Dandora Waste Dump

by Alexander Baumbach

There’s smoke coming with the wind. Smoke of a fire burning the remains of a city of millions, remains that even with the biggest phantasy could not be recycled anymore.

On the Dandora waste dump in Nairobi (Kenya), several thousand people make a living. 3000 adult workers – surrounded by 500 kids – sort the waste, making the waste dump not only an employer, but also a production site for raw materials, cash flow and even products to sell on the street markets.

Paul Thumbe is 27 years old. Since the age of 15 he has worked at the Dandora dump site, which is just one year older than him. On 26 hectares of land the rubbish is stored. Together with the Marabus and the street dogs, his “colleagues” – the sorting workers – are walking across what looks like a fenland divided by a filigrane network of small pathways. Mostly women and kids are sorting the waste with the help of a steel hook. When they are finished collecting a special amount of a certain type of material, they sell it to Paul. “We have fixed prices for the different sorts, and I sell them later to the factories in town. We have agreements for the prices, so we can trust each other”, as he explains his smelly business.

He is also the boss of a “clan” – two dozen people are working directly for him. In the old days, they used to be “rude boys”: guys controlling the area with the help of guns and fear. Today they are a kind of an official group – seven clans share the “management” of the dump site. Without their permission a visit to the site would be very dangerous. The entrance fee for me is 35$, therefore I get not only access to walk on the wastelands, but I can also take pictures, some guides show me around their world and I can talk to the people working and living here. People like Samuel, who is herding the pigs of Dandora.

“It’s the right time to visit, I’m just feeding them”, he tells me, while he is showing me the shed on the rubbish cliffs. Today he feeds them with the remains of food the Nairobi international airport Jomo Kenyatta delivers to Dandora. Some mature pigs are surrounded by a group of rookies. They shovel the plastic with the help of their noses, their bellies are black with the mud they take their bath in. “Some 300 pigs are bred here, they also feed on the remains of food people throw away”, Samuel tells. Just at night the animals are locked into their shelters, during daylight they walk around at the dump site. “But in the evening they come to their sheds themselves”, he explains. The food rivals of the Marabu are finally slaughtered and the meat is sold. Just the Dandora way to even recycle thrown away food remains. Samuel doesn’t know of any diseases – at least the pigs seem quite healthy.

David, one of Paul’s hands, tells a similar story of the people sorting the waste on the hills. In rubber boots they walk through the ankle deep brew, giving way for foul gases and smells. Their clothing has the colour of the waste – brown and black dominate the scene of moving bodies crunching through the garbage. “I’m healthy myself as you can see”, David is self-confident.

At the unloading point the trucks arrive, on their back carrying the waste of the city of millions. The worn-out lorries carry up to 2000 bags. One bag for each household has to pay 100 Shillings to the transport company, that’s roughly a dollar. Anyhow – some refuse to pay the entrance fee to the site. They just unload their stinking freight at the road near the gate. Otherwise some 150 truckloads a day still find their way to Dandora – a real cash cow: not only the clans make money out of it, but also the government and the police. By a complex system of bribery and taxes they probably make even more money than the clans managing the dump site. The average earnings of one of the workers on the site is most probably around a dollar per day – that being the sound barrier at which NGO’s start talking about poverty. In the slums like Kibera or Mathare, where the unemployment rate is very high, it’s not really any different.

Next to the plastic bottle field there is a small hut in a little valley. Built from wood sticks and plastics a small stove is smoking in front of it, cooking lunch for the working families living here. Most of their colleagues live at the outer limit of Dandora. In the streets of the small village of Mukuru – housing like 300 people – the children of the workers are playing. There are three schools here, one is sponsored by the Chinese. The wielded metal cottages don’t differ from the ones you can see in other slums.

At around ten years of age a kid is old enough to start working in the wastelands – like the 12-year-old Phillip. He doesn’t speak more than a handful of words of English, but stands ankle deep in what was once electronic equipment and packaging. “The kids just come during their holidays to work here”, David tells. That maybe not be a lie – school means at least one meal a day. Kids have to stay for the whole day in school to get their lunch. Not all of the 500 kids working during the summer break in December and January think so. Some street kids are amongst them, looking to get some money. They would run away when forced to stay at a school. But kids are not the main part of the workers. “We don’t need them”, Paul Thumbe says. In his shiny jacket and clean cloth he looks kind of strange on the dump site. Only his rubber boots show, that he’s part of the game.

He guides me to the “industrial complex” of Dandora. The clans here try to establish a production chain to be more independent from the factories buying their raw materials. A fenced area houses a couple of workshops to earn money for the community: plastic bottle recycling, paper collection, a metal crusher – and the “white charcoal” workshop. Made from water, paper and sawdust three workers form briquets out of it. Joseph, the chairman of the workshop, tells how he’s doing it: in a plastic pipe the “stew” is filled, pressed by a cylinder and then the wet product is stored on long shelves. Here it has to dry for three or four days until it is sold on the market. Every worker finishes two bags a day, being sold for 3 dollars each. “It does not only bring us money, but it also helps to conserve the woods”, Steven, the assistant of the manager, tells.

Anyhow work has come to a stop, the storage is full. “We cannot take the stocks to the market, the road is blocked”, he tells angrily. The community council refuses to work on the road that looks like a creek full of waste. “But right now we are searching for someone to open up projects like this next to the entrance of the dump site”, tells Paul Thumbe. Since now he hasn’t found one. There the connection to the road system of Kenya’s capital is good. “We have everything here to become a big and useful recycling business: raw materials, work force and a market – but we are lacking the infrastructure.”

Alexander Baumbach

Alexander Baumbach is a freelance journalist based in Wittenberg, Germany. Working mostly for one of the local newspaper, the “Mitteldeutsche Zeitung” being his main publication. Alexander works tri-media – texting, taking his own pictures for the story and sometimes producing a video clip for the online channel of his newspaper.

During the summer season he also works as a wedding photographer. While he is trying to capture the emotions of a day as near as possible, it was just a matter of time until he started to work reportage as a photographer. Most of his stories are personal projects – to keep the creativity going for his business shots.

What’s in his bag?
Two Canon EOS 7D’s, some glass, a flash. And most important: a notebook and a pencil to keep the photographic stories alive.

More information and images can be found at http://www.dcrc.de/

All images copyright © Alexander Baumbach