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Dakar's Mbeubeuss landfill: More than meets the eye

January 13, 2011

Mbeubeuss would be the perfect set for a science fiction movie — no special effects required. Located on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, the famous dump emits an other-worldly aura.

So well-known is Mbeubeuss, so often has it been filmed, photographed and scrutinized, it could easily be compared to a movie star.

A source of curiosity and the subject of much research and experimentation, the huge landfill that receives more than 1 300 tonnes of garbage per day (about 475 000 tonnes every year) from the Senegalese capital has been studied from almost every possible angle.

What’s left to say about Mbeubeuss, the mountain of garbage where hundreds of recyclers — possibly 1 000, some 400 of whom live within the site itself, according to some researchers — bustle about, all of whom make a living from the dump?

Surprisingly, despite all the attention, this site and its mounds of garbage do in fact still conceal some secrets.

Seeking information from the wary

Oumar Cissé, Executive Director of the African Institute for Urban Management [Institut Africain de Gestion urbaine (IAGU)] in Dakar, who is conducting a multi-sectoral research project there, had forewarned: Tact and interpersonal skills are needed to extract  the right information from Mbeubeuss.

IAGU has been visiting Mbeubeuss since 2000 to carry out research, which was expanded in 2006 through funding from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The goal: to study the landfill's impact on the urban environment in Malika and to improve the living conditions of the people living alongside the landfill.

Despite this support, Mbeubeuss does not welcome strangers. Patience and a local intermediary are needed to establish dialogue with the landfill “community,” to pierce the site.

It is this secretiveness that creates fear and anxiety among those who venture to seek the truth beneath the piles of scrap metal and the maze of dark, tunnel-like stalls.

Life amid the rubbish

Here, people speak only in short, well-rehearsed sentences that are as well chosen as the piles of garbage. Some of the odours at Mbeubeuss are unbearable; however, it is the silence that is most unsettling

The community of recyclers is made up of men, women, even children. At 57, Pape Ndiaye, is at an age when most people start thinking of retiring. But here, retirement rarely crosses people’s minds.

Not far from his makeshift shelter made of scraps and jetsam, he wipes his brow and admits that since the age of 16, he has done nothing but this. Known nothing but this. Lived off of this.

"I was in primary school," he says, explaining how in following his grandmother, a fish vendor, to the beach and gradually straying from her, he had begun to collect objects from garbage piles in the fishing neighbourhood of Yarakh, another suburb of Dakar.

"At first, it was just for fun." It would later become his profession. For life. But what kind of life?

In Mbeubeuss, life is a jumble of contradictions, where ecological challenges, social constraints, sanitary risks, and pressure to survive overlap. People seem to get used to it, and even find there a sort of pride.

"I have three wives and 11 children," boasts Pape Ndiaye, who supports them with his earnings from the landfill.

He explains that he was also able to build his two “houses,” one for himself and one for his mother, in the neighbourhood of Malika, the little commune of 16 400 people in which the landfill is located.

Several neighbourhoods in this little commune also benefit from the IDRC project, including some 250 market gardeners, 66 poultry farms, 90 pig farms, and the recyclers.

Community building in the unlikeliest of places

In 1990, Pape Ndiaye created a recyclers’ association with Assane Sène and Moustapha Diouf to improve the image of their "trade" and of Mbeubeuss after a police bust relayed by public television in Senegal had qualified the landfill as a "hideout for crooks and hooligans."

In response, the "Association Bokk Diom des Récupérateurs et Recycleurs de Mbeubeuss," led by Pape Ndiaye, was formed.

The association can be contacted through Pape Mar Diallo, "social coordinator" for the IDRC project, who welcomes and guides visitors through the labyrinth of the landfill, which swarms with people and life: from shopkeepers to owners of food stalls, along with many onlookers whose occupations are unknown.

For all these people, Mbeubeuss is essential.

Here a woman sells fresh water. There, another sells peanuts, explaining that in Mbeubeuss, she does not pay taxes. This allows her to live. But what kind of life is it?

The answer to that simple question shatters the inhabitants’ patine of pride, a pride that does not hold very strong when confronted with issues such as posterity, or the alleged happiness of dealing with refuse: none of those who wear the mask of happiness and claim to be doing something useful would want their child doing this type of work.

The landfill does provide significant earnings: between 250 000 and 300 000 CFA francs (CA$605-725) for those who manage their place like Pape, and have networks of suppliers and customers.

However, these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, according to researchers who believe that they apply only to the most fortunate, and are sometimes gross earnings.

Nevertheless, in a country where the minimum salary is low (35 000 CFAF – CA$85) and where a teacher’s salary starts at approximately 100 000 CFAF (CA$240), 250 000 CFAF is a rewarding amount.

But behind the satisfaction and courage of these men and women, hidden beneath the mountains of garbage that they live off of, is an unhappiness that none of them would want for their offspring.

And so, ethical issues are added to the existential ones: should human beings, supervised or not, be permitted to work there and in those conditions?

From the point of view of IDRC project managers, the real questions should be: What are the alternatives for these destitute people? Remove the children from the landfill and bring them where?

"The problem is very complex and requires an innovative approach. Both defining the problem and seeking solutions depend on the participation of those most closely affected, those who live alongside the landfill and live off of the landfill," said François Gasengayire, a senior program officer with IDRC’s Environment and Natural Resource Management program. His sentiment is shared by his colleague, Jean D’Aragon.

They are convinced that it is necessary to integrate poor populations from urban settings into the planning and development of local and national public policies.

For example, the health centre located at the entrance of the landfill was established through the recyclers’ association. Recyclers and people from surrounding areas go there for consultation.

Of the 4 410 patients seen by the centre in 2006, 441 had dermatosis and 762 had respiratory illnesses. Researchers pointed out that surprisingly, there were no cases of cholera, which is often known as the "dirty-hands disease."

In fact, beyond the statistics and diseases, health at Mbeubeuss, just like ecology and revenue-generating activities, is an integral part of the work taken on by IDRC.

The Mbeubeuss landfill is part of IDRC's Focus Cities Research Initiative. Through its Urban Poverty and Environment program, IDRC is supporting collaboration between local government authorities, research institutions, and community organizations on innovative projects that link poverty alleviation, environmental management, and natural resource use for food, water, and income security in eight cities around the world.