Getting Trashed in Nairobi

If you are a piece of trash in a wealthy area of Nairobi, you and your plastic bottle counterparts are most likely to be reused in your own home. If you are one of the thousands pieces of trash among the mud and tin shacks of a slum, you are most likely to be tossed in a heap onto the side of the road to be burned. Yet, if you are an average water bottle, your life will certainly last much longer than your slum counterparts. All trash collection in Kenya is private, meaning that residents will pay to have companies haul trash out of Nairobi to the dump, situated in the suburb of Dandora. While dumps such as Dandora do not have advanced waste management technologies to address serious health and environmental hazards, they have established a system of sorting garbage that is quite complex and organized.

The entirety of the dump is comprised of small territories that different teams manage. Once a trash bag reaches its designated area, it will be dumped and then picked through. A plastic bottle, for instance, will first be put in a general plastics pile and will eventually be separated again with other plastics, either by size or by color. When I first arrived, I remember hearing John, the leader of the group, saying, “This is where our group works. See, there is the glass, there is the plastic, there is the white paper, there is the brown paper.” Once the trash has been separated, it will be packaged and sent across the dump to a dock.

But I do want to warn you: The dump has become a criminal haven. The rolling piles of garbage are a perfect hideout, particularly since the area has no security, and certainly no police would dare patrol any of the nationally ignored slum areas. With Kenya's recent war on Al-Shabaab in Somalia, many Somalis have been illegally flooding across Kenyan borders, many making their way to the big city. But like so many that arrive in Nairobi with big city dreams of finding work and starting a life with a family and home, but instead finding few opportunities, the Somali refugees have taken to the slums near Dandora, the poorest in Nairobi. The Somalis have it particularly rough right now; because of the war, many Kenyans have been discriminating against anyone that looks of Somali descent, and, in some cases, discrimination has gone as far as killing.

Overall, there is order to the landfill at Dandora. I saw families working very hard. Some were even covering their sorted piles with cardboard to protect them from the unseasonable heavy rains we had been having. There were even two guys playing checkers right on the top of a giant trash mountain!

To some, the dump has been their only source of employment. John had been working at Dandora since he was 6. He did not go to school, and he spoke mostly Sheng, a Kiswahili-English pidgin language that originated 40 years ago in a nearby slum neighborhood. I heard him talking to some mzungu journalists one day as he showed them around the landfill, "There aren't a lot of jobs now, but there will always be work here. And here, we are all like brothers. Sometimes when another group doesn't make as much, we help them. And, you know, they do the same for us. You can't do this work alone," he said. "We take shifts on different days because you can't be working all the time when you are also taking care of family."

The reporters asked him about working among such dangerous and filthy conditions, to which he humbly replied, "You know this is dangerous work. There are many bad things here, but someone has to do it, and when you have a family, you have to put yourself in danger to provide for them sometimes." After hearing John say all this, I realized that much of life and work in Kenya is dangerous, and picking trash was really no different. While both may at first seem unbearable, the initial hardships later serve make the dump’s and Kenya’s humanity even more apparent.