From Trash to Gold
2023, Junior, Creative Writing
Climate Hero: Isatou Ceesay, U.S. Peace Corps
It was the summer of 1997. Isatou Ceesay stood before her hut, its thin, mud-brick walls barely holding it together, its wood-planked roof sagging in the fading sunlight. She looked over her small village of N’jau, Gambia. She had done this many times before, but today, something felt wrong.
As Isatou walked through her village, she tried to avoid the plastic bags lying around in a grotesque assortment of colors. Plastic bags. Yes, that was the problem. In N’jau, plastic bags were everywhere: piled high on the dirt paths, piled high on the rooftops, piled high in the villagers’ backyards.
She arrived at her best friend Aamani’s house, who was cooking in her front yard, burning plastic to speed up the process and creating a malodorous stench. Aamani asked, “Lu ngeen di def? Sorry, I didn’t know you were coming! I only cooked enough for four people.”
“Thanks, but I’m not here to eat,” Isatou said, dropping her face slightly. “I’ve been thinking, and, well, look at all the plastic here.” To demonstrate her point, Isatou kicked at a blue plastic bag. “We can’t continue to live like this.”
Aamani agreed. “True, I hate these things! But it’s not like the city, Isatou. There aren’t any garbage trucks here to pick up our waste. What are we supposed to do?”
Isatou’s eyes twinkled. She told Aamani about Aurora, her American friend from the U.S. Peace Corps, who had shown Isatou strips of “plarn,” plastic yarn. She told Aamani her idea: by collecting plastic, they could clean up their community and turn the plastic into purses to make some extra money.
Looping her arm around Isatou’s, Aamani said, “That’s a great idea! Let’s get some people to join us.”
Isatou’s other friends weren’t as enthusiastic as Aamani was. Kinti would rather weave real yarn; Suntukung thought women should take care of their families; Binta wanted to stay home with her baby.
But, eventually, Isatou got Sona, Nadia, and Sukai to join her cause.
She told her friends, “We start tomorrow.”
The next day, up early, Isatou felt anticipation filling every fiber of her body. With each plastic bag she picked up, a heavy burden was lifted from her chest. Isatou and her friends spent the morning cutting plastic bags into strips of plarn, then, ever so carefully, weaving them into patches. The process was excruciatingly slow, but finally, after hours of diligent work, the ladies had woven together their separate patches to form a beautiful purse.
Isatou’s heart swelled with pride. She wanted to scream with delight and strut around the village to show off her newfound success. But that night, complaints started coming in: women called Isatou and her friends “dirty” for picking up garbage; men threatened them because they thought women should stay at home, not work outside.
Kinti, one of Isatou’s friends who hadn’t joined, laughed, “Dear Isatou, you’re insane! You can’t truly believe selling garbage will make you money!”
“Actually,” Isatou replied coldly, “I think I can.” She slammed the door shut.
Just a few minutes later, a man Isatou didn’t even know showed up, his eyes burning with anger. “Ceesay,” he said in a booming voice, slathered with menace, “don’t you dare make those trash bags. It’s women like you who corrupt this society!”
Try me, Isatou wanted to growl back, but she held herself back – that man seemed to radiate fear.
“Remember,” he growled. Then he was gone, leaving Isatou trembling.
Should she continue?
Isatou knew she must, but at the same time, she didn’t want to endanger her friends or suffer the small-minded judgment of others. Out of desperation, she moved the operation indoors, meaning her group was forced to weave by candlelight. Too often, they accidentally pricked themselves with the needles. Too often, they mistakenly wove the wrong patterns. Too often, they unintentionally knitted uneven patches.
Despite these difficulties, Isatou and her friends had finally made enough purses to sell, so they went to the city. Isatou could hear her thumping heart beating faster the closer they came to the marketplace. She was a jittery mess as they set up their stall, possessed with self-doubt. Would anyone want her products?
Half an hour passed. Not one customer. With every passing moment, Isatou became more nervous. This was a mistake, she thought. Fifteen minutes passed – no profit. Another half-hour – nothing. Ten minutes slipped away – still no one. Isatou felt like a fool.
When she returned home, Isatou felt like sobbing. Perhaps Kinti was right: who would buy purses made of trash? Was her hard work all in vain?
The next day at work, Aurora excitedly asked Isatou about her sale. Isatou felt the tears welling up in her eyes again. Blinking hard, she shook her head. Aurora’s face fell. She put a hand around Isatou’s shoulder. “Oh, Isatou! We’ll try again; don’t give up!”
Two days later, Isatou and her friends went back to the city with their purses; this time, heading to the central marketplace as Aurora had suggested. Just 20 minutes in, their first customer arrived – a little girl who needed a place to store her allowance. Then, still others, until all the purses were sold. Isatou and her friends happily returned to the village with a load of cash and a renewed determination to make more plarn products. Over the next few weeks, their business continued to grow.
Isatou and her friends’ success aroused much attention in the village. Even the doubters were soon won over, and soon the project grew to 50 women. With their money, they were able to provide for their families in previously impossible ways. Their kids could receive higher educations. They could afford proper healthcare and food during the “hungry gap” – the three months of the year when their farmland yielded few crops.
After all the waste in N’jau was gone, the women started collecting trash from neighboring villages and sharing their knowledge about recycling and plarn with the people there.
In 2012, Isatou made another daily walk through her beloved village. Life was much better now. The days and nights of thin walls and leaky roofs were long gone. The streets were clean, and many in poverty had a newfound freedom and prosperity. When Isatou first started making her purses, she wanted to solve the problem of plastic waste and allow women to earn money to support their families. Now, she had bigger dreams for feminism.
It was time to start anew.
I think that most people are unaware that plastics are a dangerous threat to the Earth but might be willing to help if only they knew. Before I found out about climate change, I was one of them. Like many others, I thought that plastics were gone the minute they disappeared into the trash, so I would carelessly use and waste plastic daily, not knowing the harm I was doing, especially to the oceans. When I realized my error, I was horrified, and I freaked out: How am I going to survive? Will the oceans truly flood during my lifetime? Is there a space shuttle I could catch to Mars? How can I stop climate change? How can I help? I hoped that by describing a role model, a hero who did real work reducing plastics, I could help others understand how they can help with programs like recycling. They would then be tempted, as I was, to do some research about climate change, about its causes, and about some simple solutions, such as using paper bags instead of plastic ones, joining volunteer groups to clean up a small neighborhood, and raising more awareness about the harms of climate change—perhaps even by joining the Ocean Awareness Contest!