Fed up with the overpowering stench of urine in Libreville’s streets, artist Regis Divassa decided to take action: by spray-painting over soiled walls in a bid to get the Gabonese capital’s residents to keep their city clean.
“Gabonese men have a great habit: once they drink too much, they spray the walls,” the 34-year-old artist said.
It is not just hidden street corners that are used as makeshift toilets, residential homes are also hit.
It is understandable to go behind a tree in a rural setting where it might be hard to find a toilet, but in Libreville — a city of about half-a-million people — the habit is causing anguish among residents.
Eugenie Assoumou Mengue knows what it is like to live in a house which has walls that are regularly sprayed.
“We’re suffering, it’s hellish. People come and urinate here and we get the smells that make us really sick,” she said, indicating an area on her walls where cement is flaking.
Her efforts to fend off the unwelcome visitors have failed.
“They insult me. I hope Regis can motivate them to stop,” said Assoumou Mengue, who came outside to see Divassa spray-paint the slogan: “Stop urinating!” on one of the walls.
Divassa, an artist, cinema set designer and rapper, has teamed up with his partner “Blatino” to target areas in Libreville that are thick with filth, spraying slogans or full-fledged frescoes to get people to stop and think twice before they pee.
“Graffiti is like a picture. If people see something beautiful on the wall, they won’t come and pee against it,” Divassa said. “Street art is something young people appreciate.”
For Divassa, street art is a political act, a kind of rebellion that can serve to raise public awareness about not just the toilet issue, but also the general problem of filth plaguing Libreville.
Besides the struggle to get people to use toilets, uncleared waste has also become a nuisance for Libreville’s citizens and regularly hits the national headlines.
In nearly every neighborhood across the city, piles of trash can be seen rising meters high near trash cans that no one empties, stewing under the suffocating heat and emitting putrid smells.
The rubbish “even holds up the traffic because it overflows onto the road and cars can’t get past,” a shoe seller said from his shop.
“The town hall has to do something,” he said.
Each month, he pays a cleanliness tax of 24,000 Central African francs (US$50) “without knowing what it’s for.”
Another shopkeeper who came to greet Regis said he was disgusted by the waste lining the streets outside his food store.
“We can’t breathe anymore. The bins are never emptied and with heavy rainfall it overflows through the whole city and makes people sick,” he said.
Unpopular Libreville Mayor Jean-Francois Ntoutoume Emane, who will not run again in this month’s elections, is facing widespread criticism and blamed for not honoring his engagements with the organization responsible for collecting household waste.
Responding recently to questions from deputies and senators, the mayor acknowledged that the trash issue is a recurring one, but refused to shoulder the blame.
Faced with political inaction, Divassa hopes that his street art around the city will help raise public awareness and help to turn the situation around.
“All this is the state’s fault, but who is the state? The state is you and me. The state is us,” he said.