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December 2005/January 2006
Dandora—Down in the Dumps

By Rachel Cernansky


The author and children in Dandora.
Photo by Rachel Cernansky
Kids at school in Dandora. Photo by Rachel Cernansky

Anyone who bothers to listen has heard a million tales of environmental injustice from all over the world. They usually have a similar theme, and the story of Dandora is nothing new. It’s a slum in Kenya just outside Nairobi where garbage—tons of other people’s discarded goods—is left to decay near the homes of an estimated 600,000 of the region’s poorest people. There is no discretion between municipal, industrial, and medical waste; it’s all the same—heaped onto the already-existing mounds of trash through which people, mostly women, search for items they might salvage and turn into a source of income.

A walk through the dumpsite reveals just how much of this sorting goes on. Many items have piled up in isolation from one another—drinking straws, for example, as if they’d been surplus dumped directly by a straw manufacturer, adjacent to a similar pile of shoelaces, and so on. The site is so catalogued in some parts that it looks like an organized warehouse for trash, with housewares in aisle one and sporting goods in aisle two. If this description portends a notion of a well-organized waste management system, however, that’s a bit misleading. Nairobi doesn’t have much in the way of such a system. Featured in a “Hotspot Report” as part of a study on waste-burning activities for the International POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Elimination Project, Nairobi is notorious (though unfortunately not uniquely so) for its lack of proper infrastructure for waste disposal. Of the 2,000 tons of solid waste generated daily, a mere 25 percent is collected by the city. Most, if not all, of the rest is burned, either openly by individuals, or in incinerators scattered around the city, which generally deposit their ash, heavily burdened with dioxin, at the Dandora dumpsite.

In Their Backyard
To make matters worse, the Nairobi River runs its course just meters downhill from the dumpsite and provides a source of water in an area where it is beyond scarce. It’s a place for people to fetch water; for kids to bathe and play in; it’s even a sight for sore eyes in sections where really green, lush vegetation is growing on the shore—you’d never guess just by looking that these plants thrive because the soil is rich in nutrients from leachate leaving the dumpsite. The region is brimming with high levels of dioxin and PCBs, both known high-risk carcinogens, which end up in the river. In addition, Dandora’s sewage system is so poor, if it functions at all, that most of the sewage flows directly into the river, as indoor plumbing is not a feature of slum life.

The myriad health issues that take root in areas such as these are in large part attributable to the countless chemicals and contaminants that lace the dumpsite. Asthma and tuberculosis rates are extremely high in Dandora, complaints of diarrhea and typhoid are frequent, and cases of cold and flu are unusually common, particularly in children; not to mention the illnesses unidentifiable to those without access to medical treatment. Furthermore, “waste-pickers” all around the world have been found to have increased rates of intestinal parasite infection, abnormal pulmonary function, and increased levels of particulates and lead in the blood. The lack of proper education only adds to the situation, as even basic hygiene is overlooked—things that we in the U.S. take for granted as common sense. It’s a bit ironic to think of the other extreme, that in our antibacterial-obsessed culture we find ourselves increasingly concerned with drug-resistant bacteria and the threats they pose to our health. In places like Dandora, however, desperation overrides germ and sanitation paranoia, and unfortunately sometimes any sanitation at all.

A Distressing Case in Point
Five years ago, Hudson, a Dandora resident and music teacher at Nairobi University, witnessed a group of about seven boys barbecuing a dog that they’d found dead in the dumpsite. They were so hungry, and with nothing else to eat, they ate whatever they could find. Two of the boys died. It is almost obvious they died from ingesting some toxin or bacteria their bodies couldn’t handle, but with no tests performed, the exact cause cannot be determined. And without food in their stomachs, perhaps they faced the same fate regardless—dog or no dog. But this was what sparked Hudson to start helping some of the most underprivileged kids in the area. He rented a space to provide them with a safe place to spend their days, instead of wandering the neighborhood and finding mischief. The space now functions as a school, where children attend daily lessons and receive lunch.

Construction in Dandora is very basic—walls are made from sticks and a combination of mud mixed with cow dung. The better roofs are made of tin from flattened cans, others of old plastic or cardboard. “Fences” between homes are constructed from sheets of rubber flip-flop cutouts. Inside the school, the lack of any finishing on the walls allows them to function as a blackboard. Hudson pays rent for the space (to an owner who most likely obtained the space illegally, as most of the leased plots in the area were) using money that he collects from guitar performances around town. This money also goes to purchase food for the children’s lunch, often their only meal of the day, as well as to employ two or three women to both prepare the lunchtime meal and teach the classes.

Hudson tries his best to include all the kids who need his services most desperately, but the space, and funds, are so limited that he’s at about a 25-30 maximum capacity, despite the dire need for the program to expand. And he’s dealing only with children who have no opportunity at all—orphaned children with no extended family to look after them, for example—and can’t include those who should, in theory, have an easier time getting to school because they have parents, but who realistically don’t have it much better. Parents may provide all the love in the world, but without money for food or clothes, the child’s stomach is still empty and the mind formally uneducated.

Known Risks
When public attention is brought to places like this, city officials or industry spokespeople often try to downplay the health hazards. They’ll say that studies prove there is minimal risk from exposure to a certain chemical. And while this is often true in a laboratory, it is next to impossible to quantify the cumulative health risks resulting from incessant exposure to countless numbers of toxins. As animal activists are well aware, from the many problems with animal research, it’s possible to choose almost any desired outcome and prove it successfully in a lab, it’s simply a matter of finding the right setup.

Environmental justice is a phrase that describes the crossroads of environmentalism and social justice. It encompasses situations such as Dandora all around the world that people should be more concerned about, and sometimes pretend to be by assessing the area and issuing reports stating the results. What these reports lead to is sometimes a mystery, and though the value of public awareness should not be underestimated, the increasing number of such reports does not seem to be reducing the number of spots to be reported on.

“Risk assessment” is really nothing more than a value judgment, and like any situation where real-life implementation of ethics comes into play, the greater the distance from those being assessed, the easier it is to ignore the reason they’re being assessed in the first place. The “risk” is arbitrary, and as long as those preparing the results are not connected to the people bearing the burden, they’re not likely to do the most thorough assessment possible. Problems demand finding solutions, and part of that means eliminating the source of the problem. If only that were beneficial to those who are living in a hazard-free environment.

Rachel Cernansky is a Consulting Editor for Satya and is now working for Kageno, a community project on Lake Victoria in Kenya.


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