The forgotten children of Dandora dumpsite yearn to learn
The greatest assurance for our safety is that one of the men leading us into Nairobi’s vast and notorious Dandora dumpsite is Pastor Stephen Wanjala, a former resident there.
The 47-year-old lived at the dumpsite in 1995 for about six months, drinking from dumped packets of milk for breakfast and feasting on leftovers from the city’s big hotels. He says God enabled him to start Gilgal Fellowship Church and then finally leave the dumpsite. A number of his church members are drawn from here. He visits often, sometimes with juice and cakes for the masses to enjoy as they get spiritual nourishment.
He has also bought pigs for some residents there. Pigs, and dogs, are the animals dearest to residents of the dumpsite. But there is the inevitable company of vultures, marabou storks and all manner of filth-loving birds.
Flies are also in their numbers and it takes time to get used to their mobbing and ferociousness. They camp on the faces of young children who are with their mothers at the site.
Without Pastor Wanjala’s calming presence, we would be uneasy. We would not even have considered venturing into this dumpsite, the main receptacle of garbage from Nairobi — a city of 4.4 million people as per the 2019 census.
Here, insiders do not take strangers too kindly. Only a small group wants access to the garbage that comes in, which they quickly rummage through in search of milk packets, cartons, sacks, pieces of metal, leftover food, plastics, glass and anything that can be of value to recyclers or be resold. It is survival-for-the-fittest.
Here, drug abuse is rampant and that means tempers are short and uncorked. An informer tells us of gangs that store guns here, which are then hired out to robbers in a system so organised that whoever rents the gun is given a receipt. During our Wednesday afternoon visit, we spot at least two young men with teardrop tattoos on their faces going about their business. Given the connection of that particular tattoo with gang culture, one can tell this is not merely ink engraved on the skin right below their eyes.
A woman tells us of armed gangs that lurk behind the hilly areas of the site, which can and will pounce on any female walking in and rape her at knifepoint, especially in the twilight hours. With such threats, anyone would think twice before venturing inside.
As if to recognise the hierarchy here, the first place Pastor Wanjala takes us is the house of a man everyone calls Senior. He wields a lot of influence on this site. Senior lives in an iron sheet structure in one corner of the dumpsite and he has been there for as long as everyone can remember. Flies whizz all over the compound. A sustained acrid stench pummels the nose. Pigs grunt in a small sty beside the house. Inside his house, his table is a structure made of concrete and old bottles. His bed and everything else in the house have seen better days. Senior is ailing and he laboriously gets up to talk to us.
With Senior’s “blessings”, we soon leave his house to tour other sections of the site. That tour entails confronting strong smells gushing from every corner, battling swarms of flies, measuring our steps due to unpredictable marshes and sharp objects on the ground, avoiding filth like used condoms and sanitary pads, and braving the all-too-common probing eyes of the suspicious dumpsite insiders.
We are here to document the story of families that live or depend on the dumpsite but have decided to set their children on the path to a brighter future by taking them to school.
However, stifled by meagre earnings from the sale of recyclable materials, plagued by disease and sometimes shy to face the outside world to argue on behalf of their children, parents of the “children of the dumpsite” have not educated them beyond primary school despite the government’s efforts to have a 100 per cent transition.
Because joining secondary school is an expensive affair as learners have to at least pay for lunch, buy uniform, get transport among other costs, the children whose parents live in or earn their living through the dumpsite face an uncertain future after sitting KCPE examinations.
One of the youngsters we encounter is Ouma Habil Otieno, 14. Had everything been okay, he would have been a Form One student about to complete his first term at Our Lady of Fatima Secondary School in Nairobi’s Kariobangi. He scored 227 marks out of 500 in the 2021 KCPE.
But he is not in school. Instead, he is helping his parents carry and sort garbage. Habil lives with his family on the edge of the dumpsite, and his mother Jennifer Kwena says the location is strategic because she has to access fresh trash every day as early as possible.
“I wake up early in the morning, go there, pick up any valuable items from the garbage, sell some so we can get something for food,” she says. “Habil helps me select it. When we have a sizeable load, we sell it.”
And whenever she ventures out, one fear that lingers in her mind is the excavator bucket.
At the dumpsite, one common activity is excavator-chasing. Like fowls rushing to a freshly dug ground, residents run after the excavators that scrap the garbage to flatten the ground. They do this in the hope of finding metal and other precious items exposed by the powerful blades on the bucket of the excavator.
But it is a dangerous affair. The heavy excavator bucket has killed people before Ms Kwena’s eyes.
“The excavator has killed many. If you go after the trash it exposes but you haven’t timed it well, it can kill you. So, we just risk it because you must go there to get something,” she says.
Habil’s is a family of five children and he is the firstborn. Despite the flies, the fumes and the risks, they have made the edge of the dumpsite their home for the last 10 years. A streetwise person erected some structures there and charges the family Sh3,000 in rent per month.
With five children to feed and a Sh12,000 debt owed to Habil’s former school, secondary school is out of reach.
“We went to (Our Lady of Fatima) and explained ourselves, but they said Habil must go with the full uniform and school fees,” says Ms Kwena.
Habil, who hopes to be a doctor, says he is not happy to be out of school. His mother says education will be the only way to secure a better future, though they are now at their wits’ ends.
“If a child doesn’t get an education in today’s world, they cannot be helped. A certificate is needed in everything. I want him to study but money is a problem,” she says, resigned.
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Alice Wambui Chege,16, doesn’t live in the dumpsite. But her mother’s sole income source is this garbage point. And Alice sometimes comes there from their home in Korogocho, together with her elder brother, to pick garbage for sale.
She would have been a Form One student at Chemi Chemi Secondary School in Kariobangi but she has not yet reported.
“My father walked out on my mother when the family ran out of money. So, I live with my mother and my three brothers in a single room,” she says.
Alice adds that her mother is sickly, most likely due to the effects of working in the dumpsite. She says she lost a former classmate in 2020 due to complications developed as a result of scavenging there.
“Some of my friends who were my classmates came here and developed health complications. One died,” she says. “She got sickly. Her chest would ache, and the dirty water started having an effect on her legs. And she had eaten something bad in here and it messed up her stomach.”
But this is the very hazard Alice has to face to help her family stay afloat because her mother is sickly.
“We come and do the picking and sell to those who buy in kilos,” she says, adding that she mostly looks for gunny bags at the dumpsite.
It is a life full of risks, she says. “You can take something not knowing it’s someone’s and you’ll get a beating. Or you land your hands on a broken bottle that can cut you. Sometimes you fail to get anything,” says Alice.
Despite scoring a humble 174 marks in the 2021 KCPE from Tom Mboya Primary School in Dandora, Alice aspires to be a doctor. Maybe then, she can help her mother regain her health.
“Sometimes when she enters the dumpsite, she feels nauseated because of the dirty smoke being emitted,” says Alice of her mother.
Often, garbage considered unusable is set on fire and the fumes can pose a danger, given the range of chemicals that find themselves in the dumpsite.
Among the dumpsite residents, we also come across 23-year-old Esther Nekesa. She says she dropped out of school in 2020 in Standard Eight because her mother was struggling.
They have been living on the edge of the dumpsite for the last four years. During the interview, she is holding her three-month-old son tightly against her bosom. This is the sure way to keep flies away from the toddler’s face.
Esther can’t wait for the boy to be six months old, enough to be weaned from breast milk, so that she can go back to picking garbage.
“If it were not for this baby, I would be waking up to go to the dumpsite. I used to wake up at 5am then head to the site,” she says, adding that she would work at the site until around 5pm.
“You have to wake up early to get something ahead of those who come in during the day,” she says. “There are many people. You must wake up early to get something.”
At the site, trucks purr in with garbage round the clock. Emitting varying smells and carrying luggage of different shapes and sizes, and with morose and unkempt youths often boarding the trucks, they drive into the site and empty their contents as eager residents wait to pounce on whatever is emptied.
As such, the early bird really catches the worm, and that is what forces some families to live there. Some have erected makeshift structures that they call home. During our visit, some stepped out of their houses to assess the goings-on.
“Hakuna njia ingine. Hawana uwezo wa kulipa rent. (They have no other way. They are unable to pay rent,” Ms Kwena tells us.
For Esther, this risky residence and its riskier inhabitants are better than struggling with school. Her other siblings are in school but she has chosen the dumpsite.
“It was due to lack of fees and also being ill in school and at home. My mother didn’t have money and my other siblings wanted to go to school. I told my mum that it would be better for me to quit schooling and let the rest go on,” Esther says.
But she says she can take up a chance to go back to school or a job if it arises.
“I’ll be happy to take it up,” she says.
The children of the dumpsite also include those who come to the hazardous place with their mothers.
During our visit, there are about five children with their mothers on site. Too young to be in school and without any other place to stay, their mothers come with them here, but the environment is clearly not conducive for their young lungs. One had a pockmarked face that suggested an ailment. But her general look was of a toughened baby. You can’t survive here without lots of toughness.
A parent earning a living via the dumpsite is typically a woman. You will find her in gumboots and maybe an apron. Some dress in leggings. She will spend her day moving from one point to another, gathering, sorting, and running after excavators.
In speeches they give to Pastor Wanjala and the team we are with, each of the women says they wouldn’t wish to have their children live a life like theirs. The mothers face untold risks, Pastor Wanjala tells us. He recalls a case of one who lost her leg.
“There is a woman who stepped on a liquid she thought was water but was actually an acid. Her whole leg literally dissolved and she had to get a metallic one,” he says.
He also notes that most children in the dumpsite typically have one parent.
“Here, a child will hardly identify their father. They only know their mothers. And that’s why we’ve had lots of problems. Our children can hardly go to school because there is only one parent and she can only earn a living through the dumpsite,” says the pastor. The pastor says he has seen families go down a number of generations while living on the dumpsite.
“Some told me they started living at the Embakasi dumpsite. When the dumpsite relocated from Embakasi to Mukuru kwa Njenga, they moved there because their lineage is connected with it. So, they give birth and their children also give birth at the dumpsite. So, these people don’t have (other) homes. They know their home is the dumpsite; nowhere else,” he notes.
The children of the dumpsite find themselves inured into the dumpsite culture from a young age, according to Mr Michael Masiaga, the director of Rehema Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s Centre, an educational organisation in Dandora.
Mr Masiaga says they have made various efforts to get a number of children out of the dumpsite and into school. At Rehema, for instance, the centre offers food to learners so that children have a reason to forget the dumpsite.
“The daily feeding programme plus breakfast has worked so well on us to lure the children from the dumping site,” he says.
“We give them food, education and also counselling, which has really worked so well. That has also helped us to access the dumpsite because we have become friends of the dumping site,” adds Mr Masiaga.
And according to Pastor Bernard Otieno, the chairman of Rehema, they prefer to have children at the centre – who get primary school education taught by volunteers – to come to school early and leave late to resist the temptation to go scavenging at the dumpsite.
“The homes of most of them (the 355 pupils at the school) are in the dumping site. So, our plan, in any case we get somebody who can assist us, is to have a boarding school here or to have a children’s home here or to have a facility to enable them to sleep here,” says Mr Otieno.
Pastor Wanjala estimates that there could be as many as 300 families living in the Dandora dumpsite. According to an Al Jazeera report published in 2019, the Dandora dumpsite sits on 12 hectares.
“Those who live here can be around 300; those who have built small structures to live here. But those who come and go every day are more than 3,000,” he says.
According to Mr Masiaga, there is great academic potential among the children of the dumpsite.
“Some are very bright. Last year but one, we had a girl from the dumping site who managed to get an A-minus. If the children were given an opportunity, we could have so many doctors, nurses and engineers right from that forgotten area,” he said.
Their efforts to draw children from the dumpsite are sometimes derailed by criminal gangs who want to have young and uneducated people in their midst.
“That is why we are fighting to ensure some of them go to boarding schools far away so that they can also see another life,” adds Mr Masiaga.