Dandora Kenya - For Pulitzer Center

Here is the background

Spanning 30-acres, Kenya’s Dandora Municipal Dump Site is the only dumping location for waste in Nairobi, East Africa’s most populous city, and serves as a provocative starting point for understanding the growing health, poverty, and sanitation problems facing the rapidly expanding capital and region.

Located just 8 km from the central business district, Dandora literally spills into the households of nearly 1 million people living in nearby slums. Addressing the historic implications the site has had on the health, dignity, spirit, and landscape of these surrounding communities, this project will uncover the neglected voices of the people whose livelihoods are affected daily by Dandora. Behind devastating statistics of children with respiratory ailments, toxic blood lead levels, skin disorders, and fatal diseases directly attributed to the waste are stories of communities that have grown to depend on the dump site. These include street children who live off the money they make selling food and other items they find in its piles and residents who are paid pennies a day by private cartels to sort and recycle waste.

What makes Dandora different from anywhere else?

In terms of major cities in East Africa, it isn't much different (which makes it significant). Some of the most populous cities in East Africa have been able to neglect coming up with recycling strategies or waste management policies for decades, but Dandora represents the tipping point of no action. The affluent neighborhoods and downtown Nairobi will inevitably be affected (whether it is from polluted drinking water, since waste from Dandora now spills into the Nairobi River, or polluted air from the government telling slum dwellers to burn the toxic waste to make more space, etc.). Rather than being a blocked off site of toxic waste (and the only dumpsite for the most populous city in East Africa), it has literally become a community where people are encouraged to live on the waste of the city. I think that is what is most shocking about this. Despite the fact that several rigorous health studies have been commissioned, and the city council knows of the harm Dandora has caused, the nearly 1 million people who live next to the site are actually being encouraged to dig through the garbage of the city. 

While the country’s leadership has long shown alarming indifference to Dandora – ignoring environmental laws, UN-commissioned health studies, and clarion calls for closure from human rights groups – a contested decommission process is projected to start this month (January). Through a complicated narrative of survival and tragic health/environmental consequences, this project aims to reveal as much about the waste that is left behind as it does about the marginalized populations overshadowed by an industrializing city’s expansion.

For these same reasons it is clearly different from any dumpsite that exists elsewhere. However, we don't want this story to simply be about death and government inaction. Dandora is also different because there are two groups/communities of opinion about it: (1) that it is essential for the survival of the people living there; people from the community actually protested its relocation a few months ago because it provides them with some income that they don't believe the government would replace.  (2) grassroots groups are organizing themselves and demanding a better life; "Stop dumping death on us" is one campaign from Korogocho, one of the communities most affected by the site, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRoLJu68lgU) that we will be visiting and that is trying to empower people in the slums to demand more of themselves and their city council. With Kenya now in the early stages of a new constitution (especially with their new Chief Justice Willy Mutunga who calls Korogocho his home), people are saying that the dumpsite represents a key challenge to the democratic utility of the country. Democracy and their new constitution promised the 1 million people in these slums the hope for an equal voice, but they say that no one has been listenting (including international media outlets). For this reason, Aggrey Otieno (who is part of the Korogocho movement against the dumpsite, and the person we will be interviewing for first) said that the action that Nairobi takes on Dandora this year may be a provocative measure, or proxy, for the state of democracy in the country. 


Welcome to Dandora


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.