Living in Kenya, it’s impossible not to notice the people that come to your gate on bin day and start sifting through your rubbish bags. Generally things are put back tidily afterwards and things like plastic milk bottles, tin cans and salvageable food stuffs are carried away. These guys are the first in line. The rubbish that is carted off for an annual fee by a private rubbish collection company in a smart green truck, in smart green bags, will inevitably end up on one of the inner city rubbish heaps in Nairobi. There it will be picked over once again by adults, children and marabou storks. There is no compressor truck, no landfill site with diggers and masked operators, just a big pile of refuse; smouldering, mouldering and stinking.
The whole subject of rubbish and its disposal is fraught. People throw away too much and in spite of appeals to recycle more in the West, the land fill sites are going to haunt us. The really shocking thing about the dumps in Kenya is that people are actually salvaging food from the dumps and eating it. The rubbish dump is their means of survival.
Every time I throw something in the bin, I’m aware of who is going to inadvertently come across my bags on the dump. Guiltily I toss dirty nappies in the bin, old bits of smelly bony fish, mouldering rice from the back of the fridge. We caught a rat in a trap a couple of weeks ago and it got binned as we were feeling squeamish. In retrospect we should have buried it to save the horror of some poor person unravelling it amongst our rubbish later. I took the attached photo from the window of my car and it’s not very good, but it does show the scale of the heap and the scavenging people and birds wandering around on top.
In ‘The Lion Children’, a book written by three children who moved from England to rural Botswana, Maisie describes how, as they began to settle into their new African life, some things would always feel very strange:
‘We had to dump our rubbish in the nearby rubbish tip, and every time we did so the same three children would come running out of their huts. They would tear open the plastic rubbish bags and search for food and anything they could play with. This made me feel very ashamed as we were throwing away things that were important to them. After that, we always cleaned the plastic water containers that they were rummaging around for and gave them food. It was something, but I still felt bad.’
(The Lion Children - by Angus Maisie & Travers McNeice. First pub 2001 - Orion)
Having spoken to friends somebody came up with the idea of a small incinerator made from old oil drums. Some routinely bury or burn their rubbish in their gardens, but burning plastic is never a good idea and gives off toxic fumes. A friend who lived in South Africa said that everyone was asked to deliberately put the food and other recyclable items into separate bags, in order to make it easier for those sifting through later. I guess this is a sensible idea and I’ll try it because anything is better than throwing it all out together and ignoring what happens next. But then that’s really not enough is it?…