"If you look at economic growth statistics then you might think things are getting better, but this wealth is clearly not trickling down to the poor," says Aggrey Otieno, a human rights activist born in Korogocho, one of the slums bordering Dandora. "We have a lot of people investing in Nairobi. Malls, KFC's, Apple stores, factories; they are being built citywide, but without a solid waste management plan, without a focused desire to truly improve the living standards of all Kenyans, we will be dealing with these problems for a long time."
This isn't just a debate about trash -- it's a debate that captures how Nairobi and other fast-rising African cities treat their most disadvantaged citizens, says Otieno. And that is why a seemingly mundane municipal issue like the fate of a trash dump can turn into a political flashpoint.
"[Trash pickers] are squarely situated in the informal sector, which cities have consistently demonstrated an inability to govern," says Rosalind Fredericks, an assistant professor at New York University who specializes in the political economy of development. "Many African cities just cannot keep up with the population growth they are seeing and urban up-grading in sub-Saharan African cannot be done by simply erasing informal settlements; they have to be somehow absorbed into the economy and operations of the city."
Nairobi city council members recognize the problems, but in the same breath blame the megapolis's rapid population growth -- the city has grown from 827,775 in 1979 to 3.2 million today -- and the city's overwhelmed bureaucracy for their slowness to act on Dandora.
"Population growth has superseded our facilities, and it is because of the inadequate capacity of the city council that we are here," says Mutabari Inanga, an environmental and public health officer in Nairobi's city council. "The infrastructure of waste management in Nairobi is not well structured at all. There has also been very poor cooperation between city council and residents, and as a result [Dandora] has become an environmental and health crisis for which we have had no one to take responsibility."
Inanga says the city is prepared to decommission and relocate the site, but that it is waiting for the final go-ahead from the new dumpsite's projected neighbor: the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Airport officials fear the new site will attract birds that will interfere with air traffic. So the plan remains on hold.
The endlessly pending relocation has led a variety of voices, from across Nairobi's fractured class system, to weigh in.
On one side are Nairobi's political reformers and slum advocates. Health studies in-hand, frustrated human rights organizations and Dandora community leaders claim that the decommission process is long overdue. A 2007 study by the U.N. Environmental Program is among the most comprehensive analyses of Dandora's impact on the surrounding communities. The report revealed that Dandora soil samples contained fatally high levels of lead, and found that 154 of the 328 children observed living near the dumpsite suffered from respiratory problems and had concentrations of lead in their blood that exceeded internationally accepted levels.
A well-known reformer and the country's newest chief justice, Willy Munyoki Mutunga, said he believes Nairobi's urban reformers should take a stand on the removal of Dandora in the country's coming county elections.
"It is time the pro-poor leadership seize political power in Nairobi," says Mutunga. "The dump site reflects Kenya's unacceptable status quo. That dump site is a violation of the constitution and I hope my compatriots in Korogocho will task the Legal Advice Centre to move to ... remove this site of death, poverty, ill health and the current unacceptable distribution of national resources."
But on the other side, the trash pickers worry that their needs and livelihoods aren't being fully considered. They are fully aware that Dandora is not good for their health, but a slow death is better than no life at all.