Calabar - Why so clean?

Of the many towns and cities on the African continent, Calabar must be one of the cleanest.

“We are proud of the environment in which we live,” said Helen Ewar, a student at the local university. “It is part of our identity.”

She and other people gave a cultural explanation for their high level of hygiene. “Cleaning is not seen as an activity that is beneath us Efek people,” Ewar said, referring to the majority ethnic group in the city.

There are few other explanations. “We don’t spend a lot of money on sanitation,” said Elegance Edim, Executive Secretary of the Calabar Urban Development Association (CUDA) the agency charged with keeping clean this city of 800,000 people.

Neighbouring states in the Niger Delta where cities are far dirtier have bloated budgets from state oil revenue while the budget in Calabar’s Cross River state government is relatively small. It allocates 12 million naira [US $102,209] a year for sanitation in Calabar, Edim said, which includes programs to plant trees and grass in the city and raising awareness on the environment with ‘Keep Calabar beautiful’ signs everywhere in the city. 


Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
Elegance Edim, Executive Secretary of the Calabar Urban Development Association (CUDA)

“We are painfully short of resources and we have huge challenges with one of Africa’s heaviest rainfalls clogging up our storm drains,” he said.

But somehow the system works. Not only does the city look cleaner than most others in Nigeria, but it is also more hygienic. While cholera is common in nearby cities, Edim said it has not occurred in Calabar for years. Other water-borne diseases are also comparatively rare.

The former colonial power had done little to develop Calabar. “It was an important port town for slaving and trade but the British never built a proper water and sewage system here and back then it was actually quite dirty,” Edim said.

“What we have now was built after independence,” he said. “We still don’t have a lot but we try to use what we have wisely,” he said of the Cross River state government, which has a reputation for providing other basic services efficiently.

One resource that is abundant in Calabar is people, Edim said. “Women eager to earn a little cash are willing to take a few hours in the early morning cleaning the streets before going home to get their children ready for school,” he said.

Some 823 women are employed to sweep the city’s streets for three hours a day earning around 7,000 naira ($60) a month.

The city also employs around 700 men to clean storm drains, prune trees, cut grass and collect refuge. Litter bins are on almost every corner.


Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
Rubbish bins are everywhere in Calabar

Currently there are only seven garbage trucks which is grossly inadequate, Edim said. “But we keep them well maintained and they’re in the streets every day.”

The biggest problem, like in most African cities, he says, is that Calabar lacks a proper landfill. “We have a place where we dump rubbish but it just gets bigger and bigger and we are worried that it could pollute the water table,” he said.

The city does have 69 health officials who make sure private septic tanks are working properly. The officials are also on the look out for illegal dumping.

The city also has two ‘environmental and sanitation courts’ which strictly enforce laws on dumping and unsanitary housing. “We have two courts to make sure there is no backlog,” Edim said.

But Calabar is not a police state, Edim insists. “We do not punish people for minor littering offences.”

“Rather, we have a culture of cleanliness in which anyone can ask a person who dropped something to pick it up,” he said.

Dh/np