Why you should care
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
I was walking in the city center, when I saw spittle flying toward me. I managed to duck it by a hair’s breadth. My first instinct was to thrash the taxi driver / spitter, but instead of picking a fight each time someone inadvertently spat at me, I decided to start a grassroots campaign against this disgusting habit. It is shocking to see how people on the streets of Bishkek spit virtually everywhere: next to benches in the park, on sidewalks and at bus stops, at the entrance of cinemas, schools, government buildings — you name it.
Perhaps it is even more obvious to me, as I returned to Kyrgyzstan last summer, after a decade studying and working in Poland and Qatar. I have been a Baha’i for my entire adult life, and in my religion, cleanliness is considered a virtue. I teach English at an international school and my students have become involved in the campaign as volunteers. I see this as part and parcel of their education, and as a way for me to give back to my country via the next generation.
At the beginning, it was just me and a friend, who designed the “No Spitting” sticker in Kyrgyz and Russian. I printed the first 150 with my own savings and began distributing them to random people. The response was overwhelming. After I opened a Facebook page, thousands liked it in the first few days. I started receiving invitations to meet the city’s deputy mayor and even the president’s press secretary, who donated $750.
But the most encouraging response has come from common people. Total strangers shake my hand in the street and ask for stickers to distribute. After all, this isn’t just about keeping our city clean. It is a serious matter of public health: Kyrgyzstan suffers from a high incidence of tuberculosis, which happens to also be transmitted via spitting.
This is why the authorities need to do much more to raise awareness about the issue. Kyrgyzstan is a Muslim-majority country, so the mosque would be a good place to start. The Prophet Muhammad himself spoke out against this behavior, declaring that “spitting in the mosque is a sin and its expiation is to clean it.” Why can’t we expand this to include all public spaces?
For now, though, we are the only game in town. One of the country’s best musicians is writing a song to support the campaign. Recently, we created the first batch of T-shirts sporting the campaign logo, and I have appeared on national TV to speak about our work. Even a Russian channel has reported on our efforts to clean up Bishkek.
With this publicity came our first corporate sponsor, but also some backlash. For example, some shop owners resented our placing stickers on their windows. I keep telling my supporters: Always ask for permission to place a sticker.
After taking Bishkek by storm, we are spreading to the rest of the country. The workers at a major resort at Issyk Kul, the country’s No. 1 tourist destination, will wear our T-shirts this summer. We have campaign coordinators in other cities, including Osh in the south, the second-biggest city in Kyrgyzstan. And dozens of volunteers have joined us to spread the word. We have 30,000 stickers. The next steps? I am working with a mobile operator on a campaign message that would reach people via SMS. Who could have imagined a few months back that this would grow so big, so fast? And politicians think our people, and our youth, are apathetic.
One thing is for sure — we won’t stop until the whole of Kyrgyzstan is cleaned up. Dear spitters: You have been warned.