NAIROBI, Kenya – Leaving the bustling arrivals gate, a dump truck joins a fleet of airport taxis full of deep-pocketed safari goers, business travelers, and missionaries departing from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the largest hub in east and central Africa and a proud symbol of Nairobi's growing economy and global presence.
Carrying food waste from the day's flights, the truck eventually turns toward the city slums, while the cabs continue to the capital's affluent business district. Their routes expose two very different, yet interwoven, narratives to the rise of east Africa's most populous city.
At roughly the same time every day, the unfinished salads, sandwiches, bread, yogurt cups, and refuse from Nairobi's incoming flights are transported to the Dandora Municipal Dumpsite -- the capital city's only dumping location.
Far from the expressways and skyscrapers of downtown, the truck meets a landscape of smoke-filled horizons and metallic, waste-born mountains. Smoke from burning piles of trash scratches the inside of the throat and obscures the bent backs of human and animal scavengers scattered across the smoldering lot. When the sun is overhead, the smell of four decades of waste is overwhelming.
As the truck arrives, children -- who've skipped out of school for the occasion -- meet it on a rutted dirt road just outside the dumpsite's entrance. The older ones clamber up the truck's sides as it waits to enter the dump, pulling directly from the pile -- a half-eaten brownie, an un-opened, liquefied yogurt cup -- while the youngest sort through waste tossed on the ground.
Once entering Dandora, the scraps hardly make it out of the truck bed before dozens of men fight over the haul. Baked by the heat of the Kenyan sun and reeking of spoiled milk, the congealed food waste is thrown into mouths or placed in strewn Kenya Airways bags for later.
Avoiding the frenzy, women wait for both the kids and the competitive pack of men to disperse before picking through what remains.
One woman pockets a handful of wrapped candies.
"School work rewards," said Rahab Ruguru, 42, a mother of six. "Working here is how I am able to feed my children. Of course it is not a usual job. Dodging pigs, used condoms, eating what I find; no, it's not good for me. But it is a job and I have to persevere."
Ruguru and the other rummagers sort and place into large sacks the materials that cannot be eaten, but can be sold for recycling -- metals, rubber, milk bags, plastics, meat bones, and electronics tend to be among the most sought after.
This informal chain of middlemen and women -- an estimated 6,000 people -- has long done the dirty work for recycling companies. Hundreds of self-employed pickers scavenge the sprawling 30-acre dumpsite from 5 a.m. to sundown. Community buyers purchase their day's work at nearby weigh stations, eventually selling a larger aggregate stock to informal truck drivers who are ultimately paid upon delivery by the recycling companies. None of the workers make much more than $2.50 per day.
This largely invisible survival ritual -- essential to the upkeep of the dumpsite, but not officially condoned by the city -- has continued since the first trash started arriving at Dandora around 37 years ago -- 22 years longer than international environmental law allows and 11 years after the site was declared full by the Nairobi city council. Over the next five years, the city hopes to finally decommission the crude dumping site, raising a fraught debate between the haves and have-nots of this east African boomtown.
Dandora is a symbol of a larger problem: Even as Kenya touts continued economic growth and cultural influence -- including proudly hosting the Nairobi Securities Exchange, the financial hub of east and central Africa, and regional headquarters for the likes of General Electric, Google, Coca-Cola, the United Nations Environmental Program, and U.N.-Habitat -- its poorest citizens have been left behind by their country's rise.
A new constitution, accelerated advances in information and communications technology, East African Community integration, and the discovery of oil have many optimistic that Kenya will continue to be the regional powerhouse economy. Nearly two thirds of Nairobi's population, though, will continue to live in the city's slums.
International organizations have long been working to bring attention to these neglected voices -- including Amnesty International's "Kenya: The Unseen Majority: Nairobi's Two Million Slum-Dwellers" report and the World Bank Institute's "Putting Nairobi's Slums on the Map" project -- yet this attention has often focused primarily on Kibera, the city's largest slum. On the opposite side of the city, however, reside more than 1 million people living in informal settlements around Dandora.