21 April, 2020
Two cans of baked beans came rattling off the production line. They were the same as each other and the same as the thousands of other cans that were filled, labelled and dispatched that week. But then the two cans left in different directions and all similarity ended.
One found its way after a short and uneventful journey to a suburb in west London. It was opened and the contents were quickly heated and eaten. The can was not even rinsed but was thrown into the bin with all the other rubbish. The bin was emptied into a refuse truck, and in a landfill site somewhere near Heathrow Airport its story ends.
The other can made its way to Africa. Do not ask me how. It doesn’t matter. Stranger things have happened. It found its way to the old town of Agadez in the country of Niger, which is in the Sahara. There the beans were eaten in the restaurant, and the can was thrown on to the rubbish pile. And there it was picked up by a young girl, Aminata. The blue label was intact. You must know the label. It is light blue and on the front one bean is about to fall out of the frame that encloses the name. Some tomato sauce is on the point of dripping from the bean that is about to fall.
Aminata loved this can. For her it was valuable. She liked the blue of the label. She loved the ridges of the metal as she ran her finger over the side of the can. There was a lot of writing on the label. In fact, there was very little of the label that was not covered in writing. Aminata spoke her own language, Tamachek, and also a little Hausa and less French. She did not read any of these languages. On the label was written, ‘1 of your 5 a day’. There was a number in a circle, 57. What did that mean? It didn’t matter. It also said, ‘Vegetarian friendly’ and ‘Naturally high in protein’. What wonderful sentences they looked but Aminata had no idea what they said. It was not important. They were far from the needs of her life. She had her beautiful can, and she kept it in the tent where she slept.
In it she put things that were important for her, her comb and her pencil. She kept the can for years. Gradually the beautiful blue label with the strange writing wore away. That didn’t matter because the shiny tin with its small ridges was beautiful too.
Years later Aminata still has that can. The label has completely gone leaving the brown lines of glue which once attached it. Through constant use even the metal is worn now. It still holds her comb, her pencil and a few other things. She uses it every day. It is in her tent, by her mat on the sand.