She spends her holidays and mid-semester breaks at the Oko filling waste dump in Igando (Lagos), picking used bottles of soft drinks, water and canned containers. Aje doesn’t even care that she is being ridiculed by her mates who see what she does as dirty and menial for an undergraduate. She said that others scavenging with her were undergraduates from different institutions.
While some other undergraduates would be having fun, traversing from one joint or cinema to another enjoying their holidays, Aje is at a waste dump, scavenging, while hoping she would get a junk that she could sell.
Her fate is not any different from so many Nigerian youths and even older men and women who have turned to waste dump scavengers in order to earn a living.
The steady rise in the unemployment rate in the country has forced many people to dwell and work at waste dumps so as to make a living. While Lagos residents pay to dispose their wastes through the compactor trucks, they, indirectly, feed these scavengers whose daily meals come from what they make from the used bottles and junk they gather from waste dumps.
The waste dumps at Igando in Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos cannot be easily ignored; the smell that oozes from the site would make anybody puke, but certainly not the scavengers.
As early as 6:00am, the scavengers swarmed around the compactor trucks. They couldn’t wait for the trucks to offload as they were all set to pounce on the dirt, to pick as many bottles as possible. A few others looked out for electronics, used home utensils and clothes. Some of them went as far as wearing the used clothes to check if they would fit.
Routinely, the women ‘work’ (rummage through the dirt) from morning till 11:00am, after which the men would take over. They would come to the site, well dressed before changing into their ‘work’ clothes – rags, torn sandals and shoes to protect their feet. There is no closing time, until nightfall.
But no matter how dirty and demeaning this job is, the scavengers are not bothered.
Aje said, “Many of us are not happy being here but we have no choice. I come here to help my mum because she pays my school fees and those of my junior ones from the proceeds of this business. I cannot imagine how we would have survived if not for this place. That is why anytime we are on break, I come here to work. The only thing there is that we pay N100 daily before we start picking.”
She seems not to be alone in this situation, Martins is also a scavenger. He confessed, “I started picking used bottles here two years ago when there was no other place to go. I finished secondary school in 2011 but there was no money to further my education. Feeding became a problem too until someone introduced me to this business.
“I survive with the money I make from here which is about N30,000 in a month depending on the quantity of bottles I’m able to gather. What most of us do here is to pick used bottles of soft drinks, bottled water and the like, pack them in a sack, as you can see (pointing to the sacks assembled at a corner ) and deliver them to the Indians who buy them, crush and export. We pay the loaders, mostly the abokis, and settle the LAWMA officials here.”
Indeed, the scavenging ‘business’ has no age barrier. An old woman in her 60s, Mrs. Lasisi, said it was hunger that pushed her to the business when she couldn’t find any other thing to do.
“I am 63 but I don’t want to die of hunger, so I come here to work from morning till 11am before the boys take over. I am a widow and I have a young boy who lives with me; it is the money that I make from here that sustains us, and I pay his school fees. I pick the used bottles and sell them to those who buy them here for N20 per kilogramme. I don’t have another place to go and I must survive.”
Esther, a mother of one, is also a scavenger at the site who claimed she had to resign her job from a government agency in order to get into the scavenging business full time.
She said, “I was being paid N15,000 per month where I worked but I had to resign. My salary couldn’t sustain me and my nine-year-old boy. I paid N10,000 to register with the LAWMA people here before I could start, likewise many others here. But these days, people don’t register again, it’s free now.
“I know that people make money from here, so I had to come here, and thank God, we are better now. I don’t allow my boy to come here because of the stigma and fear of infection. What you make at the end of the day depends on how many bottles you are able to pick, that is why you see people falling over themselves to pick bottles.
“We now have more hands than before, which has made the picking more tedious because many people are contending for the same used bottles.”
Dele Oni, an ND holder, does the scavenging work as a part time work. “I work with a company at Ilupeju where they pay me N21,000 monthly and we work shifts; any day that I’m off duty, I work here to augment my pay. I also help people to load their bottles in vehicles and it is N1,000 flat per loading,” he said.
Opeyemi Adebuji is a ‘specialist’ in peeling off labels. She also claimed to be a student in one of the higher institutions in the country. She said, “I come here when I’m less busy in school. I use the money I make here to sponsor my education.
“The bottles are categorised as high grade and low grade, canned containers are high grade, so we separate them from others and we sell them at a higher price compared to others.”
The scavengers are not alone at this particular waste dump. There are food joints, hawkers of snacks, barbers and battery charging points. The untarred road that leads to the waste dump from the main road features a number of hawkers trading by the road side and items sold include sugarcane, sauced meat, pap and tea. Customers throng these hawkers to have a meal before starting the day’s job.
The operators of the food joints located on the hill (made of waste) usually have busy morning as they attend to customers. With varieties ranging from beans, rice, eba to pastries, scavengers take time out to patronise the food vendors during their ‘break’ period. Some of them would prefer to take condensed milk which they claimed, gave them instant energy.
Those who couldn’t get seats at the food vendor’s place wouldn’t mind sitting on the waste dump and even placing their food on the dirt as make-shift table.
But residents of the area are certainly not happy living in the midst of dirt.
Mr. Kayode Olaolu, a resident and landlord, condemned how Igando community had been turned the area a waste dump. “I would have relocated to another place if I had money. When they started using this site, government promised to fumigate our premises from time to time and to ensure that the waste were kept underground but they rarely fumigate this place and the waste are forming hills.”
When asked if the site hadn’t affected their health, he said, “God has been protecting us; we don’t fall sick here. The only problem we have is the smell. Sometimes, we are forced to close all our windows and endure the profuse heat and it is more terrible during the rainy season.”
However, medical experts have warned that exposure to all kinds of waste could be harmful and since most of the diseases that could be contacted from a dumpsite are communicable, it could be a threat to the society at large.
According to Dr. Rotimi Adesanya, a public health physician, “People who are exposed to waste and those who use bare hands to touch those things like metals and iron are prone to have infections such as HIV, contact dermatitis, skin disease, infective dermatitis, scabies, ringworm (bacterial infections) which can appear on their bodies, and systemic illness (such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever, malaria, etc). They are more serious because they are in the blood and most of these diseases are communicable which is not good for the society at large. Some of them might not be affected but they might be carriers of the diseases. Since these bacteria are microscopic, it is better to avoid contact with them.”
Also, Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, a professor of reproductive endocrinology, said, “Waste of any form is toxic; so there is need for care in handling them. This is because several problems could arise when exposed to them, such as, skin infection, respiratory infection, cancer, lung disease, cardiovascular problem, depression of the immune system and liver problem which are all dangerous to the health.
“Household and commercial waste consist of different things, such as food, needles, metals, bio hazards and human waste which are all harmful to human health when decomposed or decayed. Also, contact with disposed needle can cause contamination which may lead to viral hepatitis. These are reasons why waste site should be sited far away from the people and be made inhabitable.”
In his reaction, the Managing Director, Lagos State Waste Management Authority, Mr. Ola Oresanya, said, “Government is aware that people scavenge on the site, but they are not authorised. We decided to look the other way now because of the socio-economic effects of sending them off the site.”
He said LAWMA chose to leave the scavengers so that they could have something doing.
He admitted that the odour could be offensive but not directly injurious; he agreed with medical experts that contact with sharp objects on the site could lead to infection. “If they move on the site without the proper protective equipment such as boots, they can step on contaminated sharp objects which can cause tetanus infection,” he added.
Oresanya, however, said that, “Since we did not authorise them, we cannot enforce their compliance with the use of proper protective equipment. Our responsibility towards them is only advisory. But if we authorise them, we have to ensure that they comply, unless we move them out of the site.” He added that once the recycling plant planned by government starts operation, the authority would make sure that people are kept off the dump site as there would not be much to pick on the site.
When confronted with the allegation that some LAWMA officials collect bribe from scavengers, he said, “I don’t have such facts. If the scavengers have such facts, they can come to us and I will handle it.” He added that government is trying its best to fumigate the area from time to time and ensure that residents around the site are protected.