Welcome to Dandora

Transient

Up at 3:45 am, wolf down a few eggs, consume as much coffee as possible with out burning my throat, make sure I don’t forget essential camera gear in my middle-of-the-night stupper, pull on my gum boots, hop in the car and speed across Nairobi to meet a man that goes by the name “Tiger”, all in hopes of being in the Dandora dump site before the sun comes up. 

From the very onset of this project, I knew there was going to be a lot of visual clutter along with the literal. How to simplify and yet add an additional layer of visual interest became my underlying approach. Midday sun just wasn’t going to accomplish this. 

But as photojournalists, we usually don’t get to shoot in the times that are most ideal or we have to go to great lengths to nudge the logistics to make it happen. 

“Tiger” was not only key to shooting my minds-eye of this project but also the means to even get access to the dump site in the first place.  A central figure in the Cartel that controls the site, “Tiger” was our in and there waiting in the dark for us at the entrance to the site. 

The site is completely surrounded by three different slums all of which have those very tall lights that you may see in prisons or American native reservations’ urban centers, other areas that require brilliant omnipresent light. The ambient effect overflowed into the 30-acre site, which made it not as dark as I expected. Still, it was tough to see and walk on the terra firma – it was anything but “firma”. 

As dawn neared and the light grew the scene was hard to take all in. Sensory overload is an understatement. The light filtered through biogas steam and chemical and plastic smoke rendering colors that were boarded on the sci-fi. The smell of rotting debris of 5 million people’s waste, all of it overpowering the nose and carrying with it substance and density that clung deep inside the throat. Thousands of scavenging prehistoric-like storks cawing and spreading their massive wings that rival those of condors; clearly infected and just downright filthy, these were hardly the thing you’d want delivering you a baby. Pigs, brawling dogs, and a menagerie of lesser birds, this was hardly a place for a human to live, work, eat and yet there they were, woman, children, and men amongst the scavengers.

These of course are those that David and I came all this way to meet and to better understand. So far, the stories are overwhelming, the conditions amongst the worst I’ve seen in my career, and the neglect and disregard for these lives unacceptable, but a common denominator of the place and people is one of a low-rung economy that people depend on, in spite of the horrific human condition. The thing that sustains is also the thing that shortens or tragically takes the life of those most invested.