Discarded women in Nakuru – the largest urban settlement in Kenya’s beautiful Rift Valley
As Kenya elects a new government, at least one group of the governed are not expecting much change; the young women - single mothers through violence or accident – who scavenge on noxious municipal rubbish dumps. The discarded waste they glean, a metaphor for their own lives and futures. Not just their lives, but those of their infant children, discarded on rubbish dumps, literally and metaphorically on the edges of society. Rejected by their families, and disregarded by a political system, unable and maybe unwilling, to make a difference.
Publisert i Aktuelt om statsvitenskap og internasjonale relasjoner av Scott Jones Mandag 15. august, 2022 - 13:05 | sist oppdatert Torsdag 18. august, 2022 - 09:27
I spent several days around one dump in Nakuru, walking with the people to learn of what they face, covered in flies, filth and stink, digging out what is humiliatingly called “a living.”
It is unspeakably heart-breaking - shameful for Kenya - to see teenage girls and women with babies and young children scavenging for anything to feed themselves or sell; digging in the worst kind of waste, alongside feral dogs, pigs and toxic smoke fumes, on a huge, stinking rubbish heap.
While there, a refuse truck arrived, spilling food scraps, rotten fruit, private hospital waste, and all manner of residential waste onto the dumpsite. The women rushed over. A half-eaten pizza quickly stashed away for a child. Fruit - inspected by hands that moments ago sifted through human waste and syringes – had the bad bits spat out. The rest was eaten, or fed into the mouths of the babies on their backs.
An infant’s cardigan covered in poo – a great find - held aloft with a smile – “we will wash it and sell it.” Diapers not fully “used,” bagged up to be washed and used again. Dogs and pigs shushed away until the girls had got the best of the pickings, inured to the heat-soaked stench, the dangers of rummaging through illegally dumped hospital waste that should have been incinerated, and inured to the millions of flies that settle on faces, hands, babies’ mouths and eyes, and on the unwashed food that enters people’s mouths.
Ironically, the dump’s voluntary community leaders have heard of no cases of people dying. Pigs and dogs fall sick. Dead birds? Yes. But the immune systems of the people, like their hope, have been tested beyond measure.
And then there’s the ongoing sexual violence and intimidation. You want to pee at night? Wake your neighbour. Go in twos and threes. Predatory males have raped in groups. “You want food, girl? You know what you must do.” It is frightening and dangerous beyond belief.
I held a meeting with 52 of these young women in a building next to the dump, organised by three amazing women - community leaders on and around the dump site – themselves struggling. Seven of the girls stood up to tell their story. Brave. They had never stood up in public to speak before. Five couldn’t complete their harrowing tale because they broke down. We three visitors were all in tears. The other girls looked on stony faced, in traumatised silence, identifying with their visibly broken sisters.
This is Nakuru – almost 600,000 people - the largest urban centre in Kenya’s rift valley. A human tragedy virtually un-noticed and unremarked upon, accepted as normal by politicians in their pre-election rallies. Why so?
The voiceless poor, their infant children condemned like their mothers to a life with no prospects, thrown out by parents, ignored by society, unable to vote (most have no papers) and therefore ignored by politicians too. Deeply traumatised by sexual violence or dreadful family situations, they have almost no support – with anything! Mental health services are shockingly poor; anchored in quasi-religious rituals, antiquated and drugs-biased medical models, or “pull yourself together” stoicism, bordering on denial.
What to do?
Well, some things can be done and are being done. But it is desperately little and it all relies on local volunteers – women mostly – who spend their own money and time doing what they can. There are links to the some concerned individuals overseas and small donations help. But plans for training, for a creche, for health care, for mental health services – all are beyond reach as day-to-day survival needs take the priority, and officialdom looks away.
Some of this is structural and needs working on from a wider development perspective. Banning scavenging or having kerbside recycling removes the chance for these people to earn money and deprives them of a social network. For the local volunteers the questions are more immediate - “OK – what can we do right here, right now, given the training and resources at our disposal?”
Not addressing the situation at all is unthinkable. Post-election, political action and engagement with these extremely vulnerable people is desperately needed - to listen, to understand, to develop options with their participation, to broker the difficult decisions, and to develop policies and actions that can actually be implemented.
What is the future for these women and their children? The elections were an irrelevance for them. Their future, their babies’ futures, will come from their own efforts and those of the remarkable volunteers, all too few, who work on their behalf. Unless things change.
Text and photos: Scott Jones, Associate Professor
International Development / Peace and Conflict Studies
Oslo New University College