, NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 8 – The Dandora dumpsite poses a serious threat to the environment, health, education and livelihood of about 900,000 slum dwellers.
Situated 8 kilometers from Nairobi’s Central Business District, the dump borders the Korogocho and Dandora slums. It also affects people living in Baba Dogo and Kariobangi areas of Nairobi’s Eastlands area.
Below the 32-acre dumpsite flows the polluted Nairobi River which after mixing with the teeming solid waste, forms a grimy swamp on the opposite side of the dump.
People have been known to routinely commit suicide at the swamp.
A former scavenger (his name withheld) says, “Many people come, stand here and jump in the swamp, they will never be seen again, the vegetation you are seeing is covering the dirty water, if you jump there you will never be seen. So many people have died here, that is why it was fenced to stop the suicides that were becoming too many.”
Just above the swamp are a kindergarten and a primary school with hundreds of children. A choking stench that seems to originate from a dead carcass is what welcomes us as we enter the school compound.
But what lingers in my mind as I watch the young innocent children play happily is that most of them will not live to celebrate their 50th birthdays due to the toxins from the dump located about 20 metres away from them.
According to a study commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) over half of children tested had concentrations of lead in their blood that exceeded normal levels.
It also indicated that 40 percent of soil samples recorded lead levels almost 100 times higher than what is considered unpolluted soil.
The head of Kutoka Network (a member organisation of Safer Nairobi) Fr John Weebotsa says, “the vegetable growing here is what people eat, and it is contaminated; the cows and the goats eat from the dump, the meat is also contaminated, this has serious effects on people’s health.”
The 30-year-old dump contains all types of garbage.
Fr Weebotsa explains, “Nairobi is dumping everything here. You can imagine mixing syringes from hospitals together with papers, chemicals from factories and household waste.”
He recalls a moment when he helped a scavenger who had stepped on a chemical that burnt his foot to an extent that he can’t walk again after so many years since the accident.
On a dry day, heavy dark fumes rent the air polluting the environs of the four slums. It was our lucky day after the previous night’s heavy downpour.
A spot-check in one of the dispensaries at Dandora indicated that most people visiting the doctor had respiratory diseases, cholera, diarrhoea and irregular blood components.
Fr Weebotsa who lives in Dandora says it is unfortunate that most of them die following the infections. “They breathe air that is contaminated. Every week I conduct funeral masses for very young people, what pains me is that they die due to the toxins coming from this dump.”
There are about 5,000 people who live and earn a living at the dumpsite.
The presence of strangers like us elicits resentment. They are always ready to attack anyone who seems to disturb their peace. They are armed with crude weapons that remind me of the mungiki (an illegal sect well known for torturing people before killing them).
It is obvious that the dump is controlled by lethal cartels by the manner in which they organise themselves and communicate in strange signal language on noticing strangers.
It is only with the intervention of Fr Weebotsa that the goons allow us to stand near the dump – a few metres away – for the sake of our security.
Fr Weebotsa had earlier told their leaders that we would be heading there.
For once I thought I was watching a horror movie and I hoped we would emerge unharmed since our intentions were good.
That is when I realised why the police had refused to accompany us and Safer Nairobi – an organisation working on the closure of the dumpsite.
Their excuse was, “we can’t go there because we will cause more problems, if they see the police they will attack all of us… it is better you go on your own.”
The scavenger also confirmed that going to the area unannounced would sometimes mean death, “We never welcomed strangers, we would steal from them and beat them almost to death, and my friends killed some people here.”
This was my second attempt to visit the dumpsite after the first plan failed due to security hitches at the site.
Oxfam Security, Conflict and Peace Advisor Daniel Kiptugen who has carried out an elaborate research at the site discloses that there are many criminal activities at the vicinity of the dumpsite.
“It is one of those places mapped as a security hazard. It is a crime hotspot in Nairobi and a lot of illicit arms change hands here, this is where groups of organised gangs congregate, drugs are also changed here,” he asserts.
Despite the existence of the site only bringing negative impact to Dandora and its neighborhood, the political class has failed to take a decisive step to shut it down.
One wonders what interest it has on a stinking dump.
Fr Weebotsa knows it is obvious that the people affected are voiceless and have no power to close it down. He is also is aware that some of the goons at the dump have been placed there by powerful people to ensure the it continues to exist so that they can reap money from it.
According to the Nairobi Central Business District Association Chairman Timothy Muriuki, the dump is a multi-billion shilling business, “but only benefits a few selfish and heartless individuals who are dumping death on poor people.”
He also says the social cost implications are too heavy to bear and the government cannot afford to continue keeping the dump and dehumanizing people living near there.
He says the country must move from landfills to proper waste management through modern technology.
Unfortunately, the government has been non-committal on decommissioning the dump despite rendering it a social, health and economic misfit.
It is the same government that ordered for its closure nine years ago.
But since then, it has been empty talk.
Fr Weebotsa explains that it will be a real challenge to close down the dumpsite due to the powerful cartels that control the area.
He is also blaming the government for its failure to coordinate efforts intended to decommission the dump and allowing politics to cloud the issue it.
“Politics means making simple things complicated. We have got all we need… talk of investors and even donors. They have been here to help Kenya close this dumpsite, but there is no political will on this matter that is why the dump is here,” he explains.
The Catholic priest accused the City Council of Nairobi of running serious cartels at the dump,
The ‘scavenger’ recounts: “All lorries bringing the dump here have to pay a fee depending on the waste. From factories and hospitals, the charge is higher,” he says disclosing that they keep some of the money while the rest is given to powerful people.
He continues, “Some of the waste is scary, like the one from hospitals you can find dead babies, body parts. Everything comes here and that is why a lot of money is charged on such waste.”
After viewing the dumpsite from the Dandora side, I was more anxious to know what happens from the Korogocho side.
But the ‘scavenger’ seriously warns me not to dare if I want to stay alive.
“Sister, don’t joke with death, these people know there are interests to close the dumpsite, it is their livelihood, they are ready to kill anyone trying to expose them and their criminal activities,” he warns.
As we leave the site, it is clear that Safer Nairobi will have to deal with grave challenges to see the dumpsite successfully decommissioned to Ruai, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
Though they expect the exercise to take two years, it will be a rough process of fighting people in government, the City Council, criminals and other interested.
Their only hope is that more organisations will join the 40 groups of Safer Nairobi to create a major impact that will bury all other interests to give new hope to the children, mothers and fathers of Dandora and its locality.