Trash collection in Bissau
Guinea Bissau has forced me to start asking myself questions that I'd never really considered before. Since I didn't study IR in college and haven't done any philosophy since high school, I find myself wondering about the state. What is a state's role? How does it establish legitimacy? How does it get people to pay taxes?
Those of us who come from North America or Western Europe don't often ask ourselves these sorts of questions: the state is present in our lives from the cradle to the grave. Here, there are parts of the country that get no public services and only get fleeting glimpses of the state's human symbols (soldiers, police, etc). With the state mostly unable to provide basic services, it's up to local communities --often struggling to make ends meet-- to fill in the gaps.
In the capital city, trash collection (or the lack thereof) is one of the most visible and pungent symbols of the government's inability to provide basic services. Instead of having dumpsters and trash cans, each neighborhood has a number of empty spaces that serve as mini land-fills. Residents dump the trash, which people looking to collect metal and plastic then scavenge through. Once the humans have left, vultures and pigs take over eating what they can. You may even see a stray dog or two chowing down. I'll let you imagine the magnitude of stench in the noon day sun.
After a couple of months of this, I had largely grown accustomed to holding my breath and darting past the mini landfills that dot the urban landscape. And then, lo and behold! A sanitation crew! I was so stunned, I stopped in the middle of the road and took a picture with my cell phone. A man driving an SUV smiled as he waited patiently for me to take the picture. As I put the phone away, he rolled down his window and said: --you see? Things are getting better. I smiled, nodded enthusiastically and kept walking.