3 April 2018

Sudan: Living in Garbage Dump


Sad mourners sitting at the home of a deceased Sufi leader in Khartoum all of a sudden heard sharp cries and wailing from a woman outside. Rushing outside to see what went wrong, the gathering saw a woman crying in hysteria and rolling her body on the ground. At first they thought that a passing car might have hit the woman's baby, since the house opened towards the main road. The scene was very moving indeed and everybody was in wonder, because the woman was not an adherent of their Sufi order.

Then the woman started to calm down and her crying turned into a sort of moaning until she ultimately recovered her senses and sat on the ground, still tears pouring down from her eyes. She muttered words no one could recognize other than 'kuntu fi alkosha' (I was in the garbage dump).

Asked about her story, one of the Sheikh's close associates said the woman was intending to visit the sheikh and was shocked to find that he had already passed. She belonged to a neighboring country which was ravaged by civil war. One chilly winter night some of the sheikh's disciples found her and her seven years old son lying on the ground on the road to the garbage dump. She was coughing and in heavy fever, all the time struggling to carry her feverish child. Unable to uplift the child, the two of them fell to the ground. The sheikh's disciples carried her and her son to hospital and after they recovered, the sheikh rented them a home and continued to take care of them. She continued to frequent the sheikh's home and when one day she leaned that he was travelling abroad for kidney transplant, she pleaded to him: "Take my two kidneys!" Here one of the sheikh's followers jestingly told her: "Give him one kidney so that you would also continue to live."

Replied she "No matter. If the sheikh would continue to live, my son would also continue to live!"

This moving story and this faithfulness had raised in me a compelling desire to visit where the woman and her child had lived before they were put under the sheikh's care: The Tayba Garbage Dump, South of Khartoum.

The Dump lies on a 40 -acre unfenced area. It is a mountain of garbage.

For a moment, I closed my eyes to the image of a seven year old child sleeping among this dirt, to the clinking of tin and crystal cans and the hissing plastic waste, sometimes coupled with winter cold or summer rain and thunder. He would sleep on a garbage mattress with a pillow of garbage under his tiny head and a blanket of garbage over his weak body. It was here that I could understand the woman's crying. She did not lose the sheikh alone. With him she lost hope. She lost the only tender hand she and her son had known.

I toured the place, looking for its dwellers. I found some dispersed jute and cardboard shacks up at the top of the dump. Some young men were dancing to the sound of a song, quite indifferent about their surroundings.

There was also a crowd of people of all ages busy sorting out garbage in search of something to sell. Once a garbage truck drew to a halt and started to unload, they quickly rushed towards it.

At the bottom of the dump stood the shacks of garbage traders surrounded with heaps of plastic bags and cardboard boxes of different types. Workers were busy balancing useful garbage and paying garbage collectors.

On the Eastern side of the dump stood the Khartoum Cleaning Corporation trucks. Loaders were busy burying unneeded waste.

On the Southern side stood office of the dump's director and his staff.

The dump's main job is to get rid of garbage collected from the localities of Khartoum and Jebel Awlya. However, it is a lucrative market beyond imagination. In the words of one citizen, this garbage is a treasure, an income source for many people. Garbage collection has become a profession for many people young and old, male and female. The garbage collectors or albarkaata as they are called, come to the site early in the morning and leave at sunset.

Speaking to Sudanow, they told their stories in simple words. It is a journey in search of income and food, so difficult as it is. Despite the hardship, they feel contented by what they had found.

Hawwa Suleiman, a mother of eight children said she had been working at the place since 2013. She lives near to the dump. She walks from her place in the morning and starts to collect anything of value, even dry bread, which is sold as animal fodder. She earns 100-150 pounds a day which she spends on her children due to the absence of their father.

Ako Adam (70) is a father of six children. He has two wives. He specializes in the collection of plastic bottles (locally called crystalat). At first he used to collect anything. But he is no longer able to do that, just sufficing himself with plastic bottles because they are easy to spot and collect. He earns 100 pounds a day.

Waleed Abdelaziz (15), had finished primary school and started sorting out garbage in 2014. He lives in a shack at the dump and travels to his family every three months. Asked how they get food, he said he and the other collectors living at the top of the dump wait for trucks carrying food leftovers from restaurants and fast food companies. They take the leftover and cook and feed on it.

Mohammad Omar, a child of four, collects plastic bottles. He said he accompanies children from his neighborhood to the place. Drivers of dump vehicles take them back to their places at sunset.

Hajja Amna Abdelrahman (50) is a mother of eight children. She said she first sorted out and sold garbage. From her savings she bought a scale and became a garbage trader. She buys garbage from the collectors and sells it to recycling plants. She said business is good and fetches her 500 pounds a day. Sometimes she earns more than that. She said she had built a house, looked after the education of her children and was "quite satisfied". She said garbage trucks bring everything to this place: chairs, tables, blankets, sweaters and everything of use.

Abdelwahhab Idris (31) is a garbage trader. He sorted garbage for over 15 years. He worked in Khartoum and Omdurman localities. He has two wives, four children and a house of his own in the Hay Badur neighborhood. He said some of his fellow garbage traders now own trucks, having started from zero.

Near to the traders shacks some women sell tea and light meals. Moneera Bushra sells tea and looks after her seven children. "Business is good, thanks to the Almighty," she said.

Moneera said business is good from January to May but during the rainy season the road become difficult and business drops. She said they get water from nearby farms and sometimes water carts bring it to the place.

Hamad Barsi, the Dump Director, said the facility was launched in 2007 to treat the garbage of the Khartoum and Jebel Awlya localities. He said the Khartoum locality garbage is first collected at a terminal and then carried to this dump, while that of Jebel Awlya locality comes directly to dump. He said they receive a daily 2000-2500 metric tons of waste. A 200-300 hole is dug in the ground in which the garbage is dumped, he said, attributing the present height of the dump to the narrow space available. The dump's supposed durability is ten years and no alternative place has been located yet.

Barsi ruled out any harm the dump could incur on the soil. "An area of 20 meters is considered safe with respect to the absorption of liquids or anything similar," he said, adding that unpleasant smells do not go beyond 10-12 meters.

About the collectors, he said they were peaceful in general save some incidents (including murder) which are committed by permanent dwellers who have no families to go to. Incidents usually occur due to drunkenness. Also the collectors often find dead bodies of abandoned newborns.

Generally, life at the dump can put its dwellers into harms-way due to the absence of safety measures from fire or illness. But due to the lack of opportunities for a more decent work, the collectors brave these hazards and seize the opportunity and go ahead with what they do.

This explains the distress of the mother who all of a sudden lost the sheikh who looked after her and her child. Fortunately, she is still welcomed with enthusiasm by the family and disciples of the late sheikh whom she refers to as "my brother". The sheikh sons even bought the house for her.


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