Picking Up The Trash

Picking Up The Trash

This is a wonderful story:

“A group of young Pakistani friends, sick of hearing their families complain about the government, decided to spite them by taking matters into their own hands: every Sunday they would grab shovels, go out into their city, and pick up garbage.

It was a strange thing to do, particularly for such students from elite private schools, who would normally spend Sunday afternoons relaxing in air-conditioned homes.

But the students were inspired by the recent success of the lawyers’ movement, which used a national protest to press the government to reinstate the country’s chief justice, and their rush of public consciousness was irrepressible.

“Everybody keeps blaming the government, but no one actually does anything,” said Shoaib Ahmed, 21, one of the organizers. “So we thought, why don’t we?”

The fact that these students are well-off matters a lot. Class divides run deep in Pakistan, and this is an unusual thing for students at good schools to be doing. Actually, it’s an unusual thing for anyone to be doing unpaid:

“A long-term cycle of corrupt, weak governments interrupted by military coups has caused Pakistan’s political muscles to atrophy, leaving Pakistani society, particularly its poor, hopeless that it will ever receive the services — education, water, electricity, health — that it so desperately needs.

“People say, ‘This is nice, but things will never change,'” Mr. Khwaja said, pointing to a hamburger seller who he said was particularly pessimistic. “There is a hopelessness.”

That is where the trash cleaning comes in. Locals find it perplexing and helpful in equal measures. One enthusiast who met the group on its first outing in March, Muhamed Zahid, has come to every one since. One man passing by in a rickshaw dismounted to help them shovel for a while. (…)

That brought the students to the most serious discussion of the day, one that is arguably Pakistan’s biggest problem: the gap between rich and poor. Generations of poverty and a system of substandard education that keeps people in it have created fertile ground for Islamic militancy, which now poses a serious threat to the stability of the country.

“Here, if you’re poor, you’re not even a human being,” said Pavel Qaiser. “It’s the culture we have — one landlord and the peasants working under him.”

And here was a revelation: the trash picking, which the students had intended as an example for shopkeepers and residents, was actually an exercise for themselves.

“The rich don’t care, the poor can’t do anything, so it’s up to the middle class to make the change,” Mr. Khwaja said, as a group of friends standing near him nodded in agreement. “We have to lead by example. To change it from inside.”

Pakistan is a wonderful country, with some of the kindest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met. Moreover, unlike a lot of very poor countries, it has enormous reservoirs of talented and decent people with good educations and professional training. The problem is that the system as a whole seems so corrupt as to be beyond the power of any single individual to change, or even to improve. (This has everything to do with the fact that Pakistan has never been allowed to have a civilian government for long: self-government takes practice, and the Pakistani civilian governments have never been allowed to just make their own mistakes and be voted out of office. The military always steps in and takes over instead.)

That young people are taking matters into their own hands and just picking up the trash themselves is one of the most hopeful things I’ve heard in a while.