The price of rubbish
My daily commute from my apartment in west Berlin's up-market Charlottenburg to university, situated in a historic town known as the Windsor of Germany - took about 40 minutes.
It was a most pleasant commute. Granted, sometimes the trains or buses were a little late but what's a 30-second, or a one- or two-minute, delay when you have a good book to read, people to watch or muzzled dogs held on a very short leash to dodge?
So, after a brief ride on the U-Bahn, about 20-minutes on the S-Bahn, a short bus ride and a walk through the forest, I was in class where a herr doktor professor was already waiting.
It was during one of the first commutes at the beginning of the first semester, on a chilly, and a little wet, early April morning that I noticed the neat, clean, painted shacks with tiny gardens. An informal settlement in First-World Germany - who would have thought!
It was with a bit of schadenfreude that I looked at the long line of these pretty shacks. Even with that kind of evil-joy, I wished the Winnie Mandela and the Ramaphosa settlements were as neat, tidy and nice-looking as these German shacks.
Needless to say, the schadenfreude didn't last very long. A friend said the "shacks" were not really shacks in the Third World sense of the word. They were summer homes and garden plots: a very desirable piece of land and address, if you can afford it.
Some of our neighbours, the families of two or three who stayed in the bigger apartments in fancy Charlottenburg, owned such pieces of land. They would retreat to their summer home to get away from the city to enjoy cleaner, fresher air, de-stress a little by doing a bit of gardening or enjoy a braai at weekends, weather permitting, or on long summer holidays when the sun took its time to set.
Such shacks are not for the poor.
So, this explained why they were so clean, I thought; why they were so neat and had beautiful gardens.
But I would be implying that poor people who live in filth-ridden informal settlements don't care about keeping their shacks clean and neat, and about beautiful gardens.
I would be implying that being poor and a lack of cleanliness went hand in hand. And this, I know, is not true because there are some rich people who are not clean and neat, and their gardens are not beautiful.
However, Eduardo Porter, in his book, The Price of Everything: The Cost of Birth, the Price of Death, and the Value of Everything in Between, disagrees, with a different perspective, on the price of rubbish.
Porter claims that everything has a price, or comes at a price - even the amount of filth you tolerate depends on your buying power, or lack of it.
He argues: "The price we put on things - what we will trade for our lives or our refuse - says a lot about who we are.
"The price of garbage provides a guide to civilisation. Pollution is cheapest in poor countries. Citizens are more readily willing to accept filth in exchange for economic growth. Yet the price of pollution rises as people become richer."
So, if we take this argument and apply it to an individual, community or sectors of society, does this mean pollution is tolerated by poorer individuals, poorer communities and poorer sectors of society?
Porter gives an example: "For an Indian child who hasn't eaten today . spending a day scavenging among the detritus of India's capital . is not too high a price to pay because life is pretty much the only thing she has."
Is that why, during the three-week strike by Pikitup last year, when rubbish bins were not emptied and the streets were used as dumping sites while the SA Municipal Workers' Union and the City of Johannesburg negotiated a fair wage, there are those who didn't realise there was a strike going on?
Those who had money, and paid people to pick up their trash, didn't deal with the inconvenience and the health hazard when the rubbish piled up. Where the rubbish was dumped was not their concern; money bought them an empty bin, and cleanliness in their surroundings.
Contrast this with some of the settlements that are a feature of our beautiful country, with no drinking water and sanitation, where families do not have running water, drains or flushing toilets, where sewage stares at you when you open the door to your shack, where rubbish collection is unheard of.
Is that the reason cleanliness, beautifying your home and a small, green garden is not top of the list of their priorities?
Hard as you might try to be clean, the environment does not support cleanliness and not littering.
What do you do with the water from your bath when there is no drain? What about your rubbish? And what happens when this is the daily routine of each and every family in the area?
Is it why informal settlements are so dirty, why the poorer part of our society lives in squalor?
Does being poor relate to how much rubbish you can tolerate?
Does Porter have a point?
And why are some areas, even when the residents are poor, cleaner than others? Does rubbish have anything at all to do with it?