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How the rich mint millions from filthy, choking dumpsites

By Frankline Sunday | September 14th 2013
                  A man stands on garbage in Muthurwa market..  [PHOTOS: MBUGUA KIBERA/STANDARD]


By Frankline Sunday

Nairobi, KENYA; For 14-year-old Francis*, the scars on his face, one below his left eye and the other above his brow, are often an icebreaker whenever he meets strangers.

He is never shy of telling the story and vividly describing how he got the scars. Only nine years  ld at the time, Francis recalls how a garbage truck ferrying remains of food from the airport came to the dumpsite prompting a not uncommon rush from the street children living at the dump.

In the melee that ensued, Francis found himself in a scuffle with another boy for a bag of leftovers that both of them were eyeing. His competitor pulled out a knife, which he kept handy for such occasions and set on Francis who held up a broken bottle in defence.

With other children cheering, a bloody fight between the two ensued and Francis was overpowered, forcing him to retreat with a face full of blood from deep gashes that missed his left eye by centimetres.

Such is the life that those who have been living in and around the largest solid waste landfill in East Africa, the infamous Dandora dumpsite, have become accustomed to.

Putrid landfill

The 30-acre putrid and toxic landfill stands out 7 kilometres from Nairobi’s CBD like a freshly healed scar surrounded by Dandora, Korogocho and Lucky Summer estates.The dumpsite was gazetted as the first municipal dumping ground for the city’s solid waste three decades ago. It is the final resting place for the city’s industrial, commercial and household wastes.

Despite being termed full by experts twelve years ago and recommended for decommissioning, Nairobi has continued to dump its wastes into the dumpsite that has now become an environmental and social disaster.

In 2007, a study commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), examined the health implications of the dumpsite on children living close to it and compared soil samples from around the site with another location just outside the city. The study found out that half of the children tested had concentrations of lead in their blood exceeding internationally accepted levels, with soil samples around the dumpsite recording lead levels close to 10 times higher than levels considered safe.But even with these adverse effects the dumpsite still draws thousands of men, women and children each day into the valleys of filth rummaging for recyclables that can be flipped for a quick shilling.

The dumpsite has slowly evolved into a micro-society of its own with its own code of conduct, rules of engagement, authority figures and lingo.

The biggest forces that sustain the status quo in the dumpsite are wealthy businessmen and politicians who mint millions of shillings each day from middlemen who recycle plastic, rubber and bottles.

The outlawed Mungiki sect has a significant presence at the site demanding money from every truck that dumps its garbage here.  Lorries from famous industries in Nairobi’s industrial area are reserved for specific individuals who pay some levy to keep the rights to those vehicles.

The organised ring of extortion and racketeering is worth millions of shillings with some of the money said to find its way in City Hall to scuttle any efforts of decommissioning the dump.

A local politician who is a former MP has been named by several sources as having the biggest influence at the site and even made it known in public rallies.

This complex web of vested interests has made the process of relocating the dump complicated with local politicians over the years using it as a vote gathering gimmick every election year.

Promises by agencies

Years of visits and promises by Government agencies, NGOs, development partners local and foreign media have done little to change the situation of the people living around the dumpsite making them grow cynical and suspicious of visitors.

One of the known figures who ‘owns’ the rights to a sizable fleet of the trucks that roll into the site each day tells us that they are welcome to a lasting solution from the Government that will not leave the community out in the cold.

Only seeking to identify himself as Fighter, he seeks to defend the bad press that the dumpsite has received over the years, stating that things have gotten better over the years. “I have been in the dumpsite, making a living for more than 20 years and some of the stories that are told of this place are very exaggerated,” he says.

Fighter explains that although the system in the dumpsite might seem chaotic, it puts food on the table for many families and that the health and environmental concerns are part of the occupational hazard. Efforts to close down the dumpsite through legal action have equally proven difficult as the clear-cut differences for and against its relocation came to the fore.

In 2010, Kituo Cha Sheria, an NGO that provides legal advice and support for poor and vulnerable citizens in Kenya, was close to filing a case on behalf of the community living around the dumpsite.

Case mysteriously dropped

Carol Mburugu is an advocate with the organisation and dealt directly with preparing the case before the complainants mysteriously backed out and dropped the case. “We had prepared a lot of background to support our case and spoken to the public which had been living in and around the dumpsite and directly affected by its existence over the years,” she explains.

“However at the last minute they backed out and without the complainants it was difficult to press on with the case in court.”

Ms Mburugu explains that the Nairobi City County, which had gazetted the site as a dumpsite was directly liable for legal action on various grounds.

“First of all the right to a clean and healthy environment which is enshrined in the Bill of rights is being violated because there is research that supports the fact that the dumpsite is to blame for adverse health effects of the inhabitants,” Ms Mburugu states.

She adds, “The law states that a waste landfill should not be in a residential area and the people living around the site have the legal right to demand that the city of Nairobi find a different system to manage its waste rather than dump it on their door steps.”



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