Dispatch

Tear Gas at the Dairy Queen

U.S. service members stationed in Bahrain are struggling to adjust to the new normal as the  country enters the second year of its uprising.

JUFFAIR, Bahrain – The U.S. naval base in Bahrain looks like any of the other fenced-in little Americas that denote an overseas military community.

Inside a mall complex known as the "Freedom Souq," a food court features Taco Bell and an A&W American Grill. The Navy Exchange -- basically a Target for overseas military communities -- sells American flat-screen TVs, Nike sneakers, Dawn dish soap, pleated Dockers and Right Guard deodorant. Like every other base, vendors hawk the kind of local tchotchkes found in any airport, everything from hookah pipes to carved wooden camels, belly dancing costumes, and genie lamps.

But despite all the reassuring touches of Americana, the Arab Spring often erupts just down the road. The confrontation between Bahrain's Sunni ruling family and the predominantly Shiite protest movement seems, if anything, to be getting worse. The decision by Formula One authorities to go forward with the popular Grand Prix race on the island this weekend has sparked a renewed bout of protests against the decision -- and despite the Formula One chief's remarks that Bahrain is "quiet and peaceful," policemen were recently injured by homemade explosives thrown at them by protesters. Meanwhile, Bahraini security forces detained two Human Rights Watch officials on April 15 for observing a protest against the Grand Prix decision.

Some newly arrived sailors, civilians, and family members are nervous about being stationed in a far-flung locale like Bahrain, nestled in a region not known for its hospitality toward Americans. But when members of this 6,200-strong community pass the double layer of security at the gates of Naval Support Activity Bahrain and head out into "the economy," military-speak for a host nation, the comforts of home are not far away.

Hook your first left, past the taxi stand, and you are strolling along American Alley, a strip in the upscale Juffair neighborhood, a 10-minute drive east of Manama, that is replete with a Macaroni Grill, Starbucks, and Burger King.

"They get here and are a little frightened," one Navy wife told me. "Then they look and see there's a Dairy Queen. It does help."

But these days, community members don't go past the Mega Mart grocery store at the end of American Alley after 8 p.m. They are officially banned from doing so by Navy leadership.

Clashes are a regular part of the evenings, as Shia youth engage the Bahraini police a few blocks away. And while Americans stationed here might not witness the violence firsthand, a night's battle is often felt. It's not for nothing that the country has come to be called "The Kingdom of Tear Gas": Sailors working late on base, a family stopping at TCBY for dessert, or single guys heading to JJ's Irish Bar or Club Buffalo are subject to the indiscriminate sting of the Bahraini police's weapon of choice for crowd dispersal, delivered via big-barreled guns that pop canisters into the night sky, blazing orange before they hit the ground and engulf everything, spreading with the wind.

As the tiny island enters year two of its uprising, this is the new normal for Americans stationed in Bahrain: a slightly askew existence, with plenty of Western comforts, occasionally punctured by the tumult simmering around them.

The base here, headquarters of the Navy's 5th Fleet, is the cornerstone of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship -- a critical facility that spearheads the Navy's power projection across the Persian Gulf as it attempts to curb the ambitions of Iran, whose port city of Bushehr -- home to the country's first nuclear power plant -- sits roughly 190 miles away. The physical manifestation of America's awkward courtship with the kingdom's rulers, military life here generally means a series of inconveniences: heading inside if the tear gas wafts into your neighborhood, and sticking towels under the door to prevent it from seeping into homes. The Internet slows down when the largest clashes are underway. Drives are planned to avoid demonstrations, and trips to the mall sometimes mean passing burning tire piles.

Base and State Department officials do what they can, sending emails and text messages warning Americans about the latest protests to avoid. A typical message sent out last month by the Navy warns to avoid the Sharakkaan area from 2:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. due to a funeral procession.

"Spontaneous demonstrations may occur any time," a message from the base's force protection officer reads. "Use caution as you drive and plan additional time to arrive at your destination. Always keep current With (sic) media coverage of local events and be aware of your surroundings. If you encounter a large public gather or demonstration, stay calm and depart the vicinity."

It also urges continued caution about traveling to the area west of American Alley and around the site of the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout. Politely show identification to officials, but never hand over an ID to someone not in uniform. If you come across any other demonstrations, "see something, say something!"

Primarily concerned with the latest tit-for-tat with Iran, Navy leadership conscientiously avoids saying anything controversial about the political unrest on the island. But the quality of the relationship between Bahrain and the Navy is something repeatedly parroted by the base's public affairs officers.

"We have a longstanding relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain and they are an important partner in the region," base spokeswoman Jennifer Stride wrote in an email when I requested an interview with the base commander. (Perhaps she was cutting and pasting from a template: "It is important to note that we have a long-standing relationship with Bahrain," 5th Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Rebecca Rebarich wrote in an email about a separate story earlier this year. "They are an important partner in the region.")

The U.S. Embassy in Manama did not respond to numerous requests for an interview. Capt. Colin S. Walsh, the base's commanding officer, was unavailable for an interview due to "a scheduled regional exercise and extensive engagements with distinguished visitors," Stride said in an email.

Americans affiliated with the Navy in Bahrain are also prohibited from photographing or taking part in demonstrations, according to the base security emails and community members.

The knowledge of the average American military community member living in Bahrain about the political upheaval around them varies. Many are more than content to live in the bubble of normalcy -- or something close to it -- that the Navy provides them.

"The average housewife out and seeing things going on, if they don't know the politics ... it's a bunch of thugs running around fighting the police," the Navy wife, who asked not to be identified because the command warns community members not to speak with the media, said. "When they're affected, they complain about it. Not to sound cold, but they're concerned with their family, their home, their school."

After arriving in Bahrain, her family settled in an expat compound near the Pearl Roundabout in a predominantly Shia neighborhood, where they bore witness to last year's chaos. She recalls walking to the roundabout after the protests began on Feb. 14, 2011, and seeing a peacefully assembled sea of people. Soon after, the government crackdown started, the neighbors chanted from the rooftops all night long, and the gas seeped into their home for months on end, leaving them with burning faces.

One day during last year's upheaval, her husband and a neighbor went for a walk to check out the roundabout. Suddenly, gunfire rang out. She tried to call her husband's cell phone, but there was no service. Soon he came sprinting back to the compound, a wave of panicked protesters not far behind.

The family requested to be moved, but the command denied the request, saying they were not in danger because the protests were not directed at Americans.

U.S. officials would eventually warm up to the risks American personnel faced in Bahrain. At the height of last year's unrest in March, right after Saudi-led military forces rolled onto the island to help the government restore order, the Defense Department enacted a voluntary evacuation plan for family members and non-essential civilian personnel.

The American Bahrain School, a Defense Department-run school for military kids, the scions of wealthy Bahrainis, and other international students, shut down at the same time, mainly due to transportation problems and what a State Department travel warning characterized as "sectarian groups patrolling areas throughout Bahrain and establishing unofficial vehicle checkpoints."

"We didn't want a whole bunch of high-schoolers getting stuck somewhere," a Navy spokesman told me at the time.

Like other pillars of the 60-year old American military presence here, the school has close ties with the ruling Al Khalifa family. The crown prince is a graduate, and the school's official Web page praises "the judicious leadership" of King Hamad Bin Isa al Khalifa, "his wise government," and his "steering of the country towards prosperity, glory and success."

Principal Douglas McEnery played down the uprising's impact on the school, which is now open as normal.

"The only times it has impacted our operations at all was after hours," McEnery said. "The winds were blowing in an unfortunate direction to bring tear gas into our campus. We brought in all the students. That has only happened three times."

It's anyone's guess how Bahrain's uprising will end. Anti-government protesters in the kingdom say there is no way they can turn back now -- the rift between the two sides has only been widened by the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent activist whose hunger strike recently entered its second month. The Khalifa family, rulers of the island since the 18th century, views any substantive democratic reform as an existential threat. The return of peace to this island seems, at this point, to be little more than a distant dream.

In the meantime, U.S. troops and their families will continue to report for duty in Bahrain, adjusting themselves to the new normal as best they can.

"I just tell them not to be frightened," the Navy wife said of the advice she gives to recent arrivals. "Either side is not out to get you in your car with your children. But you don't want to get stuck in the middle of them."

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

The Waste Land

For Nairobi's poorest, the enormous trash dump that's slowly killing them is also the only thing keeping them alive.

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.

"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.

Julius Macharia was born in one of Dandora's bordering slums. He grew-up eating leftovers from Nairobi's airline passengers and is now one of the dump's gatekeepers.

The dumpsite is controlled by an unofficial cartel of local residents who claim to provide security to the pickers; though they mostly use intimidation to control who is permitted to pick where, often to the detriment of the women. They charge city dump trucks -- and even journalists -- a small fee every time they enter.

Macharia, who prefers the name Tiger, is one of the cartel leaders. He proudly displays a pool table he moved to the center of the dumpsite and the shelter he constructed for it using scattered scraps. Trash pickers pay 10 KSH (about $.12) a game to use the table during breaks and rainy weather.

While Nairobi's business district dithers and shirks responsibility for the fate of Dandora, Tiger worries about what will happen to those who depend on it should the government ever really take an interest in their affairs.

"If they come, what will happen to us? We are like these birds and pigs to this city," he says, gesturing toward the animals that scavenge for food side-by-side with the pickers. "They don't recognize us as people. They don't care what happens to us, and if they relocate this place then we will have nothing."

City officials have long-term plans to turn the dumpsite into a park, but the pickers hardly see how they will achieve such a goal, nor frankly what use they would have for a park.

Inanga says the city has also "earmarked money to sustain the livelihood" of the pickers who lose their jobs. "I can't pin-point what exactly, but something will be done," says Inanga. "We envision some of them fitting in at recycling points [at the new dumpsite] ... others will be given something to help sustain their livelihoods."

Ruguru rolls her eyes at the prospect. Weighted with candies for her children in a pocket, a collection of milk bags and bones in two different sacks on her back, and a blue plastic bag in-hand, full of cabbage she found earlier in the day and plans to cook for dinner, she walks home as the sun starts to set.

A mother of six children between the ages of four and 17, she moved to a small home directly bordering Dandora after the country's 2007 post-election violence forced her family from their Eldoret farm near the western border of Kenya.

"Look at my leg," says Ruguru, pausing to reveal a large wound she received at the site two years ago. "I know working here is bad, but I am here because of hunger."

She lost her newborn son to tetanus last November. Ruguru's doctor said he contracted it from her, likely from the wound on her leg. She returned to work at the dumpsite only days after he was buried.

Asthma makes life even harder for Ruguru. Toxic smoke from small fires of burning waste spreads to every corner of Dandora and across the surrounding communities.

As a mother, she worries daily about the toll that the site will take on her children's' health and spirit. But what bothers her most is the foul language her children pick up as a result of working alongside adults.

Save her four-year-old, the entire Ruguru family scavenges Dandora with their mother on weekends and after classes to earn money for school fees, books, and uniforms. Her 12 year-old daughter, Sophie, hates working at Dandora, but the dumpsite has hardly worn her spirit. She has plans for her future. "I don't want to become a doctor, I plan to," she says with a sack of milk bags on her back.

No matter what regulations the bureaucrats in Nairobi may issue, Ruguru doesn't see a time they will stop picking through the leftovers of her country's success story.

"I really don't like that [my children] hear how adults talk by being out here, but we have no choice," she said. "If this site moves then I will move with it -- or we will not survive."

Micah Albert