This "plastic man" has a cape and a superhero mission: to clean up Senegal

DAKAR, Senegal — As the marathon runners stretched and took their places on the starting line, a man stood out, dressed, as he was, in p...


DAKAR, Senegal — As the marathon runners stretched and took their places on the starting line, a man stood out, dressed, as he was, in plastic from head to toe.

A multicolored cape made entirely of plastic bags swept the sandy floor. A hat made of plastic sunglasses was perched on his head.

But this man, Modou Fall, was not taking part in the annual marathon held in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, every November. He was in a different kind of race: to save the West African country from the scourge of plastic waste that clogged its waterways, marred its white sand beaches and constantly blew through its streets.

With the marathon drawing large crowds and a major media presence, he couldn’t pass up the chance the race presented to further his cause.

Waving the Senegalese flag and carrying a loudspeaker from which came songs cataloging the damage caused by plastic – “I love my country, I say no to plastic bags” – Mr Fall whistled in and around the runners in his long plastic cape as the race began.

Those in the race who stopped him to ask him for selfies fell into his well-crafted and oft-used trap: he took every opportunity to teach them a soft lesson on environmental issues.

After the last group of runners left the starting area, Mr. Fall and his team of volunteers began picking up the empty water bottles and plastic bags they had left behind.

For the runners and foreign tourists the marathon brought to Dakar, this may have been their first encounter with Mr. Fall, but for local residents he is a familiar presence known as ” Plasticman”.

He can often be seen dancing in the streets wearing a self-designed and ever-changing costume made entirely of plastic, mostly bags collected from across the city. Pinned to his chest is a sign that says NO PLASTIC BAGS. It’s a fight he takes very seriously.

His costume is modeled after the “Kankurang” — an imposing traditional figure deeply rooted in Senegalese culture who roams the sacred forests and wears a shroud of woven grass. The Kankurang is considered a protector against evil spirits and responsible for teaching community values.

“I behave like the Kankurang,” Mr. Fall said in a recent interview. “I am an educator, an advocate and a protector of the environment.”

While plastic waste poses a serious environmental problem worldwide, recent studies found that Senegal, despite its relatively small size, is among the top countries polluting the world’s oceans with plastic. This is partly because it struggles to manage its waste, like many poor countries, and it has a large population living on the coast.

In order to reduce its share of pollution, the Senegalese government has set up a ban on certain plastic products in 2020, but the country is struggling to enforce it. Senegal, with a population of around 17 million, is expected to produce over 700,000 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste by 2025 if nothing is done, compared to about 337,000 metric tons in the United States.

Mr Fall, 48, has fought against plastic litter for most of his adult life. A tall and quietly charismatic former soldier, he first noticed the harmful effects of plastic in 1998 during his military service. He was stationed in rural eastern Senegal, home to many herding communities, where he watched their cows fall ill after consuming the fragments of plastic bags that littered the arid landscape.

Shepherds slaughtered their precious animals before they inevitably died. That way, at least, eating their meat would not be haram, or prohibited by Islam.

After his military service, Mr. Fall sold T-shirts and lifebuoys in the bustling Sandaga market in Dakar, where dozens of traders displayed all kinds of goods, often wrapped in plastic. Plastic bags were cheap and plentiful, and shopkeepers dumped them on the streets with no regard for how they might harm the environment.

For months, Mr Fall tried to get his fellow traders to recognize the environmental threat posed by the use of so much plastic and, if they did use it, to dispose of it properly. But no one listened. The market was a mess.

Fed up, one day he decided to try to lead by example. He would clean up the whole market on his own.

“It took me 13 days, but I did it,” he said.

The plastic eventually came back. But he had managed to make some merchants think.

And stopping the rising tide of plastic has become Mr. Fall’s obsession. “If it continues like this, the lives of future generations are in danger,” he said.

In 2006, Mr. Fall used his life savings of just over $500 to found his association, Clean Senegal, or proper Senegal.

He planted dozens of trees across the city and held community meetings to persuade people to stop buying disposable plastic. He has organized tire cleaning and recycling campaigns in Dakar’s busy neighborhoods, his waste pickers avoiding taxi drivers and street vendors in the process.

With the plastic waste collected, Clean Senegal has made bricks, paving stones and public benches. The old tires became sofas which they sold for around $430 each – money that was spent on more environmental efforts like planting trees in schools.

Other street vendors began to see the value in what he was doing and joined him.

“I used to throw plastic bags or cups on the street after use because I was unaware of the dangers it could cause,” said Cheikh Seck, 31, who sells sunglasses. sun and watches in Pikine, his native suburb of Dakar. “Plastic waste is a global concern, and I am more than happy to contribute to the fight Modou has started.”

Plastic waste clogging the ocean waters off Dakar has damaged fish stocks, further diminishing incomes for Senegalese fishermen who are already battling overfishing of their waters. Plastic can also poison farmland.

Mr. Fall’s message seems to be gaining ground. During the November marathon, the third after which he cleaned up, some runners now knew his favorite slogan and shouted it at him as they passed: “No to plastic waste!

After much of the marathon route, Mr. Fall and his team of 10 young volunteers wearing green shirts and gloves rolled out for their clean-up operation.

They picked up water bottles outside the Dakar pioneer Museum of Black Civilizations, which features one of the largest art collections in Africa. They collected hundreds of plastic bags from the leafy campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University. They found plastic cups in the bustling city center, known as Plateau, which is home to the presidential palace and numerous embassies.

One of the neighborhoods they passed through was Medina, built by the French during the colonial period, and where Mr. Fall was born. After his father died when he was 4 years old, Mr. Fall’s mother moved the family to the suburbs. As a single mother, she struggled to make ends meet running a restaurant, and Mr Fall had to leave school after just six years of primary education to support the family by taking up jobs in metallurgy and building painting. After the death of his mother, he joined the army.

By mid-afternoon on marathon day, Mr. Fall and his team were staggering under the weight of the plastic they had picked up. A van arrived and they handed over hundreds of plastic bottles.

The team took a short break for lunch. But not Mr. Fall. He was always focused on his mission. There were five miles to go on the course of the race, and he set off, his plastic cape floating around him.

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Newsrust - US Top News: This "plastic man" has a cape and a superhero mission: to clean up Senegal
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