Friday, 1 July 2011

The Volcano Tamers

You’re young. What you’re wearing is what you own. You sleep on a piss soaked mattress tossed in a corner off the road. You live day to day. You’re hungry. You’re tired.

You’re one of the hundreds of young Kenyan men who do door to door garbage collection in the slums of Nairobi. In a place where time seems to cease as the rest of the world moves ahead, life is tough as bricks. Street boys have been dealt the worst cards and have no choice but to survive in the jungle sprawl of tin they call a slum. For the few that can take it, picking and sorting through people’s trash is the best way to keep their head high and put loot in their pockets. Where city council has no access or desire to pick garbage, the young people have sought the challenge. Groups of youth who decided that waiting for a job to find them wasn’t the best choice.

(Mwas and some others doing some loading)

Garbage collection is as physically demanding as working in a coal mine. Saying, “Young people are lazy” is idiotic. People who say that would get a run for their money if they met Mwas and others like him. Walking all day everyday with a rickety handcart getting work where they can. Their undernourished iron bodies carrying tonnes of putrid smelling waste, weaving around sharp corners full of muddy knee-deep holes. In fact keeping control of the garbage flow in Mathare, one of the many erupting slums in Nairobi, is a bit like taming a volcano. For the residents who can afford the meager fee, these volcano tamers show up once a week to collect their garbage. They pick through it (“resource recovery” it’s called in NGO talk), salvage the plastics, metal or anything that might have value. The garbage gets dumped onto a hill of waste where one day a front-end loader or just a few bare hands load it on a crusty truck where it’s transported to the overflowing city dump.

If it weren’t for these determined youth, these communities would feel a devastating deluge of garbage borne diseases. Already the open toilets’ slowly seeping into the rivers is causing endemics. Some of the youth have turned into self-taught environmentalists who try to extract every shilling out of what they get from the trash. Some throw all the compost in a pile, treating it and sell it back the people they took it from, so they can grow healthy vegetables. Some turn the compost into charcoal blocks that get sold as useful fuel to the thousands of people who fry anything they can sell. Some take the plastics and shred them, selling them back to the plastic industry. Some take out the paper and make sellable arts and crafts. It’s a mission to survive by any means necessary while keeping people out of a state of chaos. Who are these guys in everyday society? They are pariahs. The people who aren’t educated enough to be accepted as anything but a garbage boy. Sure people appreciate the work they do, but mostly people are too busy keeping their family above the water to start thinking about finding recognition for these helpers.

I found Mwas one morning sleeping in. I knew something was wrong.

“Niaje Mwas?” (What’s up?).

“Ona miguu zangu.” (Look at my feet.) He removed a dirty blanket from his legs. His feet looked like he had ran through a field of broken glass. His eyes were staring blankly at the wall. No work for Mwas today.

(Kaka and Mwas, two of the hardest working self taught environmentalists around.)

I personally love having people like Mwas around. Mwas is down to earth, and makes the young men who sit around all day complaining about the government not providing jobs look like breast-feeding kittens. In a country where unemployment is almost half the population, these heroes have a surplus of work.

(Mwas is currently serving a sentence in prison for possession of a certain herb)

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