Dandora's Scavengers and Recyclers

Trash pickers often represent the lowest economic class and most marginalized population in society. It’s no different in Dandora, Kenya. A man from the neighboring slum of Korogocho hefts his last bag of trash for the day in hopes of selling the mostly rubber scraps for $.50 USD. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Predawn light on the Dandora dumpsite as a lone picker begins another day. In the distance, high power crime prevention lights in the neighboring slum of Korogocho help illuminate the otherworldly scene. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

“Tiger” is Dandora’s gatekeeper. City trucks pay his cartel to enter the site. And, in order for us to gain entry, we too had to pay Tiger for his approval. Tiger grew up eating the leftovers of Nairobi’s airline passengers and has spent most of his life working at the site. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Every day, the unfinished salads, sandwiches, bread, yogurt cups and waste from each plane that touches down in Nairobi are transported to the Dandora Municipal Dumpsite – Nairobi’s only dumping location for waste. Dozens of men fight over the scraps as soon as the truck arrives. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Most eat what they can find. Others sort through the trash and place into large sacks whatever can be sold for recycling. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

At the back of the dump truck, men pick up scraps of half-eaten food waste. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Men climb on the food truck while others wait for friends to toss them a morsel. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Rahab Rujuru, 42, a mother of six children between the ages of four and seventeen, moved to a small home directly bordering Dandora after the country’s 2007 post-election violence forced her family to leave their Eldoret farm near the western border of Kenya. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

“Working here is how I am able to feed my children,” Rahab Rujuru said. “Of course it is not a usual job. Dodging pigs, used condoms, eating what I find; no it’s not good for me. But it is a job and I have to persevere.” Asthma makes life even harder for Rahab. Toxic-laced smoke from small fires of burning waste spreads to every corner of Dandora. As a mother, though, what bothers her most is the adult behavior that her children are forced to witness. With the exception of her four-year-old, all of Rahab's children scavenge Dandora with their mother on weekends and after their classes to earn money for school fees, books, and uniforms. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Tiger directs an incoming city dump truck to an acceptable location for dumping. A lot of shouting comes from the pickers; they ask Tiger to direct the truck to a spot that does not spill onto an area they’ve yet to sort through. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Most pickers seem to have a niche product they're looking for: rubber, firewood, food scraps, milk containers, plastics, or cardboard. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Using a bent piece of rebar with a makeshift handle, the pickers spend all day hunched over and unprotected. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

On the edges of the dumpsite you will find those who prefer to work alone, looking instead for metal scraps. The metal is easiest to find in areas that have caught fire from biogas. Those who search for metal must tolerate harsh breathing conditions—the trade-off is a potentially larger payout for the product. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

To get from the dumpsite to the neighboring slums, pickers must cross the tar-black Nairobi River. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

An informal chain of middle men and women has long done the dirty work for recycling companies. Sorting through metals, rubber, meat bones, milk bags, and plastics, hundreds of self-employed pickers scavenge the 30-acre dumpsite from 5 am to sundown. Community buyers purchase their day’s work at nearby weigh stations, eventually selling the newly acquired share to drivers who are paid upon delivery by the recycling companies. None of the workers make more than 250 KSH ($2.50USD) per day. Here, buyers in the slum wait for pickers to deliver bags of plastic bottles. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Trash pickers pay Tiger 10 KSH ($.12 USD) a game to use his pool table during breaks. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Pausing in the rain, a woman tells me she wishes she had more time to look at books. She even likes the industrial parts catalogs. “It gives me something else to do in the day besides picking [trash],” she says. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

Mother and son leave the dumpsite to begin their half-hour walk back home. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

At the end of the day women are allowed to pick through the dumpsite. Image by Micah Albert. Kenya, 2012.

The survival ritual of recycling – essential to the upkeep of the dumpsite, but not condoned by the city – has continued ever since Dandora was first named the city dump in the mid-1970's—more than 20 years longer than international law allows and 11 years after the site was declared full by the Nairobi city council. Over the next five years, the city hopes to decommission the site, though their relocation strategy has remained on the desks of city council members for over a decade.

While Dandora certainly represents a provocative starting point for understanding the country’s health, waste, and sanitation struggles, the scale of marginalization in Dandora leads to questions about globalization, urbanization, and international accountability. Nairobi is known as an East African hub for journalists, deep-pocketed safari goers, and en-route missionaries, and yet nearly a quarter of the city’s residents go largely neglected.