Thursday, April 24, 2008

Trash, Treasure, and Trade

THDI, a term coined by my friend Jeff, stands for "Trash Heap Development Index." Remember that for later.

Two weekends ago, as part of the process of moving out of our house, D and I sorted all our worldly possessions into keep/sell/junk piles. The "sell" pile (a.k.a. the "free" pile) turned out to be quite large, since we had a lot of things that could be easily replaced, and it would have cost more to store them while we travel around the country than to just buy new things later.

We rented a U-Haul truck to take all our "keep" stuff to the ABF terminal, where it would be packed into a 6'x7'x8' storage container, and also to haul the "sell" stuff to a group garage sale. (We called the Junk General to take away all the "junk" stuff.)

There was so much "sell" stuff, we weren't actually sure it would fit into the ten-foot-long U-Haul truck. Our friend Elena, who was helping us with the move, had a brilliant idea: She made a "FREE STUFF" sign and put it on the truck while we loaded it. Within minutes, cars were stopping as they drove down our street and random people were taking all sorts of crap stuff off our hands. It was great.

But the best was yet to come. After we'd gotten most of the furniture out onto the curb, a car screeched to a halt next to our U-Haul, and the African woman driving pointed to the sign and asked, "Free? Everything?"

"Yup! All free!" Elena said.

"Take down the sign! I take it all!" the woman said.

We thought she was joking, especially since she immediately drove her car past the truck and down the street. But it turns out she was just finding a parking spot. She walked back to the stuff piled on the curb, chattering on her cell phone in what sounded like French.

"You can take down the sign," she repeated, and went on to explain that she was calling her friend to come help her haul all the stuff away, and they also had a truck coming.

Her friend showed up, and they loaded a coffee table into the back of her station wagon. We weren't sure how they intended to take the rest of stuff--trust me, there was a lot of it--until the truck showed up. It wasn't a pickup truck like we had thought. It was a seventeen-foot-long cargo truck they had rented from Budget, being driven by three Mexicanos:

And then I recognized the woman and remembered where I'd seen her before. Earlier that day, she had come into the U-Haul store while D and I were picking up our truck, looking for a 17' truck. U-Haul only had a 14-footer available. As we were leaving in our puny 10' truck, we had seen the woman talking to the three Mexicanos, who were waiting outside in the shade.

As it turns out, the woman and her friend were from Senegal, and they were trolling garage sales and such for things to send back to Africa. I didn't talk to them myself, but my understanding is that they had a shipping container which they intended to load up with whatever stuff they could find in the bay area.

They did literally take everything. At one point, as they were loading a broken laser printer, our friend Sean pointed out its non-functional state and asked if they really wanted to haul that all the way across the ocean. The women waved their hands and said, "It doesn't matter. We Africans will find a use for it."

Remember Jeff's Trash Heap Development Index (THDI)? I'll let him explain, in his own words:
The way people handle trash in the developing world is interesting. Everywhere, the trash can is implemented not in metal or plastic, but by gravity (a perfect developing world technology substitution: it is simpler, cheaper, and available everywhere). If you don't need something, you drop it. It falls to the ground and that's it...

The problem with the gravity system of waste management is that the trash ends up everywhere, especially places where the wind blows it, or water washes it. So every morning, everywhere in the world from Guatemala to Indonesia (and probably all the places I haven't yet seen) the women carefully sweep their property and ensure that all the garbage is in little piles at the edge. Sometimes they light the piles on fire to reduce them to ash. An interesting detail in French colonies is that in intersections, they push the trash into the middle, making little trashpile rond-points (roundabouts). The drivers then carefully pass the rond-point à la droite, and a little bit of civility is restored to a place where dogs and pigs have the right of way everywhere else.

But the THDI is not about where the piles are, or what other function they serve. It is about what's in the piles.

The first morning I woke up in Chad I was restless and I wanted to go out and see the city. The safe area for walking alone in N'Djamena is measured in meters, so I pretty quickly exhausted the possibilities for sightseeing. The embassy of Saudi Arabia's back door was kind of interesting, and the gardener cutting the bouganvilla taught me some Arabic (he certainly wasn't speaking French), and finally the children helped me practice the conjugation of donner (to give). "Dons-moi un biscuit. Dons-moi du argent. Dons-moi un bonbon." After a bit, I became interested in the trash that had been pushed to the end of the street by the women that morning, and that had washed into the drainage ditch over the years. There was some good stuff in there! Empty cans of powdered milk (Nido, from Nestle), broken flip-flops, a tangle of wire that used to be a tire before it burned, and the tail of a goat. As I contemplated the trash, I realized Chad was a much richer country than I was used to working in, and that I'd have to take that into consideration as a new log.

You see, in Liberia, the trash piles have the things with absolutely no remaining value. There are flip flops, but they have already had little foam wheels for children's toys punched out of them. There are powered milk cans, but they are rusted from being put over too many fires to heat water, and they are from a cheap Dutch brand of milk, not Nestle Nido. The smallest useful scrap of metal wire is already in service holding some rusting taxi together.

The THDI of Congo is closer to Liberia, but certainly not quite as low. For instance, Congolese in the east have access to Uganda and Kenya, where they can buy raw materials like steel and wire. They fix their old motorcycles with new parts that arrive on boats in Mombasa and come across on good trucks on good roads. The THDI, then, seems to be related to the transit system and your proximity to rich countries.

I haven't been home for a while, so I am starting to forget... perhaps you can go take a look at your trash and see what your THDI is. What does it say about your life? Did my new metric make you want to "improve" your THDI?
D and I feel pretty good about our THDI at the moment. We gave away a lot of our usable stuff to friends who would get good use out of it, and most of the rest of it is on its way to Senegal right now, where it will either be used in its existing form or stripped down for parts--I'm not sure what they'll do with all the 3.5" floppy disks, but I'm sure it would be interesting to see.

It is a little weird to think that a lot of our stuff was actually manufactured in Asia, shipped to America where we bought it, and is now being shipped back to Africa, where some pieces will see more use than they ever did in our house. But it also seems serendipitious that the women were from Senegal, which is one of the first places Jeff visited when he began preparing for his new life as an MSF logistician. It's a small world, and we're all connected in some way. Good to remember that.

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