News / Africa

Dump Provides Livelihood, Brings Perils to Nairobi Poor

Joseph is one of many children working at the Dandora dump site in Kenya.Joseph is one of many children working at the Dandora dump site in Kenya.
Joseph is one of many children working at the Dandora dump site in Kenya.
Joseph is one of many children working at the Dandora dump site in Kenya.
Jill Craig
NAIROBI - Sprawling over 12 hectares and home to scavengers who both live and work on the site, the Dandora waste disposal dump on the outskirts of Nairobi is Kenya’s largest and one of the biggest in Africa.

It was officially declared full in 2001, yet 2,000 tons of waste continues to find its way here every day.  Due to health and environmental concerns, the Nairobi City Council claims it will relocate the dump, but this has been a slow-going process.

Sixteen-year-old Joseph is one of the many children working at the Dandora dump site. He has been here since January, when he left school because his family could not afford his school fees.

He’s lucky if he makes 200 shillings, or about $2.40, per day from the items he finds to resell.

"Yeah, it is difficult, but we have no other ways. We live here because [we have] nowhere else to go," he said.

People eat food directly from the dump, as well as reselling it to residents of nearby slums.

"Because it has food, and people get their livings. Before stealing, they come here, they eat, they go home," said Joseph.

Although it provides short-term satiation, this food poses many health risks - in part because of the hazardous materials with which it comes into contact.

James Bhuop operates a rehabilitation center near Dandora to encourage children to stay in school instead of scavenging and doing drugs.

"The dump site, even there are some pigs which are walking around there, dogs are being thrown there, even things coming from hospitals… because that is the area where everything inside Nairobi is being thrown there. So it is very dangerous place," said Bhuop.

The U.N. Environment Program conducted a study of the dumpsite in 2007. It found that workers are exposed to a toxic mix of plastic, rubber, lead paint-treated wood, and even some chemical and hospital waste.

"So it generally affects them," says Dr. Njoroge Kimani, the principal investigator for the study. "Whether from bacterial infections, whether from parasitic infections, whether from environmental toxicants, it does affect them in a big way." 

These problems are particularly detrimental for children, who dig through this sludge without proper hand or foot protection.

"These kids, their systems are still developing. So the long-term effect of this exposure starts taking shape right from the time they are young. Which is the biggest problem," said Kimani.

Because the Nairobi River flows by the dumpsite, and is used to irrigate crops, it’s not just the scavengers who are harmed.

"There’s a lot of vegetables being grown there. And these vegetables end up in markets, various markets, sensitive spots around Nairobi, which people buy without knowing where it has come from," said Erick Wilson, the acting chairman for Folks Vision Kenya, a group helping young people in Dandora.

If the City Council goes through with plans to move the dump, Nairobians hope that better regulations and procedures are put into place this time

But for Joseph and so many others who depend on the dump for their livelihoods, they'd rather it stay here.

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