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Senegalese Scavengers Get Busy Recycling Mounting Trash in Dakar 

In the developing world's fast-growing cities, formal systems for managing garbage are sometimes insufficient. In Senegal's capital, Dakar, trash piles up across the city, as an out-dated dump continues to operate years past its closure date. Naomi Schwarz reports from the dump, where a well-organized network of scavengers make their living, and, in the process, recycle everything they find.

Pape Ndiaye is one of hundreds of Senegalese men and women who scavenge the city dump. Mbeubeuss, Dakar's 40-year-old, six-square-kilometer dump, is called "the mountain" by its neighbors. In fact, it is more of a mountain range, with household and industrial waste piled in peaks and valleys.

Ndiaye leads the way through the heaps of trash in his domain. There are aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles. A little further on, Ndiaye keeps bits of iron, packaging from powdered laundry detergent, and kilos-worth of polyester hair weave in various shades of brown.

Everything has its place, organized by material, and sometimes by brand. And every bit of this waste will be resold to someone, either in its raw form or else repaired and re-purposed as something else.

A tailor sits in a small shed, sewing strips of plastic packaging into vast sheets. They will become waterproof roofs. In another small shack, a woman makes soap. She collects industrial soap remnants and boils them together into large blocks that she will cut into bars.

Ndiaye has worked at the dump since it opened, when he was 20 years old. "I'm making money," he says. With the money he earns from scavenging, he supports his two wives and 12 children. He lives in Malika, the town where the dump is situated

The cool air blowing through the dump does not carry the stench of rotting garbage. The reason for this lies in the smellier, smoky valleys where the refuse that cannot be sold is burning. Later, another scavenger will come through with a shovel, gathering the rich composting soil to sell to flower growers.

"In third world countries, our landfills, they are not sanitary landfills," said Oumar Cissé, who directs the Mbeubeuss Project at the Dakar-based African Institute for Urban Management.

"We need more, in order, to get a landfill less damaging to the environment and less damaging to the community," he added.

When Mbeubeuss was originally built, the area was uninhabited. But, as Dakar grew, the space around the landfill filled with neighborhoods.

There are also as many as 150 scavengers who live on the landfill, itself. Salimata Seck Wone works with Oumar Cissé at the African Institute for Urban Management.

She says the living conditions in and around the dump are very poor. She says there is no electricity; most people get their drinking water from unsanitary wells; and, there are no schools.

For years, Senegal has planned to replace Mbeubeuss with a modern, environmentally friendly landfill. They had a contract with AMA, an Italian solid waste management company, to build a network of landfills around the country. Many of these sites are close to completion and could be operational within a few months.

But construction has been frozen. AMA had also been tasked with organizing garbage collection across all of Dakar. However, Senegal Environment spokesman Ibrahima Fall Junior says the firm was not up to the task.

Fall says the firm did not have enough vehicles to manage collection and failed to pay their local subcontractors.

AMA-International refuses to comment on the matter. The firm says negotiations with the Senegalese government are ongoing.

In the meantime, the ministry of the environment has been cobbling together interim solutions, without AMA.

But Dakar resident Islmaillah Ndiaye says piles of trash across the city show collection is still insufficient. He says he never knows when the collection trucks are coming, if they come, at all.

When the state fails to collect, residents resort to other means to cart the trash away from their homes. He says the neighborhood takes up a collection to hire a man with a horse cart to take the trash away.

This trash rarely makes it to Mbeubeuss. It usually is dumped in open spaces across the city.