10 days ago today I ran from the small village of Kenaba in the Gambia, one of the smallest countries in West Africa, and where I was working at a medical research unit, north to meet the river Gambia. I was aiming for the little village of Tankular. When I got there, my already amazing experience in Africa became one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. At Tankular I met a group of schoolchildren. They hadn’t seen many white faces before, and had never spoken to a “Toubal”. They showed me the river, their village, and even a few of their houses.

My friends in Tankular

But what does this have to do with RAR? The village, as with every village, town and city I saw in the Gambia, was strewn with rubbish. I have been told this is the case across West Africa and even Africa in general, but I personally only visited the Gambia. From the outside, the rubbish doesn’t seem to actually cause a problem, in fact local people barely seem to notice it. Life continues; everyone is happy, friendly and constantly smiling. But the rubbish does actually cause problems. The reason it’s there is that there is no real way of disposing of it: If you can afford to, someone will take it away for you, but they will either burn it (commonly indoors or in an open bonfire on the edge of a village), or add it to a growing dump site if one exists.

A dump site

Rubbish (or litter, or waste, if you prefer) is a global problem. It causes different issues in different countries, but visiting the Gambia has shown me the issues it causes in Africa. To describe just a few:

  • It holds water when it rains, providing a perfect breeding ground for Malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
  • It is burned, releasing harmful chemicals into the air. This often occurs in people’s homes, who are often unaware of the damage it can do.
  • It is eaten by animals at the dump site, who are ultimately eaten by people.
  • It pollutes groundwater, water which people drink, and rivers from which people catch fish.
  • It presents huge risks to those who make a living searching through it for saleable products. Particularly waste electronics from European countries, which contain heavy metals and dangerous chemicals when opened.

Does that impact us? Well yes it does! Gambia, in common with other West African countries, exports a huge amount of its produce, and imports almost everything it eats. This means that fish, fruit, vegetables and other produce which have been grown in air polluted with complex aromatic hydrocarbons, in soil polluted with heavy metals, or in water containing high risk chemicals. From a selfish personal point of view, it’s scary to think of what we could be consuming. BUT, we have the power!

What can we do?

We must apply the waste hierarchy: Reduce, reuse, repair. First use less, then use it for longer, then repair it. Recycling is not the answer (but that’s for another day…)

Before you are tempted by a new watch, ask yourself if you really need it, but also ask yourself what you will do with the old one… My Suunto Ambit has been going for years, it’s probably done 20,000km and is still going strong, but the main reason I can’t replace it is that I don’t know what I would do with the current one. It still works, so I can’t bin it, so why should I replace it?

When you do buy something new, look at where it comes from, who makes it, and consider how you will deal with it at the end of its life. In this part of the world we have huge power and huge responsibility. We can afford stuff, which opens up opportunities for people around the world to make stuff, make some money and feed their families. This is fantastic, but we must think before we spend! Your money can do good, just pick wisely and make sure it is doing 🙂

Sorry if that sounds preachy, but I want my mates to still be there when I next visit Tankular.


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