Weighted with two heavy sacks of discarded milk bags and meat bones slung across her back, a plastic bag of rotted cabbage in her hand, Rahab Ruguru walks through a smoky landscape of mountainous piles of burning waste, scavenging for a living.
"Working here is how I am able to feed my children," says the 42-year-old mother of six, stooping to pocket a handful of discarded candy from the ground. "Of course it is not a usual job. Dodging pigs [and]used condoms, eating what I find. No, it's not good for me. But it is a job and I have to persevere."
Ms. Ruguru is one of an estimated 6,000 people who come daily to mine the Dandora city dump, a sprawling 12-hectare wasteland about 15 kilometres from Nairobi's thriving central business district. They sort and place into large sacks waste that can either be eaten or sold to recycling companies – mostly metals, rubber, glass, milk bags, plastics, meat bones and electronics. Nobody earns more than $2.50 (U.S.) a day.
Nearly one million people live in the slums that surround the dump, the only one serving the Kenyan capita. While the Dandora garbage dump provides a source of income for some – Ms. Ruguru, for instance, says her scavenged items bring her money for her children's food, school fees, books and uniforms – it is at the centre of a political controversy.
The trash pickers and their supporters do not want their only source of income to end. But most of the people living near Dandora want the trash site gone and have organized themselves into a grassroots campaign called Stop Dumping Death On Us.
"This isn't just about trash," says Aggrey Otieno, a human rights activist who grew up next to Dandora. "It's about how our capital city is treating its most disadvantaged citizens."
Father John Webootsa, another campaign activist, says the dump contaminates the lives of its neighbours. "The air we breathe here is acidic air, children are born with birth defects, the average lifespan is less than 50 years old, ... the vegetables people take from here grow from polluted soil, the water we used to drink from the Nairobi River has turned tar black," he says. "The facts are on the table. That dumpsite should not be there."
A 2007 study by the United Nations Environment Programme found soil samples containing fatally high levels of lead in a community bordering the dump. It also found that 154 of the 328 children tested suffered from respiratory problems attributed to the site and had concentrations of lead in their blood that exceeded internationally accepted levels.
Dandora has been in operation since about 1975. Nairobi's city council declared it full in 2001, but an estimated 2,000 metric tonnes of waste continues to be dumped there daily.
Local officials blame the city's rapid population growth – Nairobi has grown from about 830,000 in 1979 to 3.4 million today – and an overwhelmed bureaucracy for keeping Dandora open. "Population growth has superseded our facilities," says Mutabari Inanga, an environmental and public health officer who sits on Nairobi's city council. Dandora, he adds, "has become an environmental and health crisis for which we have had no one to take responsibility."
Mr. Inanga says the city is prepared to privatize waste management and relocate the site, but is waiting for the go-ahead from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. The proposed new dump would be placed next to the airport, but officials have expressed fear the site will attract birds that will interfere with air traffic.
On most days, children skip school in anticipation of the truck coming from the airport, which they consider a particularly good source of treats. As it waits to enter Dandora, the older ones clamber up its sides to examine the unfinished salads, sandwiches, bread, yogurt cups and refuse from incoming flights. Younger children sort through waste tossed on the ground.
Once inside the site, 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 either eaten on the spot or placed in Kenya Airways bags to be consumed later. An occasional fight breaks out between pickers over the most coveted items – a half-eaten brownie, an unopened container of yogurt.
Avoiding the frenzy, women pick through items the children and men have ignored.
Ms. Ruguru and many others who come daily to rummage and pick through the garbage for something saleable or edible fear the day Dandora is decommissioned. They have come to depend on it for their livelihood and income. "If this site moves then I will move with it," says Ms. Ruguru.
Special to the Globe and Mail, and reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.