Nairobi, Kenya – It’s 11.10am on a hot, quiet Sunday in Nairobi’s Dandora suburb.
Frida Syshia bends down to open a black door leading to her sister’s one-bedroom house.
Wearing an olive-green blouse and a matching turban, she enters the house and calls out one of her three children.
“Go and peel these potatoes. I found them at the dumpsite. We are having fries for lunch today,” she orders her second-born daughter. She then proceeds to clean up the house.
Syshia suffers from constant severe chest pain.
The 36-year-old worked at Dandora dump site, one of Africa’s largest rubbish sites.
Dandora is Nairobi’s principle dumping ground. Every day, it receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste from the capital city’s 4.5 million residents.
Her initial job was searching for used plastics, electronics, and metals to resell.
After two years of doing this, “I saw a niche and opened up a makeshift restaurant next to the dumpsite to sell food mainly the people who work here”, she says.
As a result, Syshia has been exposed to the smoke coming out of the dumpsite for years, causing her chest pains.
“I closed my restaurant after seven years. I was running away from recycling thinking this will be better for my health. It was worse,” says Syshia, who cannot afford further checkups. She used to make an average of $25 a month.
The 30-acre land, located in the east of Nairobi, hosts an informal recycling economy which feeds nearly 3,000 families in surrounding slums.
Residents like Rehema Ayako, who live in slums, trek to Dandora to collect metals, electronics, and rubber and plastics bags for recycling.
For 12 years, she has been walking the three kilometres from her iron-sheet walled house to the dumpsite in search of a living.
“It is my second home. I sell whatever I get that can be sold to pay my bill,” says the 62-year-old mother of nine.
Despite this, Ayako has been suffering from abdominal pain. Doctors say her symptoms show she has kidney problems.
“This illness started while working at Dandora. I get exposed to heavy metals and liquids of different colours which have a heavy smell,” she says, standing outside her house.
“I get depressed,” Ayako continues, as she bends down to spread the plastics and electronic items to sell.
“This is because when this pain gets into me, it means I have to limit my days of working. But this hard since I need to pay my bills.”
Professor Jared Onyari is an environmental expert who has studied the impact of Dandora to the almost one million people residing around it.
“The dumpsite continues to pose environmental and health risks,” he said. “It has a terrible impact on the environment because [of] the unrestricted dumping of domestic, industrial, hospital and agricultural waste at the city’s main dumping site.
“Before the garbage is dumped, it should be separated into recyclable, products, biodegradable and non-biodegradable products. The recyclable will be recycled and the rest should be kept together and burned. This way, the dumpsite will be cleared and the amount of air pollution will be much less.”
But Syshia is bewildered. Her health is deteriorating and, as the sole breadwinner, she is coerced to go back to the dumpsite.
“My sister took me in with my children. But I have to look for income to feed them and pay school fees,” she concludes, serving her children the fries.
“I don’t have an option.”