Amongst the Scavengers

Micah Albert for the Pulitzer Center story by David Conrad. Leaving the arrivals gate, a dump truck joins a host of cabs departing from the Jomo Kenyatta
International Airport, the largest airport in East and Central Africa and a proud symbol of
Nairobi’s growing economy and global presence.

Carrying food waste from the day’s flights, the truck eventually turns toward the city slums,
while the cabs continue to the capital’s business district. Representing parallel societies and
economies resulting from Nairobi’s rapid urban development, their routes expose two very
different, yet interwoven, narratives to the rise of East Africa’s most populous city.

We decided to follow the truck.

At roughly the same time every day, the unfinished salads, sandwiches, bread, yogurt cups and
waste from every plane that touches down in Nairobi are transported to the Dandora Municipal
Dumpsite – Nairobi’s only dumping location for waste. We watch as the scraps hardly make it
out of the truck bed before dozens of men fight over the lot. Congealed by the heat of the Kenyan
sun and reeking of spoiled milk, they throw handfuls into their mouths or place it in strewn
Kenya Airways bags for later.

Avoiding the frenzy, children skip school to meet the truck on a rutted dirt road just outside the
dumpsite’s entrance, while women wait for the kids and the competitive pack of men to disperse
before picking through the dumped remains.

Each group sorts and places into large sacks the waste that cannot be eaten but can be sold for
recycling.

This informal chain of middle men and women has long done the dirty work for recycling
companies. Sorting through metals, rubber, meat bones, milk bags, and plastics, hundreds of
self-employed pickers scavenge the 30-acre dumpsite from 5am to sundown. Community buyers
purchase their day’s work at nearby weigh stations, eventually selling the newly acquired share
to informal drivers who are ultimately paid upon delivery by the recycling companies. None of
the workers make more than 250 KSH ($2.50USD) per day.

This largely unknown survival ritual – essential to the upkeep of the dumpsite, but not condoned
by the city – has continued ever since Dandora was first named the city dump about 37 years
ago; 22 years longer than international law allows and 11 years after the site was declared full
by the Nairobi city council. Over the next five years, the city hopes to decommission the site,
though their relocation strategy has remained on the desks of city council members for over a
decade.

While Dandora certainly represents a provocative starting point for understanding the country’s
health, waste, and sanitation struggles, the scale of marginalization in Dandora brings even
greater questions of globalization, urbanization, and international accountability. In a city
known for being the East African hub for journalists, deep-pocketed safari goers, and en-route
missionaries, it is unfathomable that nearly a quarter of the city’s residents could go largely
neglected for so long.

Aggrey Otieno, a human rights activist born in Korogocho, one of the slums bordering Dandora,
said the continued inaction symbolizes a growing disconnect between Kenya’s elite and the
urban poor.

"If you look at economic growth statistics then you might think things are getting better, but this
wealth is clearly not trickling down to the poor," he said. "We have a lot of people investing in
Nairobi. Malls, KFC’s, Apple stores, factories; they are being built citywide, but without a solid
waste management plan, without a focused desire to truly improve the living standards of all
Kenyans, we will be dealing with these problems for a long time."

Since trash pickers often represent the lowest economic class and most marginalized population
in society, talking about waste often crystallizes the contestation and battles seen at the heart
of African cities, said Rosalind Fredericks, an assistant professor at New York University who
specializes in the political economy of development and global urbanism in Africa.

"[Trash pickers] are squarely situated in the informal sector, which cities have consistently
demonstrated an inability to govern," said Fredericks whose dissertation explored the cultural
politics of garbage collection in Dakar, Senegal. "In this way, the study of waste exposes the
global hierarchies of unequal bureaucracies around wealth, poverty and values. African cities just
can’t keep up with the population growth they are seeing and urban up-grading in sub-Saharan
African cannot be done by simply erasing informal settlements; they have to be somehow
absorbed into the economy and operations of the city."

Situated in a parallel economy to that of the city’s business district, the informal trash pickers
of Dandora, however, represent only a portion of a much larger base of impoverished Nairobi
residents who feel their livelihoods and voices are being left out of the city’s resources and
success. Almost one million people – a quarter of the city’s total population – live in informal
settlements within a 5km radius of Dandora.

Consequently, the pending relocation has sparked a debate engaging a variety of voices from
across Nairobi’s fractured class system.

Revealing health studies in-hand, frustrated human rights organizations and community leaders
claim that the decommission process is long overdue. A 2007 study commissioned by the UN
Environmental Program (UNEP) is among the most comprehensive analyses of Dandora’s
impact on the surrounding communities. The report revealed soil samples with fatally high levels

of lead and found that 154 of the 328 children observed living near the dumpsite suffered from
respiratory problems and had concentrations of lead in their blood that exceeded internationally
accepted levels.

Nairobi city council members admit they have failed to react to both local and international
pressures for relocation appropriately, but say their plans to decommission Dandora and privatize
the process of trash collection will mark a paradigm shift in waste management for the region.

"Population growth has superseded our facilities, and it is because of the inadequate capacity
of the city council that we are here," said Mutabari Inanga, the environmental and public health
officer in Nairobi’s city council. "The infrastructure of waste management in Nairobi is not well
structured at all. There has also been very poor cooperation between city council and residents,
and as a result [Dandora] has become an environmental and health crisis of which we have had
no one to take responsibility."

Several of the provisions in Kenya’s new constitution, however, call for a restructuring of city
governance following this year’s presidential election. Many Kenyans believe this will cut down
on corruption and inaction. Reforms include the replacement of the long criticized city council
with a county contingent of boroughs, each of which will be headed by mayors elected directly
by the electorate.

A known reformer and the country’s newest Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, said he thinks the
removal of Dandora will be a pivotal issue in these coming county elections.

"It is time the pro-poor leadership seize political power in Nairobi," said Mutunga. "The dump
site reflects Kenya’s unacceptable status quo. That dump site is a violation of the constitution
and I hope my compatriots in Korogocho will task the Legal Advice Centre to move to "¦
remove this site of death, poverty, ill health and the current unacceptable distribution of national
resources."

Stop dumping death on us, a community group from Korogocho, has been working to do just that
for the last several years.

Yet, Tiger, 28, said he hopes the group remains unsuccessful.

Tiger is Dandora’s gatekeeper. City trucks pay his cartel to enter the site. Trash pickers pay 10
KSH ($.12 USD) a game to use his pool table during breaks. And, in order for us to gain entry,
we too had to pay Tiger for his approval. He grew-up eating the leftovers of Nairobi’s airline
passengers and has spent most of his life working at the site.

"If they come, what will happen to us? We are like these birds and pigs to this city," he said
gesturing toward the animals that scavenge for food side-by-side with the pickers. "They don’t
recognize us as people. They don’t care what happens to us, and if they relocate this place then
we will have nothing."

Late last year, representatives from the Japan International Cooperation Agency – the company
commissioned by the Nairobi City Council to provide technical assistance during the relocation
process – visited the site. According to Tiger, company representatives informed him that within
the next year they will be taking over the site and he will be forced to leave.

"We asked JICA where we will go," said Tiger. "We told them that we have experience here,
and that we could help them because we need jobs. But they said that we are already sick, why
would they hire us?"

The estimated 6,000 people who work at Dandora are aware of the health risks involved
in working at the site, but they are far more concerned with losing their income, food, and
livelihoods if it is relocated.

"Look at my leg," said Rahab Rujuru, 42, revealing a large wound she received at the site two
years ago. "I know working here is bad, but I am here because of hunger." Rujuru lost her
newborn son to tetanus last November. Her doctor said the infection came from Rahab’s cut, and
he encouraged her to stop working at Dandora. She returned to the dumpsite two days after the
death.

Ruguru, a mother of six children – between the ages of four and 17 – moved to a small home
directly bordering Dandora after the country’s 2007 post-election violence forced her family
from their Eldoret farm near the Western border of Kenya.

Beneath her unfailing smile, she spoke of daily life at Dandora with countervailing tones of the
banality of daily chores and unfathomable desperation.

"Working here is how I am able to feed my children," she said. "Of course it is not a usual job.
Dodging pigs, used condoms, eating what I find; no it’s not good for me. But it is a job and I
have to persevere."

Asthma makes life even harder for Rujuru. Toxic-laced smoke from small fires of burning waste
spreads to every corner of Dandora. As a mother, though, what bothers her most is the adult
behavior that her children are forced to witness. Save her four-year-old, all of the Rujuru family
scavenges Dandora with their mother on weekends and after their classes to earn money for
school fees, books, and uniforms.

"I really don’t like that they hear how adults talk by being out here, but we have no choice," she
said. "If this site moves then I will move with it – or we will not survive." Leaving the arrivals gate, a dump truck joins a host of cabs departing from the Jomo Kenyatta
International Airport, the largest airport in East and Central Africa and a proud symbol of
Nairobi’s growing economy and global presence.

Carrying food waste from the day’s flights, the truck eventually turns toward the city slums,
while the cabs continue to the capital’s business district. Representing parallel societies and
economies resulting from Nairobi’s rapid urban development, their routes expose two very
different, yet interwoven, narratives to the rise of East Africa’s most populous city.

We decided to follow the truck.

At roughly the same time every day, the unfinished salads, sandwiches, bread, yogurt cups and
waste from every plane that touches down in Nairobi are transported to the Dandora Municipal
Dumpsite – Nairobi’s only dumping location for waste. We watch as the scraps hardly make it
out of the truck bed before dozens of men fight over the lot. Congealed by the heat of the Kenyan
sun and reeking of spoiled milk, they throw handfuls into their mouths or place it in strewn
Kenya Airways bags for later.

Avoiding the frenzy, children skip school to meet the truck on a rutted dirt road just outside the
dumpsite’s entrance, while women wait for the kids and the competitive pack of men to disperse
before picking through the dumped remains.

Each group sorts and places into large sacks the waste that cannot be eaten but can be sold for
recycling.

This informal chain of middle men and women has long done the dirty work for recycling
companies. Sorting through metals, rubber, meat bones, milk bags, and plastics, hundreds of
self-employed pickers scavenge the 30-acre dumpsite from 5am to sundown. Community buyers
purchase their day’s work at nearby weigh stations, eventually selling the newly acquired share
to informal drivers who are ultimately paid upon delivery by the recycling companies. None of
the workers make more than 250 KSH ($2.50USD) per day.

This largely unknown survival ritual – essential to the upkeep of the dumpsite, but not condoned
by the city – has continued ever since Dandora was first named the city dump about 37 years
ago; 22 years longer than international law allows and 11 years after the site was declared full
by the Nairobi city council. Over the next five years, the city hopes to decommission the site,
though their relocation strategy has remained on the desks of city council members for over a
decade.

While Dandora certainly represents a provocative starting point for understanding the country’s
health, waste, and sanitation struggles, the scale of marginalization in Dandora brings even
greater questions of globalization, urbanization, and international accountability. In a city
known for being the East African hub for journalists, deep-pocketed safari goers, and en-route
missionaries, it is unfathomable that nearly a quarter of the city’s residents could go largely
neglected for so long.

Aggrey Otieno, a human rights activist born in Korogocho, one of the slums bordering Dandora,
said the continued inaction symbolizes a growing disconnect between Kenya’s elite and the
urban poor.

"If you look at economic growth statistics then you might think things are getting better, but this
wealth is clearly not trickling down to the poor," he said. "We have a lot of people investing in
Nairobi. Malls, KFC’s, Apple stores, factories; they are being built citywide, but without a solid
waste management plan, without a focused desire to truly improve the living standards of all
Kenyans, we will be dealing with these problems for a long time."

Since trash pickers often represent the lowest economic class and most marginalized population
in society, talking about waste often crystallizes the contestation and battles seen at the heart
of African cities, said Rosalind Fredericks, an assistant professor at New York University who
specializes in the political economy of development and global urbanism in Africa.

"[Trash pickers] are squarely situated in the informal sector, which cities have consistently
demonstrated an inability to govern," said Fredericks whose dissertation explored the cultural
politics of garbage collection in Dakar, Senegal. "In this way, the study of waste exposes the
global hierarchies of unequal bureaucracies around wealth, poverty and values. African cities just
can’t keep up with the population growth they are seeing and urban up-grading in sub-Saharan
African cannot be done by simply erasing informal settlements; they have to be somehow
absorbed into the economy and operations of the city."

Situated in a parallel economy to that of the city’s business district, the informal trash pickers
of Dandora, however, represent only a portion of a much larger base of impoverished Nairobi
residents who feel their livelihoods and voices are being left out of the city’s resources and
success. Almost one million people – a quarter of the city’s total population – live in informal
settlements within a 5km radius of Dandora.

Consequently, the pending relocation has sparked a debate engaging a variety of voices from
across Nairobi’s fractured class system.

Revealing health studies in-hand, frustrated human rights organizations and community leaders
claim that the decommission process is long overdue. A 2007 study commissioned by the UN
Environmental Program (UNEP) is among the most comprehensive analyses of Dandora’s
impact on the surrounding communities. The report revealed soil samples with fatally high levels

of lead and found that 154 of the 328 children observed living near the dumpsite suffered from
respiratory problems and had concentrations of lead in their blood that exceeded internationally
accepted levels.

Nairobi city council members admit they have failed to react to both local and international
pressures for relocation appropriately, but say their plans to decommission Dandora and privatize
the process of trash collection will mark a paradigm shift in waste management for the region.

"Population growth has superseded our facilities, and it is because of the inadequate capacity
of the city council that we are here," said Mutabari Inanga, the environmental and public health
officer in Nairobi’s city council. "The infrastructure of waste management in Nairobi is not well
structured at all. There has also been very poor cooperation between city council and residents,
and as a result [Dandora] has become an environmental and health crisis of which we have had
no one to take responsibility."

Several of the provisions in Kenya’s new constitution, however, call for a restructuring of city
governance following this year’s presidential election. Many Kenyans believe this will cut down
on corruption and inaction. Reforms include the replacement of the long criticized city council
with a county contingent of boroughs, each of which will be headed by mayors elected directly
by the electorate.

A known reformer and the country’s newest Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, said he thinks the
removal of Dandora will be a pivotal issue in these coming county elections.

"It is time the pro-poor leadership seize political power in Nairobi," said Mutunga. "The dump
site reflects Kenya’s unacceptable status quo. That dump site is a violation of the constitution
and I hope my compatriots in Korogocho will task the Legal Advice Centre to move to "¦
remove this site of death, poverty, ill health and the current unacceptable distribution of national
resources."

Stop dumping death on us, a community group from Korogocho, has been working to do just that
for the last several years.

Yet, Tiger, 28, said he hopes the group remains unsuccessful.

Tiger is Dandora’s gatekeeper. City trucks pay his cartel to enter the site. Trash pickers pay 10
KSH ($.12 USD) a game to use his pool table during breaks. And, in order for us to gain entry,
we too had to pay Tiger for his approval. He grew-up eating the leftovers of Nairobi’s airline
passengers and has spent most of his life working at the site.

"If they come, what will happen to us? We are like these birds and pigs to this city," he said
gesturing toward the animals that scavenge for food side-by-side with the pickers. "They don’t
recognize us as people. They don’t care what happens to us, and if they relocate this place then
we will have nothing."

Late last year, representatives from the Japan International Cooperation Agency – the company
commissioned by the Nairobi City Council to provide technical assistance during the relocation
process – visited the site. According to Tiger, company representatives informed him that within
the next year they will be taking over the site and he will be forced to leave.

"We asked JICA where we will go," said Tiger. "We told them that we have experience here,
and that we could help them because we need jobs. But they said that we are already sick, why
would they hire us?"

The estimated 6,000 people who work at Dandora are aware of the health risks involved
in working at the site, but they are far more concerned with losing their income, food, and
livelihoods if it is relocated.

"Look at my leg," said Rahab Rujuru, 42, revealing a large wound she received at the site two
years ago. "I know working here is bad, but I am here because of hunger." Rujuru lost her
newborn son to tetanus last November. Her doctor said the infection came from Rahab’s cut, and
he encouraged her to stop working at Dandora. She returned to the dumpsite two days after the
death.

Ruguru, a mother of six children – between the ages of four and 17 – moved to a small home
directly bordering Dandora after the country’s 2007 post-election violence forced her family
from their Eldoret farm near the Western border of Kenya.

Beneath her unfailing smile, she spoke of daily life at Dandora with countervailing tones of the
banality of daily chores and unfathomable desperation.

"Working here is how I am able to feed my children," she said. "Of course it is not a usual job.
Dodging pigs, used condoms, eating what I find; no it’s not good for me. But it is a job and I
have to persevere."

Asthma makes life even harder for Rujuru. Toxic-laced smoke from small fires of burning waste
spreads to every corner of Dandora. As a mother, though, what bothers her most is the adult
behavior that her children are forced to witness. Save her four-year-old, all of the Rujuru family
scavenges Dandora with their mother on weekends and after their classes to earn money for
school fees, books, and uniforms.

"I really don’t like that they hear how adults talk by being out here, but we have no choice," she
said. "If this site moves then I will move with it – or we will not survive."