From a distance, the Pomona dumpsite — 10km from Harare’s central business district — looks innocent enough.
As you get closer, municipal compactor’s are seen entering and leaving the compound raising clouds of dust giving an impression of a thriving mine operation.
And as you get even closer, the stink rises in a suffocating cloud whose oppressiveness is heightened by the numerous plumes of smoke from the oft spontaneous combustion of waste.
More household waste, unwanted electronics, chemical residue, plastic and paint are dumped here daily.
The rising methane gas means this is always a disaster waiting to happen. And often the disasters happen.
In the midst of this, some see economic opportunities.
A lot of folk comb through the dump ever day from dawn till dusk, searching for any items that can be salvaged for re-sale. Families live in shacks made from wood, corrugated metal sheets, plastics and tyres. Monica Mandaza, for the past five years, has been living at this landfill, rising early every day to scour the site.
She lives with her two children and husband. Her two-year-old son, she says, died.
“She was so sick and there was nothing I could do,” said Monica. “I wish she hadn’t died but sometimes I am thankful, she won’t have to know this life.”
Similar stories can be found at the Warren Park dumpsite and the Chitungwiza landfill, with latter accounting for several lives lost to sinking in hot ash dunes created by waste left there by an oil processing company.
Experts say a single gramme of human waste can contain millions of viruses. Pneumonia and tuberculosis are also hazards associated with dumpsites.
According to the United Nations, pneumonia is the number one killer of children under age five, accounting for more than 1 000 deaths a day worldwide.
Willard Mundani, an environmentalist, said: “In the short-term, exposure to smoke can cause headaches, nausea, and rashes. Over time, it can increase the risk of developing heart and lung diseases.”
Previous epidemiological studies have found that two main health outcomes — cancer and congenital malformations — are statistically associated with exposure to waste at dumpsites.
Monica said the most commmon health complaints around the Pomona site are diarrhoea, headaches, chest pains, skin irritation and stomach ulcers.
Tonderai Mhita collects plastic which he sells for 25c per kg to middlemen, who in turn passes it on to recyclers.
“I have been collecting plastic for the past two years. I used to live in Mbare, but I have found a new home at my work place,” he said.
Tonderai shares a shack with his brother Welsh, and he said “we chose to work here than steal”.
“We don’t want to live here but the situation forces us,”said another waste scavenger, who specialises in metals.
He says the living conditions are harsh, but he is able to feed his family of five. The family does not stay near the dumpsite.
Ronald Swatini, who oversees the dumpsite, said it was better that the scavengers chose waste picking as an honourable way of earning a living, as opposed to begging, thieving or the sex trade.
“They’re not bound by material possessions and their community spirit is almost unbreakable. If the Government were to come in and relocate them, their main concern will be to broken up as a group,” he said.
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