Words from Kenya

Living on Rubbish in a Bright Red Dress

Girl at the dump

I met the girl in a bright red dress at the municipal rubbish dump one day, her eyes were smarting from the smoke and dust but she was excited to see me, or rather, to see what I had brought.

There are no rubbish collections here in northern Kenya. You have to manage all your own rubbish yourself. It is a very good exercise in understanding just how much waste we produce on a daily basis.

Here, as yet, there is not very much in the way of packaged foods. A few tinned items, some things in plastic pots, but the bulk of our food is unpackaged. Apart from the ubiquitous thin black plastic bags that they like to put everything in that is. Even eggs, which is normally a worrying part of the shopping trip. As development marches towards us this will change and our waste will increase exponentially. Already it is hard to get soda in returnable glass bottles any more. Trees are festooned with plastic bags and the ground around them littered with plastic bottles.

To dispose of our rubbish we burn or compost everything that we can and, for a number of years, we dug pits to bury the other stuff. Eventually though you get to a point where there isn’t a patch of the garden that doesn’t contain either a pets grave (no vet to take care of that for you) or a refuse pit. At that point we started taking our rubbish to a municipal rubbish dump. Depending on where you live this can be a major trek, one that you will save up many months worth of rubbish to make.

People who live on rubbish

People who live on rubbish

When you get to the dump you don’t have to worry about unloading. There are people there whose livelihood is our rubbish, they are more than happy to help you. Day after day they brave the overwhelming smell, the dirt, the danger and the dust and smoke (from seemingly permanent small fires) to root out anything of value at the dump. By value I mean a plastic bottle or tub that has a lid, any metal, glass, anything in short that could still serve some kind of purpose, however basic. Of course, if they are lucky, they might get something really good. A broken radio (someone will be able to fix it), old clothing, cardboard boxes…. one man’s rubbish is definitely another man’s treasure. The ability to mend, re-use and re-purpose here is amazing.

Perhaps the developed world should borrow this idea. Stop all rubbish collections and make people take care of their own rubbish disposal. It certainly makes me shun all but the best quality plastic bags, knowing that with the cheap ones all I will be able to do with them is make a nasty smell when they burn.

The girl in the red dress went off happily enough with several good quality plastic bottles and a cardboard box. Her father and brothers took the larger items, some valuable bits of metal and a whole sack of tin cans. They seemed quite pleased with what they got. Of course I would be happier if the girl was in school and her family were running a more developed and profitable recycling company. One day perhaps.

As much rubbish inside as out

As much rubbish inside as out


  1. where is this photo taken? and whats the fenced area?

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