Many years ago in a little German town called Hamelin, the people had a terrible problem of rats. They were everywhere – in the streets, houses, beds and even baby cots. The mayor and his people were stumped. One day the Pied Piper came along and said he could deal with the rat problem, if the Mayor would pay a huge sum of money. The mayor agreed. So the Pied Piper played his pipes and all the rats gathered, followed him out of Hamelin and fell off a cliff. When it was time to cough up, the mayor balked. So the Pied Piper played another tune and this time, all the children followed him and never returned.
The story of the Pied Piper might just be folklore, but in a little town called Harare, in a country where the economy is dysfunctional and politicians make empty promises, people are generally preoccupied with daily survival and keeping body and soul together above all else. Crucial social services like garbage collection and disposal are neglected, sometimes to the detriment of the people concerned. As street corners pile up with garbage, a new menace has surfaced and its kind has an unparalleled reproductive ability.
They are everywhere, living and rummaging in the corners where we store our garbage, occupying private spaces and threatening to invade our homes as their numbers grow exponentially in direct response to the piling rubbish. Hundreds of them are being born each day threatening to colonize and congest our cities as well as spread disease. Their exaggerated shapes and sizes have made the once ordinary rodents almost unrecognizable. The little nocturnal creatures now shamelessly dart across alleys in broad daylight; have become resistant to most common traditional poisons and have grown less and less fearful of man. They have become a silent but perilous plague that threatens our very lives, yet a lot of us are oblivious to the real dangers presented by rats. Because of their tendency to live where we live, rats are an effective agent of disease transmission. We have been unaware of the risks of catching all sorts of diseases and some awful things from this vermin. A single rat by itself is unimpressive and each time I spot one, I am reminded of the infamous bubonic plague which wiped out whole communities and half the populations of Europe and Asia circa the 1300s.
While piles of rubbish continue to compete for space on street corners and open spaces, street cleaning and inspection systems have gone to the dogs and cutbacks in pest control expenditure and increases in takeaway food shop and food litter have consequently contributed to the dramatic increase in the thriving rat population that has become very comfortable guests in our backyards.
Where I live in the avenues, the problem of rats in the alleys has become a seriously worrying risk to public health because of garbage that goes uncollected for weeks. Visiting the communal garbage corner in my yard is a frightening experience. Fearless rats the size of cats dominate the area to the extent that nobody bothers to deposit their garbage properly into the metal bins anymore. The way to do it now is to stand a few feet away, take aim, and then smash and run. Just behind this space is an open playground where the children run around all day and play – care free; their parents oblivious to the impending danger just beyond the wall. They are all exposed to the risk of catching rat-bite fever – a systemic bacterial illness that can be passed on from rodents to humans. All it takes is one bite or a scratch from a rodent. Ingestion of food or water contaminated with rat excreta or urine also causes deadly types of food poisoning whose symptoms can certainly not pretty.
At the corner of Fife Avenue and 5th Street in the Avenues, there is a huge rubbish dump container the size of a space ship that is eternally overflowing with rotting garbage coming from the adjacent supermarkets. The air in that whole area has literally become oppressively rotten and unbreathable. The shops should be taking better responsibility in careful disposal of rubbish and cleaning up after themselves. However there is currently no enforcement, but it would be gratifying to see some huge fines imposed for careless rubbish dumping especially by corporate companies.
The city council has sometimes justifiably been blamed for not providing bins. In the not too distant past, every street corner was occupied by rubbish bins that were constantly emptied. Many corporate businesses used to even donate branded bins to the city in those days. I am not sure if this is no longer a lucrative marketing gimmick or billboards are just the new favorite. Nowadays, it is not surprising to cut across the city centre without ever bumping into a bin. I have too often experienced the little annoyance of carrying around a banana peel hoping to find a bin soon then finally being forced to deposit it into my backpack because I’m just not gifted with the ability to litter.
We need to go back to basics on public health before this thing goes out of control, that’s the small price to pay or we will soon cry foul after the Pied Piper has left town with our kids in tow. It is our responsibility to make sure our neighbor doesn’t throw rubbish on pavements; if government is too preoccupied to put in place fines, enforce sanitary laws and improve efforts to collect and dispose of trash. The starting point for a coordinated approach needed is for us as citizens to realize our duty to practice good sanitation. It is the only rat proofing technique and we might even consider adopting traditional ways of disposing garbage by digging dirt pits in our backyards and other places where rubbish dumping occurs. If we are prepared to dig boreholes in urban Harare for clean supply of water, we should have no problem digging rubbish pits for waste disposal to ensure our health before the rats, flies, mosquitoes and all other vermin imaginable gain in on us.