On Aug. 2, 2016, I left Colegio Secundario de Almirante (Almirante High School) in Panama to meet Harold Hibbert, president of Comité Pro-Mejoras de Almirante, a local community advocacy organization. It was the start of my fourth week as a participant with Panama Teacher Match, a program funded by the U.S. Embassy in Panama and implemented by Partners of the Americas. The program supports the work of Panama Bilingüe, a national initiative enacted by the President of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, to improve the teaching of English in schools nationwide though extensive teacher training.
The previous week I had been taking a coffee break between classes in the teacher’s lounge when another teacher announced that a señor wished to speak to me. I shook hands with a tall 63-year-old English-speaking man of Afro-Caribbean descent. Almirante (pop. 12,430), a banana port facing the Caribbean, is home to the descendants of Afro-Caribbean workers from the English–speaking Antilles.
Harold said his 17-year-old daughter Yenniffer had told him that I was in Almirante as a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Panama. He wanted me to seek help from the Embassy for a recycling program to reduce the problem of garbage in Almirante’s streets. I told him that I did not have influence inside of the Embassy, but would like to accompany him on tour of the garbage in Almirante, and to videotape an interview that I would share with as many people as possible, including the Embassy.
His request was welcomed. During my stay, I was housed with a local teacher. Every night, neighbors burned their garbage, including plastics, on the street where I was staying. At the height of the rainy season, piles of garbage mixed with standing water throughout the city - in the streets, ditches and culverts, residential yards, and outside stores. Garbage rotted alongside food preparation.
The afternoon I spent with Harold changed my perspective of the issue completely. I learned that people burned and buried garbage in an attempt to keep the city clean despite the government’s failure to provide a garbage disposal infrastructure.
He was waiting for me at the bottom of the high school’s driveway. He gave me a gift of two small cinnamon buns wrapped in plastic and labeled with his business contact information. He sells empanadas, pastries, coffee and soda to support his family. A taxi driver took us to meet Leila Wenham, secretary of the Pro-mejoras de Almirante.
Leila confirmed that Almirante’s garbage collection system was private and informal. A man collects the garbage once a week and takes it out to a spot along the highway to Changuinola, a neighboring town. Residents must pay him $6 a month for this service.
“We, the Comité Pro-mejoras, have bright ideas, and a heart full of emotions and creativity,” Leila said as Harold and I left on our tour. “We want good things for this town. We invite you and others to come to Almirante, it is a beautiful paradise, and we want you to discover the beauty of this place and to witness the beauty of its people.” Her invitation contrasted sharply with the description of Almirante in Moon Handbooks Panama by William Friar. “You’d have to be bananas to choose to stay in the small, ramshackle banana port town of Almirante,” it reads.
Harold, Yenniffer, and I began our tour behind one of the town’s small grocery stores owned by Chinese immigrants, where garbage overflowed from a metal cage.
“You pass by here, and there is an ugly stench,” Harold said. “If you come back in a few days it will frighten and repulse you. There are a few men who earn their living picking up garbage in their pickups. But that is not what we want. Not only the grocery store puts their garbage here. Anyone can drop it off, and in a few days there will be a mountain of it.”
Harold and the Comité Pro-Mejoras de Almirante want to create a system to prevent the garbage influx. The Committee is seeking technical support and training for recycling and funding for two dump trucks. “If we owned some trucks, we could keep the town clean. We have a dump to take the garbage to. We need a system to get it there,” he said.
Harold sees recycling as a means to reduce waste, reuse materials, and create jobs for the community. “We are trying to make a difference,” Harold said. “We have heard of recycling, but we don’t have the knowledge of what it is and how it is supposed to be done…we don’t have any kind of experience recycling. We would like to have someone that can instruct us on how it is done.”
“In the meantime, we would like to have a way to get the garbage out of the town. You have people selling different things [food] and the garbage is right there. [We need] two or three small trucks so that we can take the garbage out of the city to a different place, where it won’t cause damage. That is what our government cannot give to us, I don’t know why, we cannot get it. We are trying to see if we can get help from somewhere else, so that we can make this town look different.”
Harold finished our tour of Almirante with a closer look at the water and housing. We stood over a bridge where we could see the oil-stained water. Algae lies on top of motor oil and mosquito larvae. The ocean water that flows throughout the port city, much of it under the homes of its poorest residents, is dark with opaque filth.
Wooden shacks built on stilts over tide water abound in Almirante. Their roofs are rusty metal and the walls have glassless window openings without screens to shield against insects or animals. The Chiquita banana company built the homes to house their employees, selling them for a symbolic price of around $100 to former employees when the company left Panama. Panama still ships some bananas out of Almirante, but the industry has mostly died as a result of a fungus that affects their quality.
Harold has eight children. The older children include a nutritionist, a criminologist, and a member of the military. The younger children are still in school, one of whom wishes to be a lawyer and the others still undecided. Yenniffer hopes to complete a bachelor’s degree in criminology.
Harold studied accounting for a few years before settling on his small empanada (meat or cheese pies) business.
“I learned from my parents how to make a few pastries and breads,” he said. “I found it difficult to work for other people because there is not much honesty among employers here. I always fought for my rights, and I had a lot of conflict with my bosses because of this. I decided to start selling empanadas. Now I sell bread, sodas, even coffee every morning so that my children can get ahead. I am slowly building a good house, little by little. Every day I work and save and add a little more to the house. But it doesn’t interest me to only improve my own home, the town where I live should change for the better as well. The children need a different future.”
He wants to the town to change for the better, too.
“My daily fight is to change this little town before I dismiss it,” he said. “My family is gone. Most of the people from here grow up and they just go. There is a lot of future here. There needs to be someone to prepare that future. I teach my children they are not supposed to finish school and look for life somewhere else. They must try and build life here. That is what I am trying to do; change this situation with those couple of people that think just like me, change the situation of this place. It’s a nice place, a beautiful place. It just needs a little work, that’s all.”