Media file: trash.jpg
Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Leaving the bustling arrivals gate, a dump truck joins a fleet of airport taxis full of deep-pocketed safari goers, business travelers, and missionaries departing from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the largest hub 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 affluent business district. Their routes expose two very different, yet interwoven, narratives to the rise of east Africa's most populous city.

At roughly the same time every day, the unfinished salads, sandwiches, bread, yogurt cups, and refuse from Nairobi's incoming flights are transported to the Dandora Municipal Dumpsite -- the capital city's only dumping location.

Far from the expressways and skyscrapers of downtown, the truck meets a landscape of smoke-filled horizons and metallic, waste-born mountains. Smoke from burning piles of trash scratches the inside of the throat and obscures the bent backs of human and animal scavengers scattered across the smoldering lot. When the sun is overhead, the smell of four decades of waste is overwhelming.

As the truck arrives, children -- who've skipped out of school for the occasion -- meet it on a rutted dirt road just outside the dumpsite's entrance. The older ones clamber up the truck's sides as it waits to enter the dump, pulling directly from the pile -- a half-eaten brownie, an un-opened, liquefied yogurt cup -- while the youngest sort through waste tossed on the ground.

Once entering Dandora, the scraps hardly make it out of the truck bed before dozens of men fight over the haul. Baked by the heat of the Kenyan sun and reeking of spoiled milk, the congealed food waste is thrown into mouths or placed in strewn Kenya Airways bags for later.

Avoiding the frenzy, women wait for both the kids and the competitive pack of men to disperse before picking through what remains.

One woman pockets a handful of wrapped candies.

"School work rewards," said Rahab Ruguru, 42, a mother of six. "Working here is how I am able to feed my children. 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."

Ruguru and the other rummagers sort and place into large sacks the materials that cannot be eaten, but can be sold for recycling -- metals, rubber, milk bags, plastics, meat bones, and electronics tend to be among the most sought after.

This informal chain of middlemen and women -- an estimated 6,000 people -- has long done the dirty work for recycling companies. Hundreds of self-employed pickers scavenge the sprawling 30-acre dumpsite from 5 a.m. to sundown. Community buyers purchase their day's work at nearby weigh stations, eventually selling a larger aggregate stock to informal truck drivers who are ultimately paid upon delivery by the recycling companies. None of the workers make much more than $2.50 per day.

This largely invisible survival ritual -- essential to the upkeep of the dumpsite, but not officially condoned by the city -- has continued since the first trash started arriving at Dandora around 37 years ago -- 22 years longer than international environmental 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 finally decommission the crude dumping site, raising a fraught debate between the haves and have-nots of this east African boomtown.

Dandora is a symbol of a larger problem: Even as Kenya touts continued economic growth and cultural influence -- including proudly hosting the Nairobi Securities Exchange, the financial hub of east and central Africa, and regional headquarters for the likes of General Electric, Google, Coca-Cola, the United Nations Environmental Program, and U.N.-Habitat -- its poorest citizens have been left behind by their country's rise.

A new constitution, accelerated advances in information and communications technology, East African Community integration, and the discovery of oil have many optimistic that Kenya will continue to be the regional powerhouse economy. Nearly two thirds of Nairobi's population, though, will continue to live in the city's slums.

International organizations have long been working to bring attention to these neglected voices -- including Amnesty International's "Kenya: The Unseen Majority: Nairobi's Two Million Slum-Dwellers" report and the World Bank Institute's "Putting Nairobi's Slums on the Map" project -- yet this attention has often focused primarily on Kibera, the city's largest slum. On the opposite side of the city, however, reside more than 1 million people living in informal settlements around Dandora.

"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," says Aggrey Otieno, a human rights activist born in Korogocho, one of the slums bordering Dandora. "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."

This isn't just a debate about trash -- it's a debate that captures how Nairobi and other fast-rising African cities treat their most disadvantaged citizens, says Otieno. And that is why a seemingly mundane municipal issue like the fate of a trash dump can turn into a political flashpoint.

"[Trash pickers] are squarely situated in the informal sector, which cities have consistently demonstrated an inability to govern," says Rosalind Fredericks, an assistant professor at New York University who specializes in the political economy of development. "Many African cities just cannot 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."

Nairobi city council members recognize the problems, but in the same breath blame the megapolis's rapid population growth -- the city has grown from 827,775 in 1979 to 3.2 million today -- and the city's overwhelmed bureaucracy for their slowness to act on Dandora.

"Population growth has superseded our facilities, and it is because of the inadequate capacity of the city council that we are here," says Mutabari Inanga, an 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 for which we have had no one to take responsibility."

Inanga says the city is prepared to decommission and relocate the site, but that it is waiting for the final go-ahead from the new dumpsite's projected neighbor: the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Airport officials fear the new site will attract birds that will interfere with air traffic. So the plan remains on hold.

The endlessly pending relocation has led a variety of voices, from across Nairobi's fractured class system, to weigh in.

On one side are Nairobi's political reformers and slum advocates. Health studies in-hand, frustrated human rights organizations and Dandora community leaders claim that the decommission process is long overdue. A 2007 study by the U.N. Environmental Program is among the most comprehensive analyses of Dandora's impact on the surrounding communities. The report revealed that Dandora soil samples contained 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.

A well-known reformer and the country's newest chief justice, Willy Munyoki Mutunga, said he believes Nairobi's urban reformers should take a stand on the removal of Dandora in the country's coming county elections.

"It is time the pro-poor leadership seize political power in Nairobi," says 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."

But on the other side, the trash pickers worry that their needs and livelihoods aren't being fully considered. They are fully aware that Dandora is not good for their health, but a slow death is better than no life at all.

Julius Macharia was born in one of Dandora's bordering slums. He grew-up eating leftovers from Nairobi's airline passengers and is now one of the dump's gatekeepers.

The dumpsite is controlled by an unofficial cartel of local residents who claim to provide security to the pickers; though they mostly use intimidation to control who is permitted to pick where, often to the detriment of the women. They charge city dump trucks -- and even journalists -- a small fee every time they enter.

Macharia, who prefers the name Tiger, is one of the cartel leaders. He proudly displays a pool table he moved to the center of the dumpsite and the shelter he constructed for it using scattered scraps. Trash pickers pay 10 KSH (about $.12) a game to use the table during breaks and rainy weather.

While Nairobi's business district dithers and shirks responsibility for the fate of Dandora, Tiger worries about what will happen to those who depend on it should the government ever really take an interest in their affairs.

"If they come, what will happen to us? We are like these birds and pigs to this city," he says, 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."

City officials have long-term plans to turn the dumpsite into a park, but the pickers hardly see how they will achieve such a goal, nor frankly what use they would have for a park.

Inanga says the city has also "earmarked money to sustain the livelihood" of the pickers who lose their jobs. "I can't pin-point what exactly, but something will be done," says Inanga. "We envision some of them fitting in at recycling points [at the new dumpsite] ... others will be given something to help sustain their livelihoods."

Ruguru rolls her eyes at the prospect. Weighted with candies for her children in a pocket, a collection of milk bags and bones in two different sacks on her back, and a blue plastic bag in-hand, full of cabbage she found earlier in the day and plans to cook for dinner, she walks home as the sun starts to set.

A mother of six children between the ages of four and 17, she 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.

"Look at my leg," says Ruguru, pausing to reveal a large wound she received at the site two years ago. "I know working here is bad, but I am here because of hunger."

She lost her newborn son to tetanus last November. Ruguru's doctor said he contracted it from her, likely from the wound on her leg. She returned to work at the dumpsite only days after he was buried.

Asthma makes life even harder for Ruguru. Toxic smoke from small fires of burning waste spreads to every corner of Dandora and across the surrounding communities.

As a mother, she worries daily about the toll that the site will take on her children's' health and spirit. But what bothers her most is the foul language her children pick up as a result of working alongside adults.

Save her four-year-old, the entire Ruguru family scavenges Dandora with their mother on weekends and after classes to earn money for school fees, books, and uniforms. Her 12 year-old daughter, Sophie, hates working at Dandora, but the dumpsite has hardly worn her spirit. She has plans for her future. "I don't want to become a doctor, I plan to," she says with a sack of milk bags on her back.

No matter what regulations the bureaucrats in Nairobi may issue, Ruguru doesn't see a time they will stop picking through the leftovers of her country's success story.

"I really don't like that [my children] 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."


Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues