sadik and Yahaya focus on cutting open the bags and Humu gathers the washed
and dried sachets out of an upside down mosquito net, to then pack them into
boxes, which are in turn ‘rapidly’ unpacked by the ladies and sewn together.
I usually cut out the patterns and pass them on to Rafik, who stitches them
At the same time we sell water sachets out of a cooler. The small profit
goes to the employees, this will be added to their daily wages, 5 Ghanaian
Cedis, which translates into approximately 2.50 euro a day. This is a
reasonably good rate of pay. Because of this, we regularly have people
offering their services for when we have job openings coming up...
And oh, how I would love to be able to give them all this opportunity! But
the means are lacking and the amount of money which I am ‘forced’ to
contribute myself is diminishing by the day...But I cannot and will not
stop. News of our project is spreading like wildfire and every saturday
children from near and far come to deliver their sachets. As a matter of
fact, during the weekends, when the kids have time to gather the waste, it
has become rather difficult to find trash in our area...
TV Africa visited with a camera team to film and interview
us. The workshop will be shown on TV, and via satellite it should be
broadcast in the Netherlands too! They were so enthusiastic. Fingers crossed
that this will have the desired effect of people supporting us. Surely
people can see now that environment; health; employment and education are
positively affected by our project!
Azuma, a mentally handicapped homeless woman, whom I have befriended, daily
opens her worn out bag, which she carries on her head, and hands over her
contribution of collected sachets; picked up whilst roaming through town.
She usually adds a few rotten oranges just for me and if she has acquired
any other food items by begging, she wants to share them with me. If she has
gathered enough coins, she will press some into my hand. When she is in a
foggy alcoholic state, I make room for her on the veranda where she can
sleep it off... She knows she is safe there and can relax, and nobody should
even attempt to berate her or send her away... Azuma, a woman I’ve lost my
What a dazzling, exciting, busy, beautiful, energy-zapping
but especially energizing start of the new year..such a turbulent start!
There is so much more I want to tell..I have experienced so many wonderful
moments, gone through painful situations, struggled and enjoyed but I don’t
have the time to share them with you, terrible! It seems like I have no
time for anything else. My hiking shoes are gathering dust in a corner of my
room. But how wonderful - after a difficult year in which bouts of joy and
energy were far and few between - I’ve rediscovered that yes...butterflies
in your stomach can also give you the strength to fly...Life is beautiful!