Brooms not guns: Yemenis bridge divides to clean up their capital

Photo courtesy of Nadia Abdullah.
 
Divisions run deep in Yemen, where the population is scarred by last year’s violent uprising. However, for one day, the capital’s residents successfully came together over a relatively neutral cause – cleaning up the city.
 
According to Sanaa authorities, 400,000 people participated in Wednesday’s cleanup, in a city of about 2 million. This means they nearly doubled the number they needed to break a Guinness World Record. Organisers explained that their goal was not just to clean the city, but to encourage civic participation – made clear by the slogan, “My contribution builds Yemen” – as well as to change Yemen’s international reputation as being a lawless place.
 
Soldiers participated in the cleanup. Photo courtesy of Nadia Abdullah.
Contributors

“I saw soldiers put down their rifles and pick up brooms”

Sarah Ahmed is a sociologist. She lives in Sanaa, and participated in the cleanup.
 
I went around to different neighbourhoods, with my broom and my camera, to see who was participating. The turnout was outstanding. There were women, men, young and old, rich and poor, students and soldiers. I saw soldiers put down their rifles and pick up brooms. Some people even planted trees and painted walls. It was huge.
 
This is the first time that I feel that there is something all Yemenis agree on – beautifying their capital, which was neglected under [former president] Ali Abdallah Saleh. In 2011, before he left power, Yemenis divided along pro and anti-regime lines. These divisions haven’t disappeared; however, this campaign managed to gather everyone. The mayor was smart – he put out posters showing all different kinds of people, doctors and constructions workers, saying ‘I’m so-and-so, and I will participate in the cleanup.’ And the same posters were done with leaders from different political parties, on both sides of the divide. So while it wasn’t implicitly stated that this was about more than keeping the city clean, the message was heard loud and clear.
 
Photos courtesy of Nadia Abdullah.
 
“I decided to take my own broom, and not use those provided by the authorities”
 
The most emotional part of this day, for me, was seeing people who come from a nation with so many weapons leave them behind to hold brooms and paintbrushes. [Yemen is second only to the United States in per capita firearm ownership; it is common for men to wear their guns on their person]. I felt proud of Yemen today.
 
That said, I hesitated to participate in the cleanup, because street cleaners have been battling for the past year to obtain decent wages, and the city spent what must have been a significant amount of money promoting this event and providing supplies. [According to the Yemen Times, the city provided volunteers with 200,000 hats and 300,000 brooms, as well as gloves decorated with the campaign’s slogan.] In the end I decided to take my own broom, and not use those provided by the authorities. I also held a sign calling for better wages for these workers. Tomorrow, when everybody’s put their brooms away, they’ll still be out on the streets; we must not forget them.
 
 
A tweet posted by a Yemenese woman after the cleanup. 
 
Photo courtesy of Atiaf Alwazir, who published it on Twitter
 
A promotional music video released before the cleanup day to motivate people to participate. The chorus goes, "Leave your imprint on Yemen".
 
Above photos courtesy of Nadia Abdullah, who published them on Facebook
 
Photo by our Observer.

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