NAIROBI, September 7 – On any ordinary weekday, Ashley Mutheu leaves home early morning and returns at midday, having learnt at the nearby nursery school whatever it is that four-year olds learn.
Immediately after lunch, it is playtime until her mother calls her in. Thus, Ashley is an ordinary child living an ordinary life – during the day.
At night, things tend to change. The four-year old girl has lately developed a cough that grants her only a few days’ reprieve – if at all. This has been going on since the family relocated to Dandora Phase Four from Machakos town.
The bouts of night coughs are long and violent. Worried about the punishment her tender little lungs were taking, her parents have recently returned her to hospital.
“The doctor says she suffers from an ordinary cough. I am not sure about that,” her mother Caro Mumbua says in a voice traced with perplexity.
“Her cough never ends except for brief periods of time before she starts again. And this started just after we came here in February.”
It is not confirmed, but Ahsley may well be suffering due to the huge Nairobi garbage dump located some two hundred metres from their house. The dump constantly spews forth smoke that envelopes much of Dandora.
Health experts say smoke from the landfill that serves the whole of Nairobi is poisonous.
A senior government official at the Ministry of Environment says studies have shown that an alarming number of people living around the dump site suffer from upper respiratory illnesses.
A number of NGOs and related organisations have referred to the garbage site’s location next to residential estates as a human rights issue. For years the city Council of Nairobi indicated its intention to “soon” relocate the site. “Soon,” it would appear, has taken long in coming for people like Ashley.
However, light has appeared at the end of the tunnel. Kenya’s coalition government has put together an inter-ministerial task force to oversee the decommissioning of the site as a garbage dump.
In partnership with the United Nations Environmental Programme, the UN Habitat and the United Nations Development Programme, the Government of Kenya has decided to clean up the mess.
The UN agencies carried out a baseline study of the Nairobi River, which runs through the dump site, and listed not only the dangers and setbacks accruing from the site, but also possible solutions.
All that has now been bundled together under an initiative called the Nairobi River Basin Programme (NRBP). According to a government official, the programme is a brainchild of UNEP but the government has come in “to provide leadership.”
The NRBP co-ordinator Francis Kihumba says the consequences of keeping the site where it is are grave. “Studies indicate that many of the estimated 5,000 people who work at the site suffer from respiratory illnesses. We also know that air pollution resulting from the site has an impact on the health of residents,” Kihumba says.
His work clearly cut out for him, Kihumba considers improvement of health and safety for residents of Dandora and other estates surrounding the site of utmost urgency.
“As part of the initiative to restore Nairobi River, we’re already getting workers at the site to wear masks and gloves while going about their business,” he says.
This, however, may not be the case on the ground. We visited with Irungu Maina, a man whose blackened and hardened hands testify to the many years he has spent sorting out items for recycling at the site. Irungu does not wear gloves and he has not heard any talk or instructions to wear some.
“I’ve been working on this garbage site since 1977. With this job I’ve taken care of my family of five children. For me it is a source of livelihood. And we have never heard anyone, from city council or wherever else, that we should wear gloves or masks.”
For those many years of working at the site, Irungu has developed a seniority of a kind. He operates the weighing machine that determines how much money is paid to the many women and young men rummaging through the garbage for precious recyclable items.
None of them is wearing gloves, let alone masks. With their bare hands they dig into the smelly colourful mountain of waste, place their highly-prized findings, either metallic or plastic, into sacks before hauling them onto their backs to take to Irungu for weighing.
The way Irungu and others here are dressed, the backdrop of the field of garbage and the smoke that incessantly wafts heavenwards is kind of depressing.
Perhaps in a poorer country this would pass. In a country like Kenya, there is something about citizens working in such a foreboding place that yanks at the conscience. And it does not help that Irungu’s weighing location is set right next to a church, Saint Meshack Fellowship Church (Dandora).
One can almost imagine God up in heaven weighing the sins of the City Council of Nairobi and Government of Kenya, and benevolent St Meshack, whoever he was, perhaps pleading that they be forgiven.
There may be many sins to forgive here. While we watch a thin woman who does not look like she is enjoying great health complains that her sack has been under-weighed because, she points out, the pointer on the scale is standing on the negative side of the starting point. On the circular face of the scale, the starting point which reads “zero” is at 12 o’clock.
The woman rightly notices that the pointer is standing on the left of the zero, equivalent to about 300 grams. Her sack would therefore register as being, in this case, 300 grams less than its real weight.
Acknowledging the error, Irungu tweaks with a knob – the pointer moves to the twelve o’clock position and the fussy “mama” nods her head while at the same time discreetly trying to place into the weighted sack some three items that Irungu had already discarded. He notices and rebukes her and both pretend annoyance. It seems a consensual relationship.
“We have heard about the plans to relocate the site to Ruai,” he says with a ready smile as he helps the next woman place her sack on the scale. “It will rob many people of jobs but I guess we will just follow it there. One has to survive you know.”
Irungu’s understanding of what the government is planning to do is, however, a case of misinformation. According to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Dandora garbage site is “not being relocated but rather decommissioned.”
“This means it will remain operational but no longer as a dumping site. Rather it will be used as a recycling (sanitary) point. Whatever cannot be recycled will be ferried to Ruai,” the authority’s Compliance and Enforcement Officer Hudson Mukanga says.
As part of the decommissioning process, tree planting has begun in some parts of the site. How about turning the whole site into a forest, to compensate the environment for the years of abuse?
“Of course we cannot use the whole site for tree-planting,” Mukanga says.
He says residents have a role to play in transforming the site into a healthier, friendlier place. “We intend to involve residents in planting trees and cleaning exercises, among other things. At a later stage we hope to bring in NGOs and other players.”
Since the programme is already underway, it is not clear at what point residents and other members of the public will be brought in. It is today globally acknowledged that projects like this do not succeed if those directly impacted are not made part of the solution.
Dandora estate was one of the estates of Nairobi city worst hit by last December’s election-related violence. The government has suggested that youth were involved in the violence due to joblessness.
We interviewed two young men who for a living collect garbage around the estate and ferry it to the dumping site. “We’ve heard from the news media, especially electronic, about plans to take the garbage dump somewhere else but this has not been communicated to us officially,” says Antony Mburu.
His colleague Gabriel Ngigi says they wish the government would involve them. “Itapatia vijana morale na chapaa kidogo maze,” (It will encourage young people and earn them a little income) he says.
The two belong to a youth group called Dandora Uprising Youth Project, which is mostly involved in entertainment as an income-generating initiative.
The fact is that most residents of Dandora are not aware of what the government is planning to do with the site.
So two issues seem outstanding: one, will the project succeed with minimal involvement of the public? Two, nature has a way of exacting revenge of its own: would it not be nice for the government to make amends of sorts by turning much, if not the whole, of that site into a forest? After all Nairobi continues to lose its forest cover at terrible rate.