This morning I met the extraordinary Manuela Wahnon, who’s litter picking campaign has caught the attention of many people in Andover and further afield within the Borough.
We were due to meet by the Guildhall at 7am and, as I waited, I noticed how few people were on the streets in the early morning darkness. Other than the occasional early riser or unfortunate homeless person, sleeping peacefully on the hard doorway of an empty shop, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were being drenched with rain and battered by freezing winds. It’s enough to start the day off on a depressing tone, until I heard a cheery “good morning” from behind me. It was Manuela, punctual and impeccably presented it was easy to forget that she was here every morning performing the same important job.
Manuela’s campaign ‘Attitude of Gratitude’ has been active for around 6 years, she tells me it all began on a cold winter’s evening when she came across a homeless man, Max, sleeping in what is now the doorway of the Salvation Army shop on Bridge Street. She spoke to him for a while and offered him money and coffee, which he refused. Manuela remembers every detail of the man, his 5 Sainsbury’s carrier bags filled with all his belongings, his surprisingly dapper attire, his well spoken voice, though she remembers he had cut the ends of his size 9 shoes off to allow his size 12 feet to fit. The next morning after their conversation, Manuela wanted to find Max and ensure he was safe, but to her surprise the area where had been sleeping the night before was empty, but pristine.
Manuela searched the town for him and finally caught up with him walking out of a public toilet after having a shave. She asked him about where he had slept the night before and he explained that he always tidied away after himself, as each spot was his temporary home. Manuela says she left amazed by his attitude and this remained in her mind at Church later in the day. The Bishop gave a sermon in which he told the churchgoers to have an ‘attitude of gratitude’ and spend a week doing good for others in return for the good things that happen to them. So, with this in mind and drawing on her experience with Max earlier in the day, Manuela decided to start a one week campaign, for which she had a T-shirt printed; she would help keep the town she loves tidy.
She contacted the local radio station and asked them to cover her campaign. They obliged, and before long Manuela, a pensioner, was being photographed throughout the town, litter-picker in one hand, bag in the other, cleaning up all the hard to reach places, providing a service to the community out of her own pocket. But it didn’t end there, a week became a month, a month became a year and, nearly 3000 bags full of litter later, Manuela continues, every morning, rain or shine, to walk the town picking up the litter that has been casually discarded by the public.
Within minutes of our walk beginning, Manuela noticed a can sat on top of a bin. She discarded the liquid inside and put it in the bin. “It’s so easy!” she exclaims, amazed at how someone has left the litter on top of a bin without simply putting it inside. It was clear, as a road sweeper drove past, how highly she regards Test Valley Borough Council’s environmental services team, the people who spend their working day cleansing the streets of the Borough. “I love my Council” she said proudly, and in particular she mentions Mark, the Town Cleaner, who’s day usually begins just after Manuela’s walk ends having cleared up in the hard to reach places, making Mark’s job that much easier.
Then we set off again, Manuela walking swiftly ahead, picking up each piece of litter she can see, it’s difficult to catch up as she darted into an alleyway, picking up a pizza box and a soggy woolly hat. Manuela sees it differently, “every piece of litter that I pick up, is a jewel that I can give back to the Town” she explained. “Litter is an eyesore, but look at that (pointing to now cleaned alleyway) that is a bit of a beauty”.
We darted back out of the alleyway, the sound of Manuela’s trademark, red high-heels echoing down the street as she marched on in her task. She pointed out where she first met Max and where her journey began and then back on task we headed to the river, behind the Town Mills. Manuela told me, “Any bit of litter that’s near a river takes priority for me, that’s because, as an environmentalist, I’m more concerned about our rivers and our animals. They don’t deserve to have our rubbish in their river.” With that she made her way into a dense bush to clear out the rubbish that has blown in there over night. “A stitch in time, saves nine” she said quickly cleaning the area.
When Manuela isn’t on the streets, brightening the Town, she is in schools, teaching assemblies of children how to be good citizens. She believes that this generation of children have a much better educations, which, she hopes, will go some way towards keeping the Town cleaner in years to come.
I asked Manuela if she had any regrets about her campaign and one immediately sprang to mind. “If I had known, when I started this that in 6 years time I would still be doing it, I would have taken the advice that was given to me and made myself a registered charity. I didn’t, I was advised by many people that there are funds out there that could be made available to me, to help me in what I do. Now, years on, with my savings diminishing daily, I see people collecting for many different charities and I think ‘I could have been one of those.”
As our time neared it’s end, I had to ask Manuela where her name originates, she told me that her mother was Spanish and her father lived in Gibraltar, hence her magnificent Latin name.
It’s clear, as we reached the Guildhall, after she took off her gloves, and put her filled bag next to a bin, that Manuela’s task is never complete. She continues to pick up litter right back to the Guildhall. It’s a nice change to meet a local legend, a community champion who wants to give something back to the town she loves and if that wasn’t enough, I learned more about litter than I ever knew was possible!