MALI: Life On A Rubbish Dump
UN Humanitarian Affairs (Dr. Claudia R. Wintoch)
June 30, 2004



Dear friends,

Those of you who know Heidi Baker in Mozambique know that her favorite church is the one on the garbage dump. When I got this email, my heart was touched - I didn't know at all that this even existed in Mali; and it's not too far from where I live.

Blessings, Claudia

MALI: There are worse things than life on a rubbish dump

BAMAKO, 17 June (IRIN) - Hawa Drame, known to her friends and colleagues as "Madame Refuse," sifts through the rubbish on a dump in the Malian capital Bamako for rags and old clothes that she can recycle and sell in order to feed herself and her four children.

Drame, who is now about 40, has been scavenging for old rags on Bamako's rubbish dumps for the past 13 years. She washes them in a river and sells them on to mechanics and garage owners for cleaning cars.

"Thanks to this activity, I manage to earn a living - between 500 and 1,000 CFA francs (US$1 and $2) a day," she told IRIN proudly.

Drame is now regarded as the queen of the rubbish dump in the city's Faladje suburb because she has been there longer than any of the other barefoot recyclers who earn their living by scavenging the rejects of a people who are so poor that they waste almost nothing.

Altogether, nearly 300 people eke out a meagre living by scavenging everything from lumps of charcoal to old plastic sandals and bits of scrap iron from Bamako's 50 official rubbish dumps.

Drame is proud of what she does, saying it gives her independence and the means to earn a basic leaving. She told IRIN that she and her children came to Bamako from a village on the river Niger near Segou, 235 km downstream from Bamako, in 1991 after her husband died.

The proud widow said she was cast out by her husband's family after she refused to marry his younger brother. Marrying widows to a brother of their dead husband is a widespread tradition in much of West Africa. But Drame would have none of it, so she left the village with her children and headed for the capital, where she did not know anyone.

"It was a way out for me, quite simply a way out of poverty," she said.

There are about 10 scavengers at work on each of Bamako's rubbish dumps, but they avoid competing with each other by specialising in different comodities. Some recover lumps of charcoal, which are sold on to the city's poor as fuel for their cooking pots at 15 to 25 CFA (less than five US cents) a bag.

Others specialise in plastic, scrap metal and bottles - or like Drame - rags and discarded clothing. Collectively, they are known as "chiffoniers," which translated from French means something like "the duster people".

Sometimes these professional scavengers are commissioned to look for specific items.

"From time to time, clients come to us for things they want," said Drame. Often these are mechanics from garages. Nigerian traders also come looking for old shoes, plastic or scrap iron, she added.

Amadou, a young man on another dump in Bamako, told IRIN that he specialised in small discarded spirits bottles, which were particularly coveted by the city's witchdoctors as packaging for their magic potions.

The Malian authorities regard these scavengers as an obstacle to public health and waste disposal rather than useful recyclers.

Idrissa Goita, an official at the urban services department of Bamako city council, complained that the "refuse exploiters" were just making the problem of waste control worse for the authorities.

He accused them of scattering the filth more widely, increasing the risk of infection and disease, even if they do manage to recover some of the waste discarded by Bamako's one million plus inhabitants.

Soumaila Berthe, from the National Office of Drainage, Pollution and Pest Control, was more sympathetic. He said most of the "rubbish exploiters" were simply poor and vulnerable people with no other means of survival.

"These are mostly people in distress: homeless women and abandoned old people," he told IRIN.

"But there are also young delinquents, who are cut off from society and get up to other activities after nightfall," he added, noting that many youngsters supplemented their scavenging with petty theft and drug dealing.

A Malian government survey in 1999 revealed that 63.8 percent of the country's 11 million population were living in poverty and a further 21 percent in extreme poverty.

According the United Nations Programme for Development (UNDP), the average per capita income in Mali is just US$ 190 a year.

By scavenging through rubbish tips every day, Drame and her colleagues can earn two or three times that.

"They are in the peculiar situation of having a readily available commodity of trade right at hand," said Maiga Tany Maiga, a member of the Coordinating Group of Malian Women's Associations and Organisations (CAFO).

But life is tough on the dump and even the scavengers agree that this kind of work has a detrimental effect on their health.

"From time to time we suffer illnesses such as coughing and itchy rashes," said Aly Guindo, another tip-dweller.

Doctor Mody Sangho, who is familiar with the rubbish scavengers and their medical problems, said: "These individuals are exposed to all sorts of other diseases, including various forms of cancer." He told IRIN that the high incidence of cancer was probably due to toxic fumes from the smouldering fires that burn continuously on many of the tips.

Aly Maiga, a sociologist, who studies the growing problem of urban poverty in Mali, said the people living on rubbish dumps were just a sign of increasingly desperate times.

"There is a big future for the rubbish scavengers in society where poverty is increasing by leaps and bounds and human misery is everywere," Maiga said.

But Drame, the Madame Refuse of her own well picked over rubbish dump, has no sense of shame about what she does.

Ask of Me, and I will make the nations your inheritance. (Ps 2:8)

Dr. Claudia R. Wintoch
  s/c Ecole Biya
  BPE 2165

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