King of the Fill :: rubbish as a child’s livelihood

These boys have no other way of life. They sleep on the main streets under shop verandas at night, and by day they collect trash, make something useful from it, and resell it to get money for food or whatever other things a homeless teenage boy spends his money on.

My friend told me that not all of these boys want to be rehabilitated. Some programs have tried….while some kids are successful with rehabilitation, others turn right back around to go back to the life and freedom that they are familiar with.

On Sunday I decided to walk through Lira town to get to know the area a bit more. There is this cafe that I frequent to get samosas and fresh bread.  It is on the 4th story of what I think is the tallest building in Lira.

From the back balcony, I spotted a large body of water (with a somewhat patterned boundary), and what looked to me like a garbage dump. I was interested in walking by there to get a look at the dump in town.

I could write an entire essay on the habits with trash in Uganda. To give you the picture, waking up in the morning to the smell of burning trash is not uncommon.  I shouldn’t have to list the many reasons why burning trash (not sorted!) is not a good idea!

I spent about half an hour at the dump. The first few minutes I was observing these cows and fish that are hanging around and eating near the wastewater system. The fish were so appalling. They were literally swimming/ “climbing” over each other in order to eat the feces that were pouring out of one pipe. I pray that no one fishes there. I did note that the gate was ajar with no lock on it…which is probably how the farmer let his cows in to graze.

There were several cows rummaging through the trash piles eating whatever food they could find. Then I noticed pigs pulling at what looked to be chicken skin.   But my attention was last caught by this little girl, probably no more than 6 years old, who was rummaging through the trash,picking up small boxes that were still in fairly good condition.

I tried to talk to her, but she ignored me and eventually walked away after her arms were full of boxes. I don’t think that she was scared of me though. It is highly likely that she didn’t speak English.

I am not sure what Lira has in place to work with street kids, but I do know that there are a couple of NGOs in Kampala that deal with that.  In fact, I volunteered with one of them in 2007. It is a group home that took in street kids. I volunteered with a project they were doing called “Listen to my Pictures.”

After getting home from the dump on Sunday, I was on a conference call with several collaborators regarding a non-profit that we are forming. We are still in the development stages of determining our focuses – but one of the team members, Chris, is in Malawi right now. He is working on evaluating a program that is finding street kids at the dump, and paying their school fees if they want to return to school. Some kids choose this direction, while other kids do not. Read Chris’ blog post here, titled “Rescuing Young People from Scavenging”. Maybe one of the local NGOs in Lira could do someting similar? If you know of an NGO in Lira, Uganda already doing this, please comment on this post!

I already had in mind that I would go back to the dump site at night fall, bringing along a local guy friend.

This friend grew up around Lira and speaks the local language. After I decided this, I was firmly warned that there are street kids that hang out there and that it was not safe for me to go alone.  So, my friend and I returned Wednesday during the late sunset. We found many teenage boys hanging out there, burning scrap rubber and tires, and collecting barrels.  They also had these water bottles that were filled with an orange “gum”. Basically a glue that is bought in the market. They may use the glue in ways to help with what they are building, but they mainly use it to get high. I did get a whiff of something at one point, that was very strong. I had a migraine headache that started a couple of hours later and didn’t go away for over 24 hours.  I think it was either from this “gum” or from the smoke of burning trash.

At first the boys seemed upset that I was there with a camera. I didn’t take any photos without asking them permission through my friend. We explained to them that I wanted photos of the trash burning and the different things they were doing there.  Some of them wanted pictures taken right away, and they would then swarm around me to see the photo (of course). It was a struggle to get my distance from them. I was using a fixed lens and didn’t bring any spares with me because I wanted to pack lite. So, between waves of them crowding around me, I was able to get a few different angles of the activity.  So, you may see a few posed shots…but this is just the nature of the “landscape” reacting with the photographer, if I can say it that way.  I really didn’t have a choice but to entertain them a bit.  My preference would be to spend enough time with these kids, that over time they would not notice the camera. But in a scenerio as brief as my time there, with my skin color and being a Muno (“white foreigner”) who didn’t speak the language,  this was not possible. At least it was a good experience in the end – all boys cooperating. My friend even met one boy who was about 10 or 15 years younger than him, that he had known when the boy was small. They were happy to see each other. My friend expressed later that he hoped the boy had not turned into a bad kid. There are a lot of evil things that some of those street kids do….

I have another friend who works for a German NGO called DED. He is working with the town council on trying to get a compost and better waste management system set up. He said that Lira has an actual landfill away from town, and that they are supposed to take the trash there. The budget is 8 million shillings, which should be enough money to buy trucks to haul off all the trash to that landfill. He told me that at one point earlier this year, this dump site (the one in the middle of town that you see in these photos) was actually cleared out – and the town was proud of having done that. The problem though is that they only cleaned it out once. And people are in the habit of continuing to bring their trash there. There is no accountability for change. There is no strucutre or framework. No alternative being offered. As it is, even the trash dumpsters that exist (like the one you see in the middle of town in the photo gallery below), are overflowing by the end of the week when they are finally emptied. Something really does need to change.  This DED organization is having an educational radio shows that discuss what compost is and why it is good for agriculture and the environment. The radio show talks about trash collection too. They are having a paper test that people can pick up from the grocery stores  and drop off at the radio station. There is a drawing from all the 100% correct answers, and the winner gets a TV. Apparently a lot of people are filling out the forms. Someone even came up to the truck when I was in it with him, and handed in a sheet. They are also doing another program through the cell phone. People can register to get questions sent to them, and then they reply with the answer. Then another reply is sent back with the correct answer and a little factoid. There is an ongoing system for these factoids through cell phone. People actually do participate.

I know that this dump site in Lira is little, and that there are many similar problems around the world – not just in Africa.

If these kids are so connected to these trash sites that they do not want to pull away (As Chris wrote in his blog post, some of the sponsored kids leave school and return to scavenging), I wonder if there is some way that the gov’t could employ them to keep working at these places…. but providing them some form of payment/housing/food. Then maybe these very street kids could be the answer to improving the town’s waste management system.  I’m not the expert though.

Your comments are invited.

4 Responses to “King of the Fill :: rubbish as a child’s livelihood”

  1. TJ says:

    This is heart breaking to see and hear about children having to collect garbage to survive. I like the idea of having the government putting them to work to possibly sort the garbage into maybe compost and true garbage. House them, feed them and pay them and maybe even require them to attend school for half a day and work half a day?

    Excellent blog, even better photos…

  2. Chris Chibwana says:

    Thanks for an enlightening post, Lisa. I couldn’t help but notice through your post the huge similarities between Lira and Lilongwe. It is very unfortunate that the kids are exposed to such unhygienic and harmful environments at such a tender age. It’s a pity the waste management systems in most of Africa are non-existent, despite having institutions whose primary mandate is to address the very same problem. I know of a few organizations here that are working to rehabilitate street kids (those kids that roam the streets asking for alms from motorists and everyone, and sleep in drainage systems at night) – Unicef was trying to help out, as was Plan International. I don’t know how effective their programs have been because I still see a lot of kids when I walk through town. Not to mention the huge numbers of kids who scavenge at that particular dumpsite I mentioned in the post. It would be interesting to hear what other interventions are taking place there in Lira to help reverse the situation. The work by DED sounds pretty cool.

    That’s a very interesting suggestion you made at the end, and one that I think is truly innovative. If they can’t keep the kids away from the dumpsite, they might as well have them do something positive and get paid for it. But again there are child rights activists (and the International Labor Organization) that would cry foul over such a plan (even when they have no plans to solve the problem differently).

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Thanks TJ and Chris for your comments!
    Chris – good point about the International Labor Organization crying foul over paying kids to stay at the dump. I don’t know what I was thinking…. I wish this lifestyle upon no person!

    I have shared some ideas with coworkers, and have learned about one organization in the area that does supposedly work with street kids (Child Restoration Organization). I’m seeing what I can do to meet with someone there in the next week to talk about a photography project I’d like to do with the street kids. It would involve teaching them photography, giving them disposable cameras, and having them tell a story (to be audio recorded) that they want to share with the world. I’d want some sort of stipend or scholarship (for the children) to be attached to participation, if possible…. more conversations and possibly a follow up blog to come.

  4. […] may recall from my, “King of the Fill” post, that I was wondering what – if any – organizations or programs Lira had that work with […]

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