Garowe, Puntland Somalia- Throughout the existence of mankind, the world has had been full of mysterious surprises. It is an undeniable fact that few of us who are lucky enough have the ability to lead a high end lavish lifestyle indulging and basking on the delights that come with the bountiful variety of opulence and luxury, oblivious to the fact that many others go to bed with empty belly or go at any length to eke out a living from the putrid squalor in a garbage dumpsite.
Some would argue that the gap between the haves and have-nots is commonplace the world over, true, yet it does not justify this issue when those of us lucky enough to live happily waste more food than we consume and discard new clothes and other stuff that the poor family next door is in dire need of. When many of us may drive our children to school every day, many other kids in the IDP camps near Garowe travel several miles to scavenge in and around the rubbish in order to make ends meet, as the old adage goes “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. For them nothing is trash.
My encounter with these garbage scavenging kids occurred merely by chance, as I was among a taskforce team commissioned by Puntland’s Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism & CARE International tasked with the development of a Waste Management Policy for Puntland. Having met most of the stakeholders in the sector, it was the time to pay a visit to the so called “Garowe City Landfill” to see it firsthand.
In a very sunny scorching afternoon of 37 degrees, we have traveled 8km out of Garowe until we reached the dumping ground, here; the liquid and solid wastes of the City Markets, Restaurants, Hotels, Hospitals and Households blend.
The Dumping Ground: It is one of the most unpleasant and shocking landscapes I have ever came across. A mountain-like heaps of garbage stretching hundred meters as far as the eye can see, that have piled up over the years. It is a place where an amalgamation of trash up in flames burns day in day out emitting clouds of black smoke that chokes the air with toxic gases. In this environment, the liquid effluent wastes and different categories of solid wastes are dumped almost on daily basis. It was appalling to see young children atop of a trash mountain wading through the rubbish, broken glass and biomedical waste, collecting food leftovers to eat probably to earn a living to sustain themselves and their families.
Perched on the tip of the Horn, Puntland is a state that is part and parcel of the Federal Republic of Somalia, a country recovering from decades of prolonged civil war without or limited existence of social services such as proper sewerage and waste management infrastructures compounded by the degeneration of the moral values and social norms resulted in problems such as littering everywhere and any place accessible to the people.
In a very busy day at the Garowe dumpsite, I found about 20 children and several adults picking up the freshly dumped rubbish from the town. At every glance, scavengers rummaging through the garbage in search of valuable materials dumped into the site -most probably food and beverage leftovers- were ubiquitously visible to the naked eye.
The Jungle Law: At the top of heaps of the waste mound, I laid my eyes on a 9 years old boy named Kabirow with disappointedly grim look in his face; I pointed my camera at him to take some few snaps but he faced the other direction covering his face with his hands and immediately after, I realized he was helpless. Quietly headed his direction, I asked to know why he is not willing to get his portion of the just delivered a truckload of rubbish. He nodded in disagreement! I asked him if he is Ok? Kabirow responded:
”Today, with the absence of my senior colleague, these bad mannered boys –meaning his colleagues in salvaging the dumpsite- have bullied him and forced him to stay away, or else..
To understand more, one middle aged woman nearby explained to me:
“Usually the drama stimulates when a fresh dumper truck arrives carrying truckload of wastes, in reality, it is a competition among them as those who get to the waste early enough are likely to get the most valuable materials and food rations that would address their hunger or at least serve as an income generating scraps to sell or barter trade with whatever other necessities their families need most”. ”. It is exactly survival of the fittest! Every man for himself.
Going to School: if you fail to walk, it is among madness to try running!! The children laughed at me when I asked them if they would like to go to school! Because of being stigmatized as “Garbage salvagers”, their answer left me speechless: [Unless you bring that school to this land or at least at the IDP camp] but one kid raised his voice among the screaming boys saying; “during the day I spend my time in getting something for myself and grab something for the rest to the family, and in the evening time I normally play with my colleagues”.
Scavenging has some damaging effects on the health of these children, who suffer from eye irritation, respiratory diseases, with coughing, sneezing. skin diseases, especially scabies; minor injuries from stepping on broken glasses and other sharp objects, headaches from working in the sun, and backaches from bending down most of the time.
Sharifo– an elderly woman-explained to me how vulnerable they are to violence and sexual abuse, even rape – but because people are so poor and on the fringes of society there is nowhere for them to go for healthcare or support other than some insignificant support from NGOs.
While some of the boys went back to their homes loaded with something for the family, it’s an distressing day for others like Kabirow who missed to pick up and grab enough materials for himself and the family. My grief is much more than grabbing what to eat or take at home out of the dumpsite. Everyday their tragedy goes undocumented, their biggest wish is more garbage to scavenge.
Our flowers, the leaders of tomorrow are physically, morally and psychologically ruined and all to blame: poor governance and social injustice. I am amazed and so should you!
Najeb Ahmed is a Consultant on Environmental Management, Part time lecturer and a columnist.