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Artist Turns Trash To Treasure 

By Divine Ntaryike Jr — Most cities in Africa have at least one thing in common.  Their streets and neighborhoods are littered with rubbish created by growing populations.  To make matters worse, waste management systems are often inadequate, and environmental laws are rarely enforced.

But in Cameroon, a new generation of artists has found an imaginative way to cope with the problem – transform trash into eye-catching works of art.  One of them Nereus Patrick Cheo is even getting street kids and minors in prison involved in the effort.

“I actually work with street children, orphans and minors in prison.  I implant in them this culture of using art to produce things that you can make a living out of, use art to make the environment clean.  That’s my part I’m playing.  That’s the change I’m making in their lives.  There’re lots of them I’ve taken off the streets,” he explained.

Cheo’s father, himself an artist, taught him how to create teaching aids from locally available material for his mother, who was a school teacher.  Today, he’s taken that skill to a higher level.

Accompanied by his army of trainee artists, the dread-locked Cheo combs Douala’s shabby streets and neighborhoods, raking through foul-smelling refuse dumps for solid wastes.  These include plant leaves, paper, fabrics, plastics, electronic chips and computer casings.  He transforms them into fine-looking flower jars, beads, statues and murals. 

He says such outings are usually an ordeal, but they are drawing public attention to his work.  “Generally when I collect, people mock at me.  When I assemble and produce works, people rush behind me. So you see, the moment you’re doing that recycling, you’re like a fool. But when it comes to the final works, you become a point of attraction.” 

He says gradually, Cameroonians are getting very much interested in arts.  Over the years, Cameroon has seen the opening of more and more arts schools.  But Cheo says a growing number of artists, like him, don’t have finances or sponsorship.  Yet, he is not discouraged.  He often showcases his works within and beyond Cameroon and has created an association called Kids4Peace to teach underprivileged children the fine arts.  Classes are held in the streets as he lacks a workshop.

The kids consider Cheo a godsend. He uses money made from selling some of his artworks to buy material for the street classes. Some of the works, like paper beads and necklaces made from dumped newspapers, sell like hotcake at exhibitions.  

And apart from using his kids arts program to protect the environment, Cheo also uses the arts as a way to work for social justice.  “There’re so many children out there who come from very rich homes.  They’re the people they keep on seeing every day on TV.  I want to make these children who are on the streets to be those stars too that will be seen in the galleries and on TV,” he says.

Cheo also wields experience in painting, graphics designing, screen painting on t-shirts and ceramics, as well as video shooting and editing. He says in the meantime he will continue his efforts to clear the streets of solid, non-biodegradable wastes.

Douala’s estimated three million inhabitants generate over 1800 tons of household refuse daily.  The city council says a quarter of that amount remains uncollected by its partner waste disposal company, HYSACAM. So, city dwellers have to put up daily with about 450 tons of garbage dumped along the streets. Clean air in the country’s industrial hub is rare as hundreds of factories belch foul smells and discharge solid wastes.

Critics blame the situation on the weak enforcement of regulations, a lack of funding, chaotic urbanization and reckless behavior.  But hope still abounds.  Alongside government efforts to control rubbish is an emerging breed of artists — gathering trash and turning it into exquisite works of art.  

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