Searching for blog posts tagged with 'dumpsites'

GUEST POST - Scavenging in Kenya, Then and Now by Lucy James

Dec

02

 

Rubbish is a perennial problem for politics. On a practical level it requires a significant amount of coordination, organisation and expense on the part of local councils. A great deal of urban planning design in Kenya's history has been structured around the ideal of a 'clean' garden city, free from the dangers and unpleasantness of waste. But deciding "what to do" with this rubbish is not just a matter of neutral and objective schemes for town development. Decisions about waste management involve sets of political choices that are structured by hierarchies of power and influence. Who collects rubbish, where it is put, how it is organised and who is permitted to access it has effects not only on issues of public health, but land ownership, class privilege and economic livelihoods. In academic terms this can be illustrated through the Marxist concept of "urban trash"; what we do with rubbish as rooted in political, economic and historical dynamics that structure spaces designated as dumps, tips and wastelands.

 

It is therefore not just geographical spaces that are shaped by waste. For communities living in and around rubbish dumps in Nairobi, everyday life is structured by its presence. Here the worthless rubbish of others becomes both a way of making money and a source of sustenance; things that can be extracted, resold, recycled and eaten. However, the issue of 'scavenging' is problematic for authorities whose job is to draw a line between the sanitary and insanitary, and to make sure rubbish remains rubbish, out of sight and mind of affluent urban areas. In this situation, the people who pick through waste themselves become a problem that must also be 'dealt' with politically.

 

Today the problem of scavenging in Nairobi and other African cities is framed as one of basic human rights. The Dandora dump in Nairobi, which was scheduled for decommission in 2012, has come under fire for the poor management of waste which has led to severe pollution of the water, soil and air of surrounding settlements of Korogocho and Dandora . The vulnerability of those who live off the dump to disease, abuse and social exclusion has become a mobilising issue for advocacy groups who seek to see scavengers integrated in to society and employment. However, the problem of scavenging has not always been framed in such a way.

 

While I was at the Kenya National Archives the other week, I came across a very interesting file. It contained correspondence concerning scavengers at the Makupa tip in Mombasa, from the 1950s to the 1970s. The letters and telegrams showed how various authorities, including the Municipal Council, the police and social services, grappled with the question of "what to do" with African communities scavenging off the waste.

 

The significant thing about these documents is the perceptible change in the language used to describe the scavengers, as well as the proposed solutions for "dealing" with them. In early letters from the 1950s, scavengers are referred to pejoratively as "nuisance", "hindrance" and "no-goods". However by the late 1960s, the documents began to describe the groups at Makupa not in terms of the (un)desirability of their behaviour, but as identifiable individuals. Thus, a report by a social welfare assistant from 1964 draws attention to "twenty women with young girls" and a lady "who had a two week old baby on her back". A letter the Housing Department 4 years later gives a further sense of scavengers as people with identity and personal histories, for example by citing a case study of a Luo man and his young family who eked out a living on the dump.

 

The changing language around unauthorised people who lived and worked on the tip echoes the shift in thinking about how to deal with the problem of rubbish in urban spaces. The vast majority of all the letters cited concerns about the impact of scavenging on public health, given that groups were known to forage for discarded food and materials to cook for others or re-sell in Mombasa town. Initially, this was thought to warrant strict measures such as arrest and prosecution.  A letter from June 1952, for example, suggests that without strong police action it would be "impossible" to stop groups of people collecting discarded maize, wood and other materials. However, later on scavenging comes to be recognised and promoted as "a social problem" caused by poverty and destitution, and solved by measures such as the alleviation of unemployment. These later examples have a clear resonance with the framing of issue of scavenging today: as a product of social marginalisation and inequality that requires political intervention.

 

Rubbish is therefore not just a question of physical waste and city management. In historical and present day Kenya, decisions about what to do with rubbish also intersect with issues of security, social welfare and human rights in different guises. The position of scavengers within this policy space illustrates the complexity of the politics of waste disposal. For example, even when human rights agencies and local NGOs campaign for closure of dumps, a whole series of questions are thrown up about "what to do" with the people who depend on rubbish itself to live. Thinking about these issues through my research for DirtPol brings me back to a concept often used in academic discussions of sanitation and hygiene. The issue of scavenging is a perfect illustration of how the 'abject' refers not only to taboo elements of the self that has been separated off (i.e. physical waste) but also to the state of marginalised groups who live and work among these rejected elements. Dealing with rubbish is therefore as much about culture, symbolism, political power and interpersonal relations as it is about sanitation infrastructure and the lofty visions of contemporary town planning in Africa.

 

 

 

Lucy James is a graduate attaché at the British Institute in East Africa. Lucy completed her MSc in African Politics at SOAS, with a particular focus on governance and society in Lusophone Africa.

Follow her on Twitter:  @lajames1291 

For more information on our research project, please visit the DirtPol website here.