"I think that when you abuse the environment, you abuse yourself."
When Isatou Ceesay was growing up in Njau, the Gambia she discovered that plastic bags easily replaced her broken palm leaf basket. Telling Grandmother Mbombeh of her new way to carry home fruit and vegetables, led her grandmother to note that the city was full of plastic bags. At first Isatou finds the plastic bags handy and attractive. But soon she comes to realize they don't last forever and that unlike her palm leaf basket, the plastic bags do not crumble and mix in with the soil. Instead, discarded plastic bags clog the pathways and fields, marring the beauty of her village. Not only that but the goats, a source of wealth for Isatou's family and other families, are eating the plastic bags and dying. Isatou's grandmother loses three goats this way.
Isatou decides she must do something but what? She begins collecting and washing the discarded plastic bags she finds in Njau. Then a brilliant idea comes to Isatou, one that not only helps to recycle the bags but also provides a source of income for the women of Njau.
In Canada we have a well developed municipal waste collection program that includes regular garbage, recycling and in some communities organic waste collection. However in the Gambia this did not exist and still does not in most communities in the country. The result is that garbage litters city streets and rural areas and is often burned, releasing damaging chemical compounds into the air. Litter chokes and kills livestock and creates unsanitary conditions leading to disease.
In 1997 Isatou and three other women started the Recycling Center of Njau. Their initial goal was to teach the women of her village to recycle plastic waste and become leaders in the management of waste within their communities. This meant changing the role of women in their village to some extent, encouraging them to become advocates for recycling and social responsibility and to become small business entrepeneurs.
Miranda Paul tells the Isatou Ceesay's story in simple prose. Isatou Ceesay demonstrates how just one person can have a profound influence on her community. In this case Isatou not only found a way to recycle the plastic bags which were choking the beautiful countryside but also eventually turn the women of Njau's efforts into an economically viable business.
Elizabeth Zunon utilizes collages made of colourful papers and leftover plastic shopping bags to create the illustrations for One Plastic Bag, connecting her artwork to the story of recycling. Miranda Paul also includes an Author's Note that details her visits to The Gambia and how the country was overwhelmed with garbage. But one person began to work to change that. Isatou Ceesay's efforts not only helped clean up N'Jau but also brought the first public library to her region. The book also includes a glossary of Wolof, on of the native languages of the Gambia.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and The Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul
Minmeapolis, Minnesota: Millbrook Press 2015