This article was originally published by UN Environment and is republished with permission.
In the crowded classroom, a music class is underway. The sounds of flutes and shakers, gradually becoming more synchronized with practice, fill the air. Teachers at the front laugh in approval as children dance and stomp their feet with such energy that the school’s tin roof begins to rattle.
But this isn’t an ordinary music lesson. The instruments are brand new, in the sense that they’ve just been created out of repurposed plastic bottles. The teacher, Shady Rabab, has travelled all the way from Egypt to teach the class how to make music out of trash that would otherwise end up on—or under—the ground.
The location is unique as well. As kids leave the school, they disperse into a crowded maze of shops and houses, where everyday life spills out onto the streets. This is Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in Africa.
Located just seven kilometres southwest of the Nairobi’s central business district, an estimated 700,000 people live in an area of 2.5 square kilometres, where every available piece of land is occupied.
Due to its density and unplanned nature, the Kenyan government provides almost no services. Out of necessity, people throw their trash onto the street.
This is apparent on the way to the music workshop. In the narrow lanes of the settlement, plastic bottles—among other trash—fill open sewers and large trash dumps. They clog drains, ditches and rivers, exacerbating the flooding that plagues the area.
The kids who attended the workshop were thrilled to meet Shady Rabab, the 2018 Young Champion of the Earth for Africa, who recently visited Kibera during his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa. For Rabab, the visit was both an opportunity to teach people about music and the environment, and a chance to meet with local change makers who directly deal with the effects of plastic pollution.
“We need to solve the plastic problem, and through the power of art we can raise awareness. By using music, the kids will care about the environment,” says Rabab. “My dream is to go all around Africa and teach kids how to make their own musical instruments out of garbage. We will have small workshops, then they will teach one another and the idea will spread.”
This workshop was a first for Rabab, which he had previously only hosted in Egypt. The lesson took place at the Seven Kids School, a locally-run institution that provides low-cost education and meals for children.
“This is how I want to run my collective,” says Rabab, handing out some newly cut plastic bottle flutes from the front of the class. His organization, the Rabab Luxor Art Collective, is not just about giving instruments out, but teaching kids how to make their own, allowing them to share their knowledge with friends who didn’t attend the workshop. A combination of music and environmental education that can help improve the quality of life of underprivileged children.
“The problems here in Kibera are not unique. Waste management has emerged as a serious challenge in the modern global economy, and it’s become clear that plastics are one of the most difficult problems,” said Rabab.
With over 300 million tonnes of plastic waste being produced every year, and half of all products designed for single use, countries everywhere are dealing with an onslaught of waste.
Keith Alverson, director of the UN Environment International Environmental Technology Centre, said: “It’s time to rethink trash. Often, we hear about zero-waste models and lifestyles, and these are useful to think about as long-term aspirational goals.
“However, in the real world, in places such as Kibera, we need tractable and tangible actions to reduce waste now. Arts-based outreach and education play a critical role in helping people understand waste management challenges, and play their part in surmounting them.”
Yet mounting plastic trash remains a problem, especially among lower-income communities and in informal settlements with limited access to public services. The current status quo is unsustainable. But solving this problem will take a holistic approach, drawing on artistic, social and technical solutions, with all countries on board.